There is probably no more highly visible confrontation between Jesus and wealth than his encounter with the rich ruler. The incident is found in all three synoptic gospels (meaning the three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke which are similar in outlook), with slight variations in emphasis. The passage has often been used as a polemic against capitalism. For example, when I was a talk show host, a left-of-center caller once dialed in to challenge my belief in the free-market system by citing Jesus' comment on this passage (misquoting, as often done) 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven'. Of course, in none of the Gospel accounts does Jesus say anything about who goes to heaven. He talks about 'entering the kingdom of heaven’, not heaven. He's talking about conversion, not the afterlife.
But there's an even more fundamental problem with that use of the passage - it goes directly counter to the political current of the confrontation. He was a ruler, a man of the state. It is odd to see people who want to increase the power of rulers invoke Jesus' commentary against a ruler.
And Jesus does this in the region of Judea:
"Mark 10:1 And rising up, He went from there to the region of Judea…He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?""
(Mk. 10:1,17 NAS)
As we've seen previously, the economic environment of Judea was substantially different from that of Jesus' home province of Galilee. Judea was more dominated by state power and by its own ruling political and religious elites. And the pattern of Jesus' economic commentary is that his toughest anti-wealth rhetoric correlates with his sojourns into Judea, especially into its chief city, Jerusalem. His rhetoric while in Galilee does not seem to have the same edge in regard to accumulations of wealth.
As we see, in Mark 10:1 Jesus entered Judaea, and within 17 verses he was in a confrontation with a wealthy member of the political elite. Mark’s gospel does not identify the man as a ruler, probably because that Gospel is considerably less detailed than the others and also because, being an early Gospel, it is more Jewish - which is to say that the man probably needed no introduction. It would have been quite clear what station is held by a wealthy young man which one encounters on the way to Jerusalem. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that his office was not mentioned in Matthew either, which is a Gospel almost universally believed to have been focused on readers in Israel. Only Luke's Gospel, attributed to a gentile and addressed to a gentile audience, made the man's role as a public office holder explicit, which makes sense because the gentile readers would not have the requisite knowledge to surmise the man's occupation without being told.
Let me explain a bit more about that last point. If I told a story in which a rabbi went to Wall Street and met a man who had just stepped out of a chauffeured limo and walked into a large office building, readers probably would have a default expectation as to what industry the man works in. Similarly, readers in 1st Century Judea would probably understand the occupation of a rich young man in Jerusalem. But later readers, and readers who were not residents in the region, would not have had that same contextual knowledge, which is probably why Luke is the Gospel that provides that information.
"18 And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
(Lk. 18:18 NAS)
What does it mean to say that he was a ruler? The word in the original Greek is, archon.
An 'archon' is a member of a government council, in this case that most likely means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a center of political, religious and financial power. Sanhedrin seats were occupied by wealthy and influential families, priestly and pharisaical. Seats were often inherited.
This explains another seemingly irrelevant detail:
"The young man said to Him…"
(Matt. 19:20 NAS)"
This young man Sanhedrin member almost certainly inherited his father's seat on the council and his land-based income stream (more on that below).
Let's take a closer look at Mark's version of the event:
*…And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
18 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.
19 "You know the commandments, 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'"
20 And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up."
21 And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
22 But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.
23 And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!"
(Mk. 10:17-23 NAS)
Note the highlighted words and phrases. We've already looked at the 'enter the kingdom of God' phrasing. It's ‘enter the kingdom,' not ‘enter Heaven.’ Mark's version makes that even more clear in that it does not use Matthew's Hebraism, 'kingdom of heaven', but instead the more universal, 'kingdom of God'. You don't enter the kingdom of God when you die, you enter the kingdom when you submit to God and his rule.
Let's look at the use of the word 'defraud'. It appears in what is otherwise a recitation of the second half of the Ten Commandments. But it is a variation on the original text. Jesus added a commandment: the second table of the law has five commandments, but Jesus' list has six commandments. Did Jesus forget his Bible memory verses? Not likely. More likely is that he had a point to make and the point was that this ruler, like much of the ruling class of Judea, was in fact defrauding the poor. This is why Jesus tells him to give to the poor, because that is who he took from. Fraud was already covered under both the commandment against theft and the commandment against false witness. The fact that Jesus reiterated both of those commandments by synthesizing them into a specific prohibition against defrauding, indicates that Jesus put importance on that theme in this particular dialogue.
Why might he do that? Because the specific thing which Jesus is condemning appears to have been common among members of the ruling class. The Greek word used here, aphustereo, was also used by James against the ruling class.
"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.
2 Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten.
3 Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!
4 Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth."
(Jas. 5:1-4 NAS)
"Which has been withheld" is the same Greek word. Interestingly, James was the Christian leader in Jerusalem, so the geographical pattern holds. How did the rich ruling class 'defraud' the poor?
