Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
In Luke chapters 18 and 19 Jesus encounters two wealthy men; the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus. What is interesting about these two encounters is their relationship to the Old Testament law and the response each man has to Jesus. So let us look at the Law and how it comes to bear on the encounter each of these men had with Jesus as well has the life changing effect it had upon each of them.
The Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy lay out all the civil, sacrificial, moral, and Levitical laws for the nation of Israel. These laws are extensive and detailed as they deal with various issues and day to day activities. However, the underlying principles contained in all these laws are summed up in the 10 Commandments found in Exodus 20:1-20:
- I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods before me
- You shall not make for yourself an idol
- Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
- Honor your father and mother
- You shall not kill/murder
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- You shall neither covet your neighbor’s wife nor covet anything that belongs to your neighbor
These 10 are often divided in half and called the “Two Tables of the Law.” The first 4 deal with mankind’s attitude toward God (First Table of the Law), and the second 6 deal with his attitude toward others (Second Table of the Law). When Jesus was questioned as to which commandment was the greatest he offered a reply that reduced the whole of the Law down to two commandments:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)
Thus we see that the first four commandments are summed up in “Love God,” and the next six are contained in “Love your neighbor.” It is with this understanding of the law that we can now look at both the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus to extract some very valuable biblical truths and practical theology.
The Rich Young Ruler
Luke 18:18-23 details the story of the Rich Young Ruler. This guy was basically a very wealthy man with some type of position of authority and power among the Jews. The Ruler’s encounter with Jesus is brief yet poignant as it reveals the means to salvation. The Ruler approaches Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher,” and Jesus asks him “Why do you call me good? There is only One who is good, God.” The Ruler then asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by noting that the Ruler knew the commandments and proceeds to list them. The Ruler replies that he has kept them his whole life, to which Jesus responds by telling the Ruler he still lacks one thing. Jesus tells the Ruler that he must sell all he has and distribute it to the poor and that as a result he will have treasure in Heaven, then to come follow Him. The Ruler becomes very saddened by this because of his great wealth.
Several things are of great importance here with the first being the initial exchange between the Ruler and Jesus. Jesus gives a not so subtle but cryptic claim to be God after the Ruler calls him “‘good.’” Jesus says that there is only One who is good, namely God, yet he does not reject being called good. In His statement Jesus is pretty much saying He is God without making an outright claim; this is important when it comes to their final exchange. The second item of importance is threefold: 1) The Ruler reveals that he is seeking the means to gain eternal life, 2) Jesus suggests that this is attained by keeping the Law, 3) The Ruler says he has kept the Law since childhood. Now before wincing at the suggestion that Jesus is teaching salvation by works let’s look closely at this first exchange.
The Ruler is wanting to gain eternal life and it is evident that he knows Jesus possesses the knowledge of how this is done. Jesus does not actually answer the Ruler’s question, but instead tells the Ruler that he already knows the answer by saying “You know the commandments.” It is posited by many scholars that Jesus did this to reveal the man’s pride, and this may be true, but what is more intriguing is that when Jesus lists the commandments he only gives the Second Table of the Law. This seems odd considering that Jesus Himself said the greatest commandment is to love God, which is summed up in the First, not the Second, Table of the Law. Of course Jesus is never one to disappoint when it comes to His numerous exchanges with various religious leaders, scholars, and intellectuals.
The Ruler immediately states that he has kept the commandments since he was a child, which does seem to be a pretty prideful statement. However, Jesus seems unconcerned with whether or not the Ruler has actually kept the commandments, instead Jesus takes the Ruler at his word yet reveals that he lacks one thing. What is this one thing? Nothing too major, just that the Ruler should give away all he has and follow Jesus. This devastates the Ruler; he knows that he is not able to do this.
In His response Jesus essentially calls the Ruler to keep the First Table of the Law, to deny himself and follow Christ, which is to love God. What’s more is that Jesus not only says give everything away, but he also says to distribute it to the poor, which would be an act of love towards others. Thus, we see that in his inability to keep the First Table of the Law he does not truly keep the Second Table. His claim that he has indeed kept the Second Table is revealed to be a superficial keeping of the Law. Jesus’ claim to be God at the beginning of the exchange comes full circle when He calls the Ruler to a life of selflessness and humility in loving and following Him.
