“And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’”
I am fascinated by this line from the story of the rich young ruler. It comes just after Jesus has just made his “camel through the eye of a needle” analogy. Most of the commentary I have read about this goes in one of two directions: 1 ) The disciples’ eyes were opened about salvation through faith; or 2 ) the disciples were culturally conditioned to believe that the pious wealthy and elite were most likely to enter the Kingdom, and thus astonished by Jesus’ remarks. I think the second explanation just doesn’t make sense, and the first is on track, but doesn’t go far enough.
Starting with the second idea, I mean I know the Gospels present the disciples as somewhat dim bulbs, but the idea that they could hang around Galilee and with Jesus for most of his ministry and still assume that the wealthy had an inside track to salvation strikes me as dubious. James (2: 6) probably depicts the gut reaction of the common people of the time (the “poor”) when he says “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” And the story of the young ruler occurs late in the Gospels, so the disciples would have had to have been in a coma for a couple of years not to have heard Jesus’ constant message (through explicit statements, parables, choice of disciples and repeated confrontations with the elite) that the least were going to be first in line for the Kingdom.
The argument about salvation through faith is more credible, especially when the story begins with the ruler asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Undoubtedly, part of Jesus message is that we can’t achieve our salvation by what we “do.” However, I believe that there’s more to the disciples reaction than this.
Imagine that the disciples indeed had soaked in Jesus' message about the last being first, and had heard his attacks upon money-changers and the religious elite. Now ask yourself, “What just happened?” Jesus and the disciples are not in Galilee (they are crossing between Judea and Trans-Jordan). So here is Jesus, an unorthodox, itinerant rabbi, somewhat akin to a rural Alabama preacher walking the streets of the Hamptons, whose message is one of woe to the powerful and comfort to the poor and afflicted, when suddenly a rich young man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks him for spiritual advice. In the day of Jesus, this by itself is astonishing. And furthermore, when Jesus answers him “You know the commandments ….” The young man does not argue with or attempt to engage Jesus in tricked conversation. He accepts Jesus statement. I think that what astonished the disciples is that they were thinking “This is the jackpot. Jesus is finally getting his message through to the most important people in society. They finally get it. If we can walk into Jerusalem with this man as the new face of Jesus’ ministry, there is no stopping us.”
As usual, Jesus did what confounded his disciples. Rather than signing the young man on as his “outreach minister to the Hamptons”, he adds to the demands for salvation, sends him away, and then seemingly dismisses his chances of salvation, saying that they were worse than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.** For me, this then explains what the disciples said: ““And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’” To me, they were saying to Jesus: “We don’t understand. This is what your entire ministry has been about: the humbling of the wealthy and self-righteous into a life of faithful observance of the Law. If you are not satisfied with this, what will you be satisfied with?” And Jesus answers them “All things are possible with God.” (And then, completely in character, Peter gets his nose out of joint and begins a rant of self-justification: “WE have left everything and followed you.”)
So, yes I think that the story is one about salvation not being through works, but I also think we have to be careful that we don’t fall into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the trap of “cheap grace.” To me, the whole meaning of this interchange is not that salvation through faith requires less of us, but rather that it requires more. There is nothing we can do as followers of Jesus that will gain our salvation by a finite amount of our efforts. But this means that at every point, Jesus will say to us, “But I require more.” Of course we will fall short, and it is then that we must realize that, solely through God’s grace and not through our own merit, Jesus has died for our sinfulness. As a consequence, we should not be satisfied, but instead we must want to offer more.
** One of my pastors was of Middle-Eastern ancestry, and he suggested that the phrase had a double meaning. The “eye of the needle” was a city gate intended to allow entry only to people on foot, and the absurd picture of a rich man riding a camel loaded with possessions trying the enter through the eye of the needle would have been instantly recognized in that time.