"…Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?"
(Jas. 2:6 NAS)
It involves the use of corrupt magistrates (who also often served on the same Sanhedrin on which the rich, young archon would have served). The lawyers, whom Jesus strongly denounced, had developed numerous tricks by which to defraud the poor in favor of the nobility. That seems to be the 'defrauding' to which Jesus and his younger brother James referred when confronting the Jerusalem elites.
As an aside, the word that James used in vs. 4, which is here translated as 'fields,' is chora, which is discussed in greater depth in my prior analysis of the Parable of the Rich Fool. The word usage tends towards something more like 'country' or 'province' than 'field' (although field cannot be completely ruled out as a translation). This would fit with the more political/economic dimension which I've emphasized here. The pattern would be that nobility use corrupt fellow members of the ruling class and dishonest legal scholars to defraud the poor who harvest the country for them.
This was a system tied more to the land and exploited by the landed gentry. The young man was not just rich, he was propertied. The word used is ktema, which tends to connote land as opposed to financial property. Nicholas Perrin’s excellent book, Jesus The Temple discusses this:
“38 In Mark 10.22 the evangelist editorializes that the man went away sad on account of his having ktemata pol/a ('many possessions'). The word ktema typically has reference to landed property.”
Perrin, page 126
This makes Jesus' advice very practical in light of the conflicts coming upon the land. This type of property bound the man to the location, a location which would become more and more violent in the years shortly after until the city of Jerusalem would be completely destroyed, perhaps within the life of that young man. Property in the form of land was associated with the political establishment. It was the socially prestigious form of wealth.
"The first thing we should say about the ancient economy of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions is that it was agrarian. This observation is so common as to be beyond dispute.2 An agrarian economy was based on land ownership and farm production….There was not much else a person could do with wealth but buy land. One could invest in trading and shipping, but it was risky. The culturally acceptable and economically less risky investment was land. People wanted land and the more the better. A fair-sized estate of 200 acres could make the owner very wealthy.”
Fiensy, page 68
Given the coming destruction of Jerusalem and environs, landedness was in and of itself hazardous not just to wealth but to life, limb and soul. Those tied to the land would have much more trouble leaving it than those tied to other, less approved sources of wealth such as trade or even mutual financial aid ties (such as the early Christians developed). This theme is accentuated if one believes in a late authorship of Luke (for which there is evidence), which would put it in closer proximity to the destruction of Jerusalem. Those who were tied to the land were tied to about an about to be burning house.
The Temple elite were complicit in this system of defrauding, and there is a subtle allusion to this in the encounter with the young man, who is told that if he sold the property (which we have reason to believe is harvested by workers who are then defrauded,) he will get 'treasure' in heaven. The word treasure is thesauron, but as Nicholas Perrin in his excellent book on Jesus' conflict with the temple, Jesus the Temple, says:
…In this connection it is all the more interesting that thesauros does not properly mean 'treasure', but rather 'treasure room' or 'storehouse for treasures'. While there is some truth to the statement that Jesus often communicated with homely similes and everyday metaphors that could strike a chord with the common folk, here we encounter an exception to the rule. Given that the vast majority of first-century Palestinian families lived in a space not much larger than a modern walk-in closet, a personal 'treasure room' cannot be counted among one of those 'everyday metaphors'. While some families within Palestine seem to have had a closet which may have doubled as a treasure room (tameion), this is not quite the same thing as that which would have been invoked by Jesus' mention of 'thesauros in heaven', which would have struck hearers as out of the ordinary. Indeed, even a reference to a personal thesauros in the home would have been odd, for those with surplus did not generally keep their wealth at home, but instead kept it on deposit at the temple.30 Indeed, in all but a handful of the roughly seven dozen instances of the term in the scriptures, thesauros (Heb: 'ocar) refers to the temple treasury: typically the temple in Zion…
30 Hamilton 1964: 365-70; Stevens 2006: 136-66. The amount of money kept in the temple was exorbitant. According to Josephus (Ant. 14.4.4 §72;] W 1.7.6 §152; 1.8.8 §179), the sacred monies amounted to 2,000 talents, the equivalent of about 700 million dollars by today's working-wage. See Binder 1999: 427. 3"
Perrin, page 123
So, Jesus is offering the man the opportunity to withdraw wealth from his deposit room at the Temple in Jerusalem (which would be destroyed before long) and to put it in the treasury room in the heavenly temple. The Romans would empty the treasure rooms, destroy the temple, seize the lands and give them to victorious generals (for example, a large estate was granted by Caesar to the victorious leader of the Jerusalem campaign that destroyed the Temple in which the landed gentry of the Sanhedrin sought refuge.) Those who had sold their property, and broken their ties with the land, and were willing to flee when the end came, were able to flee to the network of Christians which their donations helped create.