More thoughts on Luke 18:15-30: Infants, a Rich Young Ruler, and the Kingdom of God--and you and me and some more blunt (maybe dangerous) application
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as one receives a homeless person will never enter it.”
Here are some streams of thought that sprung from my sermon prep on Luke 18:15-30 (which is posted fully at the end). For now, this passage is two stories that are most definitely linked together: Infants and children being brought to Jesus for a blessing, being told that the kingdom of God belongs to them, and a rich young ruler who asks how he may obtain eternal life.
Additionally, the previous Wasted Blog post is a part of this stream of sermon prep thought: A blunt text, rationalizing, and a confession: a brief reflection on Luke 18:22.
There is little doubt that this is about the gospel and the poor: who are we?
The wider section of Luke 14-18 that we have been journeying through during the Saturday Sidewalk Sermons and Sunday morning sermons reveals whom we are to seek and welcome to the Table of God‘s Kingdom--that is, whom are to be invited to salvation in Christ, that is eternal life.
There is little doubt, the invitation is for the least among us . . . don’t get me wrong, of course, the wealthy and well-off and those who have the privilege and blessings of this age’s systems and structures are invited to come sit with them (it seems this is the Gospel process).
In our current passage (Luke 18:15-30), the young rich ruler is instructed to give his wealth to the poor . . . two things to be noted here: 1) for those that didn’t catch this earlier on my facebook feed, this principle was understood by both Jesus and his disciples as a principle to be followed broadly by the rich if they were to be followers of Jesus; and 2) this was what Jesus was modeling--something this young rich ruler could not, in the end, imagine doing, for he walked, sadly, away from Jesus’ gracious invitation to enter the kingdom of God.
Perhaps on this Day of giving thanks, we can find a way to give away what we have to the least among us. Most of us will give thanks around a Thanksgiving table for the bounty God has given to us--often accompanied by a comparison to those who have little or nothing (“Lord, we thank you for what we have, for we know that so many are not as fortunate,” et al.) . . . this is more in line with the Pharisee in the preceding parable, who compared himself to others.
The parallel in the Luke 6 Beatitude: The kingdom of God belongs to the poor
A thought from my sermon text, Luke 18:15-30: the reference to the kingdom of God belonging to the children means these two stories are a poor vs. the rich contrast and we should suspect that deconstruction, a reversal, is afoot:
V. 16: But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ).
Note the parallel: Luke has already told us back in chapter 6 that “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. 6:20).
And surprise, surprise, the very next thing is a scene of a rich young ruler wanting eternal life (i.e., entering the kingdom of God), who is then told to give to the poor, and walks away from (eternal life!) “because he was wealthy.” Recall how Luke presents the Kingdom Beatitudes back in chapter 6 . . . he parallels the poor/kingdom (6:20) with “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:24).
I’ll leave it right here . . .
Love God, Love Your Neighbor
Luke 18:16 (just a verse from my whole text, Luke 18:15-30): “But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’”
When the rich young ruler had heard Jesus say that the kingdom of God belonged to incomplete adults, those not fully human, that is children, this begged a question pertinent to his station and social status (which was good because he was wealthy, which meant he had a name that counts and a status that allowed all the privileges and, of course, he was a grown male which made him fully human). That question was, “Good Teacher, then how do I inherit eternal life*?”
He obviously knows how to inherit riches: be born in a legacy family and be a grown male—this is the Rome-way. It is not Jesus’ way . . . this is what concerns that rich young ruler. As it should. As it should also concern us.
While Jesus is far more than a mere Teacher as the rich young ruler had addressed him, he picks up on the word “Good” to help the young rich ruler grasp he is asking a first-commandment question—God is the only good, so remember, Love the Lord Your God first—but in the next breath Jesus directs the wealthy ruler to the second--which is like the first (cf. Matthew 22:39)—command, namely to Love Your Neighbor.
Thus, give-God-all-you-got is to be met with selling-all-you-got-and-giving-it-to-the-poor, these are the twin sides of inheriting—not earthy riches, that’s easy, just be born with a name and have the right address—of inheriting eternal life.
Not sure we’ve actually come to grips with this side of the gospel . . . it’s there, right in our text for Sunday morning (Luke 18:15-30).
*The kingdom of God, eternal life, and being saved are all interchanging terms and concepts in Luke.
