Legalism & Love in the Story of Jesus & the Rich, Young Ruler

Hi, friends. If you were a fat cat, how would you spend your money? I like to believe I’d give most of it away.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He encounters a rich, young ruler who wants to know how to inherit eternal life. When I recently read the story again in Mark, I felt like I truly understood the exchange for the first time. [This is the condensed version of a sermon I gave for my vacationing pastor last Sunday.]

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

The disciples were even more amazed and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:17-27, NIV)

Rules vs. “Heart-Based” Instructions


Jesus recites some of the ten commandments as the initial basis for good behavior, then He really looks into the man’s heart and sees what he must do to become a true disciple.

The exchange between Jesus and the man reflects why Jesus disliked the religious elites of the time. They adhered to the straight-forward, strict rules of the old covenant–guidelines for sacrifices, the tabernacle, ceremonial cleanliness, etc.–but neglected the “heart-based” instructions, such as “don’t oppress strangers in your land” and “leave the fallen grapes in your vineyard for the poor” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” [Several though not all come from Leviticus 19.]

Jesus is grace; God is love. The young ruler needed to look beyond “rules” and examine his heart, and we should do the same. Sure, he wasn’t murdering anyone or stealing or committing adultery…but if this man had riches while his neighbors starved, was he loving his neighbor as himself?

The phrase “Change your hearts and lives!” is repeated constantly in the Gospels. Notice that the phrase does not read “Follow the rules” or even just “Change your lives.”

“Change my heart O God/ Make it ever true/ Change my heart O God/ May I be like You”

The Difference in Mark’s Version


This story appears in Mark, Luke, and Matthew. I used to write Mark off as a condensed version of the Gospel, but I felt intrigued when I read a commentary recently that dubbed Mark “a human story of Jesus” because Jesus experiences passion, grief, fear, etc. in Mark. Perhaps that is why this particular phrase only appears in Mark’s version…“Jesus looked at him AND LOVED HIM.” 

He saw straight through to the man’s heart, which was still enslaved to the world, despite his following the rules. But Jesus was not annoyed or disgusted…no, He loved him.

Jesus sees our flawed hearts, and HE LOVE US!

In the end, when the disciples ask who can be saved and Jesus answers that all things are possible with God, I think He means that everyone has their downfalls in discipleship, whether we are holding something back (money, time, effort, talent, etc. for the kingdom of God) or something is holding us back (a grudge we won’t let go, laziness in devotional life, guilt for a sin, etc.). Praise God for salvation through grace; we can’t “earn” salvation, but all things are possible through God.

Thanks for reading! What do you take away from this story? Let me know in the comments.

Bonus Fun Facts

“A camel going through the eye of a needle” is a strange analogy. It’s certainly possible that Jesus used an extreme comparison to make a point. Here are two theories about the analogy, which has its own Wikipedia page:

  1. The Greek word for “knot” is similar to the Greek word for “camel,” so the verse should have read, “It is easier for a knot to fit through the eye of a needle…”
  2. (Allegedly) there was a gate in Jerusalem called “Eye of the Needle.” Travellers used it at night. Camels had to shed all their baggage to fit through the narrow gate.


  1. 3 simple rules:
    1-Love God (all your heart, mind, soul, strength)
    2-Love others
    3-For EVERYTHING ELSE, refer to numbers 1&2

