Please note, the following entry contains a bit of theological nit-picking in addition to random musings. Plan accordingly.
Our text this morning was from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, verses 18-30, focusing on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler. Over the past couple of years this passage has been fascinating to me, a combination of theological questions and questions regarding what is left unsaid. For the latter, who is the rich young ruler, what does the "eye of the needle" refer to, and what eventually happened to this man? For the former, a question of soteriology - what do the moral and content of this story teach us regarding salvation?
Taking these questions a bit out of order:
1) Who was the rich young ruler? - We really have no answer to this question. We know he was young and rich. We know he was Jewish, as it mentions he followed the law. With his status as ruler and commitment to the law, he was likely a religious ruler, perhaps a Pharisee or Sadducee. So again, we have another encounter between Jesus and a religious ruler of the day. Another encounter between "religion" and true faith and discipleship.
There are some who would conjecture that this young man was someone who would appear again in named discussion. Some suggest Nicodemus. Some suggest Saul. Others Barnabas (which would be interesting because if this were the case, he would eventually sell some of his possessions and follow). We do not really have enough evidence to conclusively say.
What we can say is the man sought to follow Jesus, however earnestly, and was saddened to be confronted with what he would not give up to do so.
2) What does the "eye of the needle" refer to? - This is an interesting question, as it focuses on the level of impossibility involved. If we imagine a needle as we would think of it, or even a larger carpet needle, we see it physically impossible for the camel to pass. There are other interpretations of this phrase, stemming from differences in translating the particular words in it and possible, (though probably unlikely) historical knowledge.
Some interpretations focus on camel referring to rope out of camel hair. The idea being that it is much more difficult to impossible for rope to go through the eye, especially in comparison to a single, thin thread.
You may have heard another interpretation where the "eye of a needle" refers to a particular gate or passage way in Jerusalem. One version has the gate being such that a loaded camel could not fit through, but an unloaded camel, led through on its knees could. Changing the meaning to something extremely difficult, but not impossible.
A final version has the "eye of the needle" referring to a passageway in Jerusalem for people, not camels. This passageway was very narrow, and short, causing people to stoop or bow while walking through, making it unfavored by the ruling Jews. This changes the difficulty to one of pride, or an issue of the heart.
While the gate interpretations have been widely circulated, even as far back as the 9th century, there is no conclusive evidence that they exist. But they point to our continual attempts to wrestle with this passage and what it says about salvation and the possibility/impossibility involved.
Bringing us to...
4) What do the moral and content of this story teach us about salvation? - This is the question I have been mulling repeatedly. As was covered this morning, the story is not really about money, but about misplaced worship. Jesus could look deep into this young man and ask the one question that the young man was not prepared for. To ask for the one thing the young man was not willing to give, causing him to turn away. And this portion I understand. I recognize this struggle, but I understand.
My question largely comes in on a more philosophical, theological point. And I recognize this largely does not matter practically, but it is an interesting discussion of theological implications. I have influences from both Calvinistic and Traditionalist sources. And were I pressed to identify a particular position in my life, I would side more Traditionalist, but point out that I believe God is not limited to either and the scripture can seem like He does both.
When I think through this story from a Calvinist perspective, I can understand the points that it hits. The rich young ruler was not "effectually called". He was not part of the elect and still totally depraved, unable to follow Jesus even if he wanted to. The questions Jesus asked did not truly call him to Jesus, but were more probing and for the benefit of His disciples. And you even get the verse that "What is impossible with man is possible with God." (Luke 18:27) in response to the question "who can be saved", which would fit an elect view of salvation.
What I cannot understand from that perspective is the following two verses, where Peter says we have left all to follow Jesus and Jesus replies that "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life." (28-29). There is no discussion here of God needing to first give the desire to do so, just a reward for those who have acted and stepped out in faith.
Further, the very statement that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (25) seems to cut against the idea of an elect. Would this mean that there are no rich people in the elect, that there is no way any are effectually called?
I am very serious when I say that I would love insight into these topics from that perspective. It's something I would like to know to deepen my understanding in the area.
Coming back from that rabbit trail, the practical implication on salvation remains the same. The young man walks away not saved, not continuing in his attempt to follow Jesus because he is confronted with what he refuses to give up. The stumbling block. That thing he worships more than God. And in our attempts to seek Him, that is still what we are confronted with - whatever we hold in front of God.
Which leads us finally to...
3) What happened to the rich young man? - Based on the text and where we leave the story, we assume the young man remains separate from God. We have no specific basis that we can point to which would indicate that there is repentance in his life; some other act that turns him around.
I suppose that is what intrigues us about the idea that he could be Nicodemus, Saul, or Barnabas. It would complete a redemption story where we know that he is finally able to set his worship of his wealth and wisdom aside, to follow the Way. It gives us that "happy ending."
Because without that redemption story, he remains one of the many who walk away when confronted by the Truth. Another statistic that will continue to rely on himself.
Are we still relying on our own wisdom and possessions? Do we still believe it is ours in the first place? What are we placing in front of God?
Until we can remove what we have in front of God and truly seek him, willing to set aside all else, there is no Life.
And all we can do is walk away, head hung in sadness, just like this rich young ruler.