Following this exchange Jesus makes the well-known statement about rich people, camels, and the eye of the needle. However, it is what he says immediately following that that connects the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus. The people, upon watching this entire interaction unfold, ask Jesus “If even wealthy religious leaders cannot enter Heaven, who can?” Jesus replies that with man alone it is impossible, but with God it is very possible.
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in the sycamore tree…” so on and so forth. Many people who grew up in church know the story of Zacchaeus and the accompanying song. It is a story often told to show how Jesus reached out to those despised by society and showed them love and compassion, It is all really sweet and nice, but that is not why the story is being recounted.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning he was indeed disliked by the people, but more importantly it means he was rich and in a position of power and authority over the people. So initially we can see that he is the same as the Rich Young Ruler, however, as we will see, this is where the similarities stop.
Luke 19:1-10 provides the narrative of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, which goes something like this: Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is coming through town, and Zacchaeus wants to see Him. Unfortunately, Zacchaeus is vertically challenged so he has to climb a sycamore tree in order to get above the crowd so he can see Jesus. Jesus comes through, and as is characteristic of Jesus he calls out the one person everyone least expects. He tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree so that they can go to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus not only comes down, but the text says he welcomed Jesus joyfully. Of course the people on the scene get mad and fussy about this and criticize Jesus for cavorting with sinners. In an odd turn of events Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he is going to give half of all he has to the poor, and then with what’s leftover he is going to repay anyone he has cheated four times the amount he took from them (at this point it seems that getting cheated by Zacchaeus is a good investment as it yields a 400% return). Jesus is very happy at this turn of events and exclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house, and that the Son of Man (Jesus) came to seek and save the lost.
Jesus only says two things during this encounter: 1) Come down here so I can go to your house, and 2) Salvation is yours. Zacchaeus received what the Rich Young Ruler was attempting to attain. And notice please that Zacchaeus received what the Rich Young Ruler was trying to attain. Upon being called on by Christ Zacchaeus joyfully welcomed the Lord, in this he fulfills the First Table of the Law by loving God. Following his acceptance of Jesus Zacchaeus is then compelled by his own volition to give away all that he has, to the poor and those he’s cheated, for the sake of Christ; in this he fulfills the Second Table of the Law. It is in this moment that Jesus reveals that Zacchaeus has indeed received salvation.
Works, The Law, & Salvation
It was mentioned earlier that a person may think Jesus is teaching works based salvation when he offers up to the Rich Young Ruler the keeping of the commandments as a means to eternal life. I myself have suggested that it was Zacchaeus’ keeping of the Law that brought about his salvation. So is salvation by works or is it by faith alone through grace alone? Was it Zacchaeus’ keeping of the Law that saved him? Was it the Rich Young Ruler’s failure to keep the Law that condemned him?
The answers to all of the questions are found in understanding Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40. He says that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with the entirety of your mind, heart, and soul, and that the second commandment is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says that not only is the whole law contained in these two, but that all of the writings of the Prophets are summed up in these two. This means the entire Old Testament could have been one sentence long and saved us all a bunch of reading. But in all seriousness we see that, for the Christian and the unbeliever seeking God, faith is demonstrated by living out these two commandments. Thus salvation comes through placing one’s faith (Latin fid or fide meaning trust), and thus, one’s trust in God. To trust in God is to love God, and to love God is to keep the first 4 commandments of the 10: Have no other gods, make no idols, do not mock God, take his name in vain, and honor the Sabbath, which is a recognition of God’s holiness.
The reason the Ruler stood condemned is because he had the appearance of loving God and his neighbors. However, when put to the test, it was revealed that he loved himself and the things of this world more. Zacchaeus on the other hand embraced Christ as Lord, and as a result his love for God produced in him an authentic love for his neighbor that drove him to give up everything for Christ. The Rich Young Ruler went seeking the “Good Teacher” in order to get an answer to his existential dilemma, “What must I do [in this life] to inherit eternal life [in the next life].” He had wealth, power, and possessions yet could find no purpose or meaning in those things. He felt that there had to be something he could do to earn his salvation.
Zacchaeus climbed a tree because all he wanted was to catch a glimpse of the Lord of Glory.
When Jesus called him by name Zacchaeus rushed to Him, embraced Him, and abandoned everything he had in this world.
We might then conclude that, if we Love God authentically and truly salvation will be ours, and this salvation will produce in us a love for others.