    Love the fun bonus facts. I had heard about the narrow gate (another term used in other gospel stories) as the explanation of the “eye of the needle” but not the knot (does that make sense???). Thanks for the great teaching Lily.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Love the rules, Tim! Scripture reads that 1 & 2 are the greatest commandments. I’m also reminded of the verse that says love covers a multitude of sins. Glad you liked the post and the bonus fun facts! We’ll never know if either of those theories holds any water or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The second explanation of the eye of a needle is the one that makes most sense. A rich or worldly man will have to shed (let go of) his attachments to worldly things to become a true disciple.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Some great points Lily.
    The interaction between Jesus and the disciples is fascinating at a few points.
    1. Who then can be saved? Amazing that as Jesus’students they can ask that question. They themselves obviously see some redeemable value in keeping commandments, being wealthy or submitting to Jesus this way, for salvation.
    They are saved but lack a full understanding of the work of grace.
    2. Children – Love that Jesus calls them that. This shows that despite their lack of understanding and even that they probably lack the wealth, discipline and maybe even humility of the rich young ruler – they are children of God with only a child like faith as Jesus valued so highly. They are saved only because God made it possible.
    Sorry…. Nearly preaching myself 😂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Don’t apologize; I like your perspective! I was thinking the same thing with #1. It’s funny that even the disciples struggle so much with understanding Jesus throughout the Gospels. They were so used to a culture that valued rules and ignored the heart-based instructions…I wasn’t there, but I wonder if the heart instructions like “love your neighbor as yourself” had been neglected so long they were practically forgotten?? Or maybe their perception of “loving their neighbor” had warped to not loving them in action but just loving them in an intangible, spiritual way–aka lip service. We have a lot of lip service Christians today as well. Now I’m on the verge of preaching too, lol.
      Kinda goes along with #2 about Jesus calling them children, though I didn’t even notice that part until now. Just goes to show that reading scripture is important even if you’ve already read it before because there’s always something more to observe!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think Jesus was using hyperbole, as He does many times in the Gospels, to stress the impossibility of salvation on one’s own abilities or possessions. There is absolutely no evidence that I’ve seen that this so-called gate ever existed in Jerusalem. If Jesus meant a literal gate, it would not fit with the context since He’s stating the impossibility of salvation by works.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Our pastor just preached on this text! Great section dealing with legalism. The funny part is the rich young ruler honestly thought he was keeping the commandments perfectly, when the rich young ruler was staring at the only human that could, Jesus!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ironically, so many people use this story as a way to teach legalism itself. The fact that this man couldn’t do what Jesus said and “follow his rule” is why he couldn’t enter into the Kingdom. As is so often the case, people miss the point of His message and glean something other than the “heart” of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This passage has always seemed straightforward to me. I think some feign confusion and twist scripture to justify sin. I see “spiritual leaders” who are vastly wealthy and massive buildings that cost millions for the posh decor alone, called churches, all while people are starving and homeless in every city in America. I see people claiming America is a Christian nation, and I wonder what Christian means. I used to think it meant Christ-like. I used to believe it described people who strive with all their hearts to live like Jesus did because they believe in Him and His word.

    Now, I think it means people who say they’re a Christian. I don’t associate the group with anything other than lip service. The lukewarm, half-assed, “oh well, we all sin, no need to change my ways” attitude of so many Christians is the loudest and most constant testimony I witness. The “I hate you because you believe differently than I do,” and “I hate you because you’re different than I am and it scares me, you must not be one of God’s children,” attitudes are what I witness from Christians.

    I rarely, rarely, rarely see Christians who behave as if they’re striving to be like Jesus. Who love others and treat others well, regardless of their race, religion, ability, gender, sexuality, etc. I see those who watch their family members mistreat, hate, and oppress others for being different, and say nothing. Do nothing. Because standing up for what they believe is uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure crucifixion was uncomfortable for Jesus. It breaks my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, everything you have said is true. I look at a rich pastor and see a walking paradox. Jesus told us to “build our treasure in Heaven” aka serve others. But there’s so many people serving themselves–serving their political ideology, serving their ego, serving their greed. Christianity in the West–particularly America–is a mess. I and other sincere Christians can only attempt to patch up some of the damage that louder and angrier “Christians” have done and still do.
      If you get the chance, please check out this blog post– Laced Up Lutheran speaks about the mess of Christianity in the most convicting way I have ever seen.
      Thanks for sharing your perspective. ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  8. FYI, I googled the ‘eye of the needle’ following your sermon on Sunday. I saw several pictures of large gates/doors with small doors whereby entrance might be made after the larger gate is closed. They are a variety of sizes– some of which a camel MIGHT be able to squeeze thru if unburdened, and some a human would have to contort to get in. Interesting, so please check out the images online! Lily, I loved your sermon!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. GREAT commeants.. I enjoyed your sermon last Sunday. You do a great job each time we are Blessed to hear you speak. Loved reading the replies from so many folks. Interesting reads.


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