Derrick Olliff has very incisively shown how problematic the traditional interpretation of the rich young ruler passage is. It occurs in his article 'Looking for Legalism', where Olliff builds a convincing case for the fact that, contrary to popular assumptions, the first century Jews were not merit legalists, hoping to earn their way to heaven by good works. The essay is worth reading in full, but here's what he says about the rich young ruler.
Finally, we come to the story of the rich young ruler. The ruler asked what good thing he should do to have eternal life (Matt. 19:16), and we think this shows that he was an ML [merit legalist/Pelagian]. But the lawyer above asked the same question, and Jesus answered him by pointing to the law. Once again, this would be a terrible response to give an ML. Yet when the ruler asked this question, Jesus did the same thing. He pointed to the law (Matt. 19:17-19). “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Jesus then told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell what he had and give to the poor; “and come, follow Me.” (Matt. 19:21)
If someone came to us with ML, the last thing we would do is let him believe that such a view was true. And yet Jesus did this multiple times when the specific topic of gaining eternal life was on the table. In fact, His answer to the ruler was so alien to our paradigm that we have been forced to argue that Jesus’ answer was something of an ironic ruse. Jesus really believed the opposite of what He said, but He gave the answer He did in order to force the ruler to see that he could not keep the law perfectly. When the ruler saw that, he would then be ready to give up his ML and embrace sola fide.
This would amount to a reductio. Jesus supposedly named laws until He found one that even the ruler realized he couldn’t/didn’t keep. But the problem here is that on this view, Jesus never got to the point. On this view, the law had already broken the man and made him sorrowful. The final step would then be to give him the gospel alternative. But this final and most important part of the reductio was never given. Jesus let the ruler go away without showing him the orthodox alternative to his supposed ML. And the N.T. gives no indication that Jesus ever talked to the man again. This would mean that Jesus let the man believe that ML was true but that he wasn’t good enough. So if this view were true, it amounts to this. A man in the grip of ML asked Jesus a question that presupposed the truth of ML. Jesus answered him by teaching ML not once but twice. Then Jesus let the man go away believing ML was true without telling him the orthodox alternative to ML (and He did this after the man had already been convicted by the law!). This simply doesn’t work.
So what is the alternative? It’s pretty simple. Jesus actually meant what He said. He wasn’t trying to trick the man by telling him to sell his stuff and follow Jesus. He actually wanted the man to do it. Other disciples had already done exactly that. Remember that this was a time of transition for Israel. Jesus had come to, among other things, harvest the faithful remnant from Israel before judging the wayward nation. Thus, His disciples had to be willing to leave their old lives behind and join Jesus as He brought in the new creation (with Jesus Himself as the first fruits from the dead). Jesus was just requiring the same of this man. Moreover, Jesus’ requirement was not something that the Mosaic law required. The law never taught the Jews that they had to sell everything they had. So Jesus wasn’t in the process of naming commandments of the law until He found one that even the ruler admitted he couldn’t keep. He was requiring something new of the man because of the eschatological nature of the period of time in which he was living. This requirement was not a reductio designed to make the man see his sin. It was a redemptive-historical necessity. Thus, no hermeneutical gymnastics are necessary. In historical context, this text makes perfect sense.
But what about the man’s claim that he had kept the commandments? Doesn’t this clearly indicate a problem? Not necessarily. Very similar statements are made of Noah (Gen. 6:9), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5, 6), Simeon (Luke 2:25), and John (Mark 6:20). These people are described as righteous, holy, blameless, and devout. They walked in the commandments of the Lord. There is no reason to think the ruler meant something other than this. The problem here is that we have trained ourselves to view concepts like “law” and “sin” exclusively in the abstract and apart from the covenant. And so we see only two possibilities. Someone is either sinless and morally perfect or he is a law breaker. This perspective is certainly useful and applicable in some situations. It is true enough that all men are sinners and that no man can merit anything from God by his works. But this is not the context for this story. The questions on the table and the point being made are different.
Recall that Zechariah, despite being a sinner, walked blamelessly in all the Lord’s commandments. This is not a claim that he didn’t sin. Such a statement was possible because the text is not referring to law keeping in the abstract. It is referring to faithfulness within the context of the covenant. And the covenant itself had the sacrificial system whereby sin could be dealt with by faithful people. So when Zechariah (or someone else) sinned, he remained obedient to the commandments by sincerely availing himself of the sacrificial system. And the same was possible for the ruler. Thus, he need not have been claiming abstract moral sinlessness. He was simply claiming the same kind of covenantal faithfulness that we know others had. But the time of transition had come, so Jesus required something in addition to basic faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. He asked the man to abandon life as he knew it and join the new exodus, because the old world was nearing judgment. Therefore, this story makes perfect sense apart from any references to ML. Jesus doesn’t look like a poor teacher, and we don’t have to posit strange and implausible accounts in order to rescue Him from error.
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