“And when he heard this,
he was very sorrowful:
for he was very rich.”
~ Luke 18:23
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each relay an account of the exchange between the rich young ruler and Jesus. They each gauged his reaction to Jesus’ words the same way:
“he went away sorrowful” (Matthew 19:22)
“he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved” (Mark 10:22)
“he was very sorrowful” (Luke 18:23)
His reaction is interesting, but to see why, we need to flesh out his character from the accounts. The most obvious fact about him is his wealth. Matthew and Mark reported that “he had great possessions.” Luke added that “he was very rich.” The words here indicate an abundance of possessions, meaning the number of them was a great number. He owned many more things than the average person in his community.
The next fact is that he was a man of morality and integrity, or at least appeared to be. He seemed to have a good reputation, which is not exactly the same as being worthy of the reputation. He responded to Jesus’ statement of the commandments by saying he had kept them from his “youth.” I believe it’s safe to conclude he probably lived a careful life concerning the laws and customs of the Jews, though he missed the point of Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he had a good standing among the people of his day.
Luke reports the next fact that this man was a “ruler” (Luke 18:18). The word indicates a magistrate. He was a ruler among the Jews, some sort of civil magistrate. In addition to his wealth and good standing, he had power and influence. The people honored him. He was a public figure.
Matthew adds to his profile that he was a “young man” (Matthew 19:20). It is hard to put an exact age on him. Given his accomplishments, he was at least an adult. His reference to his youth in response to Jesus was probably a reference to his early childhood. To our modern way of thinking, we would put him somewhere between 18 to 35 years old. That’s probably not a bad assumption.
The importance is not in his exact age but in the fact he was young. With a normal life expectancy, he had many, many years ahead of him, and many years of health and strength. Jesus was not telling an old man to sell his stuff and give Him the last couple of years remaining of his life. He was telling a young man to do this, and it grieved him to hear it.
Now we come back to his reaction. He was sad, sorrowful. The words indicate a great sorrow, an exceeding or heavy grief. This man was deeply saddened by Jesus’ words. His reaction is very interesting when you consider the alternatives. Why was he not angered? Why was he not offended, or insulted? Why was he sad?
He could have stormed off thinking that Jesus really was mad and didn’t know what He was talking about. He could have thought to himself, “How dare Jesus try to tell me how to live my life. Who does He think He is? Who does He think He is talking to?” He could have thought Jesus had publicly humiliated him by suggesting he was not “perfect.” It could have been an affront to him for Jesus to tell him to give up everything and become a poor, wayfaring disciple. Instead of any of that, he was sad. Why?
Sorrow was an appropriate response if his request was genuine. If he only wanted praise from Jesus for his assumed perfection, he would have been very angry and insulted by Jesus’ words. If he was only curious, it could have been possible that he would have been indifferent to Jesus’ words. If he was being deceptive in hopes of humiliating or exposing Jesus as a false teacher, he would have been angered by what happened. If, on the other hand, he did have a sense that something was missing and truly wanted to know the way to eternal life, sorrow was appropriate. He was sad that he could not do what had to be done to gain what he truly desired.
I believe the young ruler was sincere and there are a few reasons for that in the text. We can find sincerity when we take the account as a whole and then look at some of the parts. Mark wrote of how this man came “running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17). His approach suggests an urgency that is consistent with sincerity. He knelt before Jesus and addressed him very respectfully with his question. It could be supposed that he was mocking or even just being courteous, but when kept in context, his manner suggests genuineness.
Another indicator of his sincerity is how Jesus responded to him. Mark wrote, “Then Jesus beholding him loved him” (Mark 10:21). I cannot think of any time in the Gospels that this is said of Jesus about the rulers, Pharisees, or Sadducees that came to Him with sinister motives. His manner and words were pointed, harsh, and enigmatic. Jesus had compassion on this young ruler.
The other indicator is the young man’s reaction. It was the very words of Jesus that brought sorrow and heaviness to him:
“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful” (Matthew 19:22)
“And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved” (Mark 10:22)
“And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful” (Luke 18:23)
He was grieved that eternal life would cost more than he could pay. It saddened him that eternal life would not be his because he could not do what was required. His sorrow reveals that he believed Jesus and he was wounded by what He said. Of himself, he could not pay the cost.
Men of the world will give up everything and suffer much to buy a few more moments of life on this corrupted, painful earth, but they will not do the same for eternal life. They gain the whole world and lose their soul. They save their life and find they have lost it.
This man had won life’s lottery. He was rich. Most men would choose riches if they could have nothing else. He was also powerful. He was also young. Men are striving, grasping, and selling their soul today to be in the same position. Some few get there and cannot let go their idols. But multitudes more are nowhere near this man’s status and yet they don’t find it any easier to turn from their idols to the living God.
We don’t know what became of this man, but it is a hopeful sign that he was grieved. He discovered the paradox of eternal life—it cannot be bought and paid for like a commodity, yet it comes with a great cost. When Jesus afterward spoke of the difficulty of rich men going to Heaven, He explained that He meant it was “impossible” (Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 18:27). It is only by the grace and power of God that our hearts can be turned to the true treasure of Heaven and earth—Jesus Christ.