By Mike Rudolph
A while back my Bible reading program took me through an interesting string of verses in the New Testament reading, Luke 18:18-43. What initially struck me about this combination of stories is it begins in the middle of a chapter, in the middle (more accurately toward the end) of a full day of ministry for Jesus and ends in a completely different location. Unusual.
All the way back in 17:11 the text informs us that on the way to Jerusalem Jesus stops in a village between Samaria and Galilee. In this village Jesus does what Jesus does: he performs miracles; he teaches; he calls his disciples to prayer and perseverance; he reads the hearts of the proud and tells them a parable. All in a day’s work for Jesus in an unnamed village on the way to Jerusalem.
The final thing Jesus does in the village before pressing on toward Jerusalem is what began my New Testament reading for the day in Luke 18:18. The encounter is with a village ruler, and it begins with a question:
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
When I read this question even today my instinct is to emphatically declare,
“Nothing!” “Jesus paid it all.” “It is finished.”
Jesus, however, answers differently. Jesus answers surprisingly. Jesus points the village ruler back to the Ten Commandments, particularly commands 5-9. When the ruler responds that he has not committed adultery, has not murdered, has not stolen, has not borne false witness, and has honored his father and mother, I expect Jesus to do one of two things: first, to take him back to commandment 1,
“You shall have no other gods before me,”
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”
He may have been able to wiggle out of commandments 5-9 but certainly not 1 or 3. Jesus knows the hearts of men. The master evangelist he is, he must be setting this guy up to declare himself guilty under the law. If not this, then, second, to do what he has already done in the Sermon on the Mount, where he clarifies the true meaning of adultery, murder, stealing, false witnessing, and honor. All have sinned and fall far short of the glory of God by commandments 5-9 as explained by this. Again, he must be setting up this village ruler to acknowledge his own guilt and see his own need for Jesus. But he doesn’t do this either.
Instead, Jesus does something even more surprising. He takes the man outside of the law of God and declares that he lacks just one thing:
“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
The conversation presumably ends at those words. The village ruler walks away sad. Jesus turns to the crowd and makes an application for all to hear:
“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
The confusion over the camel/eye of a needle imagery is not new to us. Verse 26 suggests it was present among his original hearers as well, as those who heard it asked,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus’ response reveals exactly what he means by the imagery and even why he has chosen the path he chose with this sincere inquirer:
“What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Not just “difficult” (v. 24), but “impossible” (v. 26). Remember, the village ruler initially asked,
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The operative word from the beginning is “do.” If we miss that, we will be confused by Jesus’ verbal path with this man. He asks what he must do, and Jesus lays out to him the path of perfection, which is required for earning eternal life. Not just difficult, but impossible. Tough words to hear for those hoping to earn eternal life.
In my journal I wrote: “Salvation is impossible.”
Before Jesus’ other stop on the way to Jerusalem, he briefly converses with the disciples on the road. Here he once again reveals to them what is about to happen in Jerusalem:
“The Son of Man…will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
Betrayal. Arrest. Suffering. Death. Resurrection. All prophesied in the Scriptures and all about to be fulfilled in Jesus. Verse 34 reveals the disciples do not yet understand his words. Neither did the village ruler. They are about to encounter a very unsuspecting person, though, who not only understands the prophets but believes them.
Enter the blind beggar on the approach to Jericho. In Jericho, Jesus would eventually call, dine with, and ultimately save Zacchaeus. Before he enters Jericho, however, he encounters a blind beggar. The beggar hears a commotion. He asks what it’s about. He is told Jesus is passing by. No more needed to be said. This beggar was physically blind, but his eyes of faith were sharp and fixed on Jesus. The beggar’s cry reveals precisely what verse 34 says the disciples still lacked, an understanding of the Old Testament promises and the belief that Jesus fulfills them. The glory of the LORD had come with power to open the eyes of the blind, to open the ears of the deaf, to loose the tongue of the mute, and to save (Isaiah 35:1-7). On this basis the blind beggar simply cries out,
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Nothing left to interpretation there.
The crowd turns to the beggar, appalled and embarrassed that he would make such an obnoxious scene. Picture it: a crowd of people fawning over Jesus, hoping to catch his attention or hear his words, and drowning out all of their collective noise is the incessant cry of a blind beggar on the side of the road: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “JESUS, SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!” “JESUS, SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!”
The crowds’ attention is distracted by the beggar’s cries, but Jesus’ attention is captured. He stops. The crowd stops with him. He cannot possibly be stopping for the beggar, but he does. Notice not only the question Jesus asks, but notice how it differs from Jesus’ interaction with the village ruler, who asked,
“What must I do…?”
Here Jesus asks,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Distinguish the one performing the actions in the back-to-back accounts. Same journey. Different towns. The village ruler desires to do something for eternal life. Jesus leads him down a journey that ends in sorrow because he reveals the impossibility of earning eternal life. The blind beggar believes that Jesus is the Son of David and cries out incessantly, obnoxiously, over the voice of the crowd for mercy. In response, Jesus asks the beggar the same question the village ruler asked of him,
“What do you want me to do…?”
The first story ended with the village ruler walking away sorrowful because of Jesus’ response. He would not/could not perform the act Jesus said he lacked to earn eternal life. This story, by contrast, ends with God’s glory praised by the beggar and the crowd because the beggar’s response to Jesus’ question pleads for an act of Jesus that only Jesus himself was able to perform:
“Lord, let me recover my sight,”
a request inseparable from God’s saving mercy, reconciliation, and restoration in Isaiah 35.
Jesus, who knows the hearts of men, acknowledged the beggar’s faith in the request, commanded the restoration of the man’s sight, and declared him well. No longer would he sit at the side of the road waiting. Rather,
“the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” (Is. 35:10).
The blind beggar of Luke 18 enjoyed a foretaste of that text the rest of his days.
In my journal I wrote: “Salvation is so simple.”
“Salvation is impossible.” “Salvation is simple.”
What a contrast! What a strange but providential pairing of readings.
Salvation is impossible when man proposes to do something to earn it from God. Salvation is simple when man believes what the Scriptures say about who Jesus is, what Jesus himself did and does, and simply cries out in faith for mercy.
In this text, Jesus slams the door shut toward earning eternal life. Impossible. In the same sentence, however, he swings another door wide open: God himself can do the impossible. He can save. It is why Jesus came. He himself declares this at the end of the following encounter with Zacchaeus,
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
May any sorrow you feel for your inability to earn eternal life from God be turned to the joy of faith in the Christ who came, lived, died, rose, and lives again to earn it for you.