"A ruler questioned Jesus saying, 'Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?' And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone." Luke 18:18-19
Whenever I have heard this passage expounded upon in the past, there has always been a line drawn from this saying of Jesus directly to Paul's words in his letter to the Romans: "There is none righteous, not even one." (Romans 3:10 quoting Psalm 14:3 and Psalm 53:1). Sometimes this line has been drawn explicitly, but more often it is assumed. Coupled with the parable that Luke presents to us just a few verses earlier where a Pharisee presents himself to God as being "righteous" but succeeding in only deceiving himself, it feels very natural to assume that Jesus, Luke, and Paul are all intending to reinforce what theologians call "the doctrine of total depravity", in other words, they are trying to make the point that humans have nothing whatsoever in themselves that could be called "good." Some go so far as to say that humans cannot even want God and if ever a human did something good, it was only because God did something good through them, not because they had any true desire to do it. This is the essence of the doctrine of "total depravity", the "T" in the acronym "TULIP" which some reformed theologians use as a way of remembering core doctrinal beliefs: Total depravity, Unmerited Favor, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints, aka T.U.L.I.P. The sum total of this acronym crudely put states that humans are extremely worthless in themselves and are only saved because God chose to save some of them, not because they had anything to do with that decision either in desire or an effort of the will.
When we then continue into the 18th chapter of Luke and read Jesus' statement that "it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." (Luke 18:24). The disciples respond with anxiety saying "Then who can be saved?" (Luke 18:26), and we also stand dumbfounded when Jesus replies that "things that are impossible with people are possible with God!" (Luke 18:27). Apparently, so it seems, Jesus is indeed promoting this doctrine of total depravity by stating the impossible nature of being "saved" unless God happens to chose you to come to Him. This train of thought seems very natural to us. It seems as though we are letting the text speak for itself. It seems as though we are just coming to the Bible and accepting what we find there. However, I would argue that we would never really think this if we hadn't already come to the text with world-view lenses on our eyes and in our minds that were predisposed, we could even say predetermined, to find this doctrine and other ideas that Luke had not entertained nor intended to communicate. For us, the main issue at hand, we assume, is the question "How do sinners get saved from Hell and arrive safely in Heaven?" Therefore, when we read Luke, we are in search of statements that we can hold onto, to sum up the doctrines of the Gospel in ways that are easy to remember and easy to share with others. We want to be sure, after all, that we are NOT going to Hell and that we ARE going to Heaven, and we want to be sure that we are giving out the right information to others so that they too can avoid Hell and arrive in Heaven. A very noble and worthy cause. But it is also misleading. So long as we hold the view that Luke is concerned with saving souls (in the sense of disembodied spirits), for Heaven, we will never interpret his writings correctly for the simple reason that it was not the agenda of his writing. We should be comforted by the fact that we are not saved from sin and the grave by our knowledge of doctrine. We are saved because of the life-giving Spirit of Jesus coming to live inside of us when we worship Him as the Lord of the World. So if I am right and if that means that you have been misreading Luke's Gospel message, have no fear. This does not mean that you have not been saved through the things that you have been taught. Jesus has saved us through his grace and power, even though we may not understand how that works. The inner logic of Luke's thought does not work when seen in the light of the assumed Western narrative of sinners finding their way to heaven. Therefore, what Luke is trying to tell us must be at least a little different than what we imagined. Jesus, after all, does not tell the ruler that he must be saved "by grace alone, through faith alone." Rather, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all that he has, give to the poor, and then come and follow Him and he would then have "treasure in heaven". What else can we call this but "works"? It is indeed a "work" but it has nothing to do with earning passage into heaven. Rather, it has everything to do with laying down an old and perverted version of "humanity" in order that it might be replaced with the new, life-generating Spirit of the new age that Jesus was assuring into the present. Instead of thinking that we are storing treasure in heaven and that we must go there to enjoy it; rather, let us consider that when we store treasure in heaven, it is brought to is in the present through the person of Jesus. This is a gift that cannot be earned but must nevertheless but surrendered too in order to receive its' benefits. Just as Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and wealth", so it is also true that you cannot live in the old humanity and in the new humanity at the same time. Jesus asks this ruler "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Is Jesus trying to argue that no human can be called "good"? Certainly not. If that was the point of His statement, Jesus would be denying that He Himself is good. Rather, what Jesus is doing is demonstrating that His interlocutor is already aware of the answer to his own question. This rich man is acknowledging by the preface of his question that Jesus is, in fact, teaching the truth, even though it is a truth that disturbs the ruler. "Why do you call me good? If I am good, know that what I am teaching is from God and believe what I am saying," is the effect of Jesus' rhetorical question. After Jesus states the difficulty that the rich have in entering the Kingdom of God in Luke 18:24-27, the disciples ask Jesus "who then can be saved?" Jesus assures them that "what is impossible with man is possible with God." We should not then read this as a statement about the supposed impossibility of individual rich people becoming Christians or entering heaven. The impossibility that concerns the disciples is the question of how they themselves and the nation as a whole will be saved from their oppressors without the aid of the rich. In the very next chapter of Luke, we will meet Zacchaeus, a rich man who forsakes all his riches to enter the Kingdom of God and Jesus will declare "Salvation has come to this house!" (Luke19:9). But in the process of entering Jesus' Kingdom movement, Zacchaeus surrenders his riches. And this is the point of Jesus' parable concerning the camel passing through "the eye of a needle". In order for the camel to pass through the gate, it must have all its cargo removed. It must be stripped of anything extra and become just an ordinary camel in order to squeeze through the hole. So, the rich are freely welcomed to enter into the Kingdom and in fact, many will receive the invitation! But as they do, they will be stripped of any sense of superiority and they must relinquish any stranglehold on power that might have given them an inappropriate advantage over other people. It is worth noting that Zaccheus did not become a pauper after deciding to follow Jesus. "Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor. And If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much." (Luke 19:8). Zaccheus assets took a very big hit but this was partially due to the fact that he really owed it to the poor from whom he had extorted it in the first place. He surrendered his unfair advantage. He had accumulated wealth in an unjust manner and he was seeking to make things right as well as he could. The result was salvation. Zacchaeus was delivered from being a perverted human being to instead becoming a true human being who cares for his fellow man. But he also now had less to offer the Kingdom of God movement, at least if you thought what was required was weapons and financial backing for a military coup. Jesus' challenge was a challenge to rethink the way we accumulate and exercise power. Can a kingdom be established by such unusual and seemingly foolish means? Yes, it can because all things are possible with God. The disciples might have recalled the time in their recent memory when they were asked to feed five thousand people with only two fish and five loaves of bread. That was impossible too, but not with God.
It is easy to interpret the meaning of scripture when we isolate various passages and apply them to doctrinal systems that we already know and understand. However, if our interpretations don't give us a coherent picture of the inner logic of the text, we should be wary of our conclusions. In other words, Luke knows why he has arranged the material of his gospel as he did. Luke wasn't writing random recollections of memory concerning Jesus. There is logic and coherency of thought in the way that Luke writes. If we are leaving out or skipping over parts of a chapter in order to focus on the parts that we "understand", it is likely that there is a significant part of Luke that we have not understood at all. Let us back up a bit and take more time to visit with Luke and the other Gospel writers. They have much more to tell us about Jesus than we have ever known. And that is pretty exciting! Go meet Jesus you may have missed in the text!