Why did Jesus treat two rich men differently?

Why does the Bible talk so much about money? The Bible has over 2,000 money related verses, more than many other “spiritual” topics like prayer or faith. Even Jesus had quite a bit to say about money, so why is this topic of particular importance to God? Let’s compare two examples of wealthy men in the Bible: the rich ruler and Zacchaeus. We meet both men on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, some of the final encounters before His triumphal entry to the city.

The Rich Ruler

We encounter the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-27. Jesus has just welcomed the children to come to Him saying “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” He is approached by a wealthy man.

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’”

And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Based on his description, the ruler was likely synagogue ruler or member of the Sanhedrin and he began his conversation with Jesus with a great question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” A straight-forward question that does not receive a straight-forward answer from Jesus, because Jesus knows the heart of the man.

Jesus reminds him that no one is good and asks him about the commandments, things the ruler knows well and testifies that he follows.

Jesus then get’s right to the point by telling the ruler that the one thing he lacks is to “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The ruler was sad because of his great wealth and Jesus said it was difficult, nearly impossible for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom. This is shocking to the by standers for whom wealth is seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus says it is only possible through God that the rich may be saved.

Jesus then continues His journey to Jerusalem, passing through Jericho where he meets another rich man.

Zacchaeus the rich tax collector

Zacchaeus was a wee little man…do you remember the song? We hear about Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 so let’s catch up with the story there:

He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Here we have another rich man, the chief tax collector of Jericho. In fact, the term “chief tax collector” appears only this one time in the New Testament. Jericho was a toll collection point on a major trade route. As a representative of Rome, with the freedom to exact his own “taxes” on top of what was owed to Rome, Zacchaeus was able to accumulate wealth, alienating himself from the community.

Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, climbs a sycamore tree to get a look and Jesus stops and invites Himself to Zacchaeus house! The crowd is indignant that Jesus will go to the house of such a despised sinner.

Zacchaeus gladly welcomes Jesus saying “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus’ response is key: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Two Rich Men, Two Different Outcomes

Two stories. Two rich men but the similarities stop there.

The rich ruler was holy by all outward appearances, but Jesus knew that money was an idol for this man. In asking him to sell everything he had and give to the poor, Jesus targeted the very thing that meant most to this man. The command to rid himself of his money made the man sad.

Though the rich ruler had kept many commandments, he had broken the first and second commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3-4)

The issue was not really about the money itself, it was about idolatry. The rich ruler had placed money before God and Jesus called him out. It is hard to give up our idols, so the rich ruler was sad. The crowd wondered who then could be saved and Jesus answered with God is it possible.

This is illustrated beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was also rich but as a hated and sinful tax collector, he lacked all the outward “goodness” that the rich ruler exhibited. But he was changed by his encounter with Jesus.

He vows to give half of his possessions to the poor and make restitution (x4!) to any he had wronged. These actions show that Zacchaeus’ repentance is real and Jesus responds that salvation had come to his house.

Why salvation? Because Zacchaeus had repented of his sin. He demonstrated this repentance with a commitment to right the wrongs he had done others and give to the needy. Money was no longer first in his heart, Jesus was. And Jesus showed that by God’s power, a wealthy man can dethrone money in his heart!

Two rich men, yet Jesus treated them differently and it all came down to their heart. Wealth is a blessing from God but only in it’s proper place. The takeaway is not that wealth is bad, but that Jesus demands 100% allegiance.

So why does the Bible talk so much about money? Because money has a powerful influence on our heart. We all have a strong temptation to give money top priority in our hearts. We all are tempted to put our trust, our hope, our security in having enough money.

Money is useful and can be a blessing but our hope, our trust, our security is in Christ and our salvation through his work on the cross. It is difficult to put money in its proper place but by God’s power and grace it is possible.

The big question is, who or what is #1 in your heart?


Image credit: James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus)