There is a parable in Luke 18 and 19 that is about two approaches to God. Jesus says there was a Pharisee who went to the temple to pray, and his prayer was a very self-righteous prayer. He approached God believing he would receive God’s favor if he recited all the good things he had done. At the same time, a tax collector prayed outside the temple because he was afraid to enter too close. Looking up to heaven he simply said from the bottom of his heart, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus looks at those around him and says it was the tax collector who went home justified before God, not the self-righteous man, even though the tax collector was a sinful, corrupt man and the self righteous man was a religious ruler.
Immediately after this parable there is a very famous story about a rich young man who approaches Jesus asking what it takes to be saved. Jesus tells him to obey the law, and the young fellow responds that he has been obedient to everything since his youth.
Jesus then tells him to sell off everything, give to the poor, and start over following him, and the young man walks away sad.
How to Understand the Rich Ruler:
Many people try to understand the story of the rich young man apart from the parable that preceded it. That is a mistake. The parable is a story Jesus made up to make a point. The rich young man is a real person who perfectly demonstrated Jesus’s story. You have to read them together. They are directly related, and Luke tells both stories back to back for the clear purpose of keeping them together. They are related, and you can’t understand the parable or the rich young man correctly unless you read them together.
You see, the story calls him a “rich young ruler.” It is important to dig into characters in the Bible, especially ones like this who have no names attached to them. In scripture there are a lot of stories about people who are never given names, only titles. You see this in Jonah, in which the entire book of Jonah only names one person, while everyone else is simply a job title (“the sailors,” “the king,” “the Ninevites”). In the Gospels, nearly all the Pharisees, Priests, and Scribes are simply given their titles, without naming names. This is so you will pay attention to what they do, say, and stand for, not who they are specifically. When you don’t know their names, it helps you draw a broad conclusion that might apply to you personally, rather than a specific lesson about that person, that doesn’t apply to you.
In fact, Jesus does exactly the same thing, making a general conclusion about it in Luke 18:24-25 “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
See that? Its not personal. It is not about this particular man. It is about this mindset, which is a very broad mindset held by many. Therefore, by avoiding being personal about that particular man, Jesus (and Luke) make it personal to all of us.
So, back to the story, we need to dig a bit into this to make sure we have the lesson right. We have to figure out what kind of “ruler” this guy was. First, we know he is Jewish, because he tells Jesus he has been obeying the law since his youth. Gentiles would not even know what law Jesus was talking about.
Well, what kinds of things were law-following Jews allowed to “rule” over? We know the Romans ruled the land and cities, and used puppet Jews like Herod, but Herod would not have said he obeyed the law since his youth. This young ruler was not a sell-out Romanized Jew. He was a religious Jew.
There was only one thing in ancient Israel that religious Jews were allowed to rule.
If you read any commentaries about this, virtually all scholars are in agreement. This man was a religious ruler, not a political ruler. He was the leader of a synagogue.
In other words, he was a Pharisee or priest. Probably a Pharisee because he came to Jesus with a question (which Pharisees often did.)
So we have the exact embodiment of the parable. Jesus said in the parable that there was a righteous Pharisee who went to God proud of how good he had been. This is exactly what the young ruler did with Jesus. When Jesus challenged him to flip his mindset off of himself and onto others, he went away sad. He had missed the whole point of the parable. Not only that, but he was the exact embodiment of the parable.
Jesus said the Pharisee did not go home justified with God. What did the rich man do? He “went away sad.” He was not justified with God. He had attempted to get right with Jesus by his own works, and went away unjustified when it didn’t work.
What about the other half? The half about the tax collector?
Well, guess what happened next?
Jesus heads off to the next city, and immediately after that he meets another guy who concludes the embodiment of the parable.
It is Zacchaeus.
Who is Zacchaeus? He is a tax collector.
He is the second half of the parable.
What does he do?
He gets up into a tree to wait for Jesus because he can’t get close to him. Just like the tax collector in the story, who did not even enter the temple, but prayed outside, Zacchaeus is waiting far away from Jesus, hoping for a chance. He is a tax collector, and a rich one at that, so he stood virtually no chance of getting to Jesus on his own, and he knew it. Everyone hated tax collectors, especially rich ones. The richer a tax collector was, the more money he had stolen.
Zacchaeus was the opposite of the rich ruler. Both were rich, but one was respected and the other one was hated. The rich ruler had approached Jesus directly, and people got out of his way and let him come. Zacchaeus could not do that, because nobody would let him through and he wasn’t big enough to force his way through.
So Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house, and in the middle of the meal, Zacchaeus decides (purely on his own accord) to give away half his money to the poor and pay everyone back four times what he took from them.
In other words, exactly the thing the rich ruler refused to do. The one thing Jesus asked him to do, and he refused. Zacchaeus simply chose to do it on his own, without even being asked.
And the best thing? He went away justified. “And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house” – Luke 19:9.
There is more about Zacchaeus, the rich ruler, and the blind man Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho (sandwiched between the stories). A lot more. Their names, their jobs, their words, etc. But it will have to wait for another time.
For now the question is why?
Why did Zacchaeus go away justified?
Is it because he gave his money to the poor?
No. It is because he humbled himself before Jesus and was ready and willing to give him his whole life. He did not come to Jesus with something to offer, but rather with something to get rid of.
The rich ruler came to Jesus offering to do something for him. Zacchaeus came to Jesus looking to unload his sins and burdens, to start over.
That is the difference. It is available to all of us. We can give our lives over to Jesus, signing off on everything and quitting our old life. Or we can hold on and pretend we have something to offer the king of Glory, as though he will welcome us because of what we offer.
It requires humility, and that is all. That is the point of the parable, and the rich ruler and Zacchaeus.