An ellipsis: whoever models Jesus gets to enter into the kingdom of God
I grant the last of this thread is far more application than exegesis (but it’s that, too), yet it is an application that is a faithful reading and dynamic equivalent [you’ll see I do some translating here] to Luke’s and Jesus’ narrative intent (and of the Greek) found in Luke 18:15-30, specifically, verses 16-17: “But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’” (ESV).
There are a number of things that are before us in the text, for they would have been before both the original audience of disciples and Pharisees, and, as well, those to whom the Gospel was written, namely Theophilus’ church community:
1) As already mentioned, infants and children would have been considered not fully human, incomplete adults, one the lower tiers of human hierarchy, both in the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world;
2) Children/infants simply would not have been presented, especially in public, to any Rabbi (and I note that Jesus is referred to by the rich young ruler as Teacher, aka a rabbi);
3) There would be ritual impurity amid the presentation of the infants that would have been improper for Jewish Rabbis, but obviously Jesus is impervious; and
4) Finally, there is an ellipsis in verse 17 that needs to be understood.
Allow for an explanation of the ellipsis before moving on to my application (which reveals the intent of Jesus and Luke here): a grammatical ellipsis, whether written or spoken, is when some words are missing yet assumed, offering some balance to the thought or sentence that is implied by the author and supplied by the hearer/reader.
Examples: “John saw two hawks in the sky, and Bill saw three” and “Amanda is managing the restaurant Thursday, and Joseph is Friday.” The second example is like our Luke 18:17 ellipsis, in that the verb “manage” is left out but is clearly intended. The ellipsis in Luke 18:17 is the verb “receive.” The ellipsis is masked by the English word “like” (i.e., “like a child”). The word “like” implies to the English reader that it is the children we should be like. However, the ellipsis being crafted here is to imply that it is the “receiving” that we are to be like. Here’s my translation so you can here and see how the ellipsis works:
The “infants” and “children” are not coming or receiving Jesus in this story. They are not coming to Jesus because of something about them--we infer this, but it is not there in the text and the social/cultural location suggests otherwise. And, it is the parents who are bringing them to Jesus and Jesus is receiving them. Thus, the set up for the intended ellipsis. We should make a narrative link to what Jesus is doing. This is exactly what Jesus is modeling, “receiving children.” He is not receiving children as a child or like a child would--that’s our hallmark-card spin on it--but Jesus is doing the receiving, the welcoming of the children.
This reading of the text, and hearing the cultural view of humans that is at play, allows us to apply this warning concerning the unavailability of the kingdom to those who do not welcome/receive children because Jesus has reversed the poles in His kingdom. Now, if we read--as we should--the other aspects before us in this text, namely infants/children would have disturbed the piety of a rabbi (i.e., the clean vs unclean) and the view that receiving them counters the tiered humanity prevalent at that time . . . it would be fair to render this verse:
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as one receives a homeless person will never enter it.”
Of course, you can change “homeless” to be anyone whom you believe is less than human or unclean . . . and not only believe, but live in such a way that your modeling is nothing like Jesus’ model . . . and the danger? You will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This is affirmed by the next story of the rich young ruler choosing not to model Jesus and turns away from the kingdom.
Luke 18:15-30 (ESV)
This is both blunt and transparent . . . Luke 18:22, a verse in this Sunday's Sermon text . . . “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.’”
In a few seconds, after the rich ruler walks away “sadly,” Jesus then says: “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.”
There is no doubt this is to be applied rather broadly and not to be rationalize, “Well, this was to one person and God doesn't call every rich person to do this,” for the disciples understood it to apply to all rich people, “then who can be saved then?”
Those who typically have the authority to interpret texts like this one are from among those with elevated status in the social structures, i.e., those who rule and have wealth—you can see the conflict of interest here. I do. I feel that conflict myself. I am not exempt from “spiritualizing” or looking for exemptions for this text.
We all scramble to exempt ourselves, somehow, from this--no matter the size of our paycheck and bank accounts. Me, too. I have always been rather plagued by this text. But after 40+ years of following Jesus (and this is a “follow Me” text, cf. 18:22d), I wonder if we are so attached to this world—as the Rich Mullins song says, the stuff of earth competes for our allegiance—that we are not free to actually follow Jesus in the way the Gospels teach us?
I confess, this week’s sermon text rattles me. And more so because it’s a feast week! Thanksgiving. And it’s cold out. There are homeless surrounding me. And I live amid scarcity.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.