Mark simply refers to him as “a man” (Mark 10:17). Matthew tells us that he was a “young man” (Matthew 19:20). Luke reports that he was “a ruler” (Luke 18:18) and that he was “very rich” (Luke 18:23), so we call him … the Rich Young Ruler.
With a degree of urgency, the Rich Young Ruler “ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ” (Mark 10:17). “What good must I do?” (Matthew 19:16).
The Rich Young Ruler held a common misconception. He believed that he could work his way into God’s good graces. Like Adam and Eve with their fig leaf coverings, the misguided young man assumed that he could, in his own capacity, cover up his shortcomings. He trusted in his own ability, believing that he could do enough good to earn a place in God’s eternal kingdom.
The Rich Young Ruler assumed that he was better than his contemporaries. He was like the two men who came upon a great grizzly bear as they were walking in the forest. One man screamed, “we can’t outrun the bear!” The other answered over his shoulder, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you!” But God isn’t a hungry predator seeking to gobble up the slowest or the worst.
Jesus’ answer to the Rich Young Ruler’s question is interesting. “You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). Jesus anticipated the young man’s pride-filled response. “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth” (Mark 10:20). “I’m a good man! I’m a religious guy! I’ve got a five-year perfect attendance pin from the local synagogue! I do all the right stuff!” But, he had no peace, no assurance, so he asked, “what do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20).
“You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Wow! He was rich and powerful, with houses and land… valuable and important stuff!
Jesus wasn’t telling the man that he could buy his way into heaven! Rather, Jesus challenged him to come face-to-face with the first of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, KJV). The Rich Young Ruler had made stuff the god of his life.
If the Rich Young Ruler had been willing to part with his stuff, he would have found God’s grace to be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). He would have discovered the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:6-7). He would have deposited incalculable, immeasurable “treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21).
Sadly, the Rich Young Ruler “was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). Stuff remained his supreme god as the Rich Young Ruler turned away from Jesus, powerless and penniless.