A Contrast of Character | A Rich Ruler & A Rich Publican

Dr. Randy White

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Both the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus were wealthy men, and display a contrast of character as it relates to wealth.

Two of the most familiar stories of the Gospels are the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus, the wee-little tax collector. While almost any child who promoted from 5th grade Sunday School could tell these two stories fairly accurately, most seminary-educated pastors cannot link the two stories as being connected in the real life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

During Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, detailed by Luke in his “travelogue” of Luke 9:51-19:27, Jesus encountered the Rich Young Ruler, followed shortly (in miles and time) by His encounter with Zacchaeus.  From Matthew’s Gospel, we know that the Rich Young Ruler approached Jesus in “a region of Judea beyond Jordan,” likely east of Jericho. This young ruler was likely a ruler of the synagogue, well respected in his town, and well-versed in the Law. The young man asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life, and Jesus responded with a clear statement related to his obedience to the Law.

Distinction of Dispensations

Both the Rich Young Ruler account, and the Zacchaeus story, speak about salvation. Upon Zacchaeus’ expression of generosity, Jesus declares that “Today, Salvation has come into this household” (Luke 9:19). If you are new to dispensationalism, it may take some mindful thought to understand that neither of these accounts is about salvation as we understand it today. With the Apostle Paul, the Gospel of grace was announced. However, for 2,000 years, the church has erroneously assumed that any time salvation is mentioned in the Bible, it refers to the salvation we experience today. If this is the case, however, there are several discrepancies we need to overcome.  First, Paul is clear on a number of occasions that the gospel he preaches was kept a mystery in ages past, hidden from those who were living before him. Any serious student of the Word must take his words at face value. But, in a more immediate context, the basis for salvation in the stories at hand is completely antithetical to the saving Gospel.

When the Rich Young Ruler asked “What must I do to obtain eternal life,” Jesus answered, “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17) and, “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22). While preachers and commentators love to wax eloquently, trying to explain that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, a strong dispensationalist has no problem saying that Jesus said what he meant, and meant what he said. A dispensational view can take these statements at face value, because it is the Kingdom Gospel not the Saving Gospel that is being taught. If this is the saving Gospel, then the Rich Young Ruler could have obtained eternal life by selling his possessions, while Zacchaeus found eternal life by his commitment to give half to the poor. If it is the saving Gospel, then what worked for them must also work for people today. Those who do not distinguish between the Kingdom Gospel and the Saving Gospel take these stories, mix them with Paul’s Gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and create a Lordship Salvation doctrine that explains “saving faith” to be the kind that sells possessions in a radical commitment to following Jesus.

If we back up a bit and look at the context of both stories, we see that the earthly, Davidic, Theocratic Kingdom is clearly in view. Both stories are completely surrounded by Kingdom terminology. In fact, immediately after the story of Zacchaeus, we are told that the people were expecting Jesus to set up His kingdom “immediately” (Luke 19:11).  Make note, that the criteria for entrance into the Kingdom was not trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as sufficient payment and substitution for sin.

Two Wealthy Men

Zacchaeus and the Rich Young Ruler were both wealthy men, and each responded differently to their wealth. One wanted to hoard it, the other was generous.  These stories stand almost side-by-side in a contrast of character, much like the Pharisee and the Publican in their prayers (Luke 18:9-14). In fact, it is this story that introduces the Rich Young Ruler, followed by the story of Zacchaeus. Could it be that Jesus was foretelling, through parables, the contrast of the Pharisee known as the Rich Young Ruler, and the Publican known as Zacchaeus?

It may be that Zacchaeus has received a bad rap in 2,000 years of Christian history. He is often portrayed as a greedy, grimy tax-collector, who experienced a sudden conversion when Jesus came to the tree.  What if Zaccheus is actually a faithful (albeit outcast) child of Abraham who, like Simeon, is looking for the consolation of Israel?  He does, after all, go to radical means to just catch a glimpse of Jesus. Could it be that the wee-little man in a Sycamore tree believes (along with the majority of the crowd) that Jesus is Messiah, and will establish His Kingdom “immediately” upon arriving in Jerusalem? Perhaps Zacchaeus wants to be able to tell his children and grandchildren, “I saw the Messiah just before He took the throne!”

Jesus comes to the Sycamore tree and invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ home. This is an unusual move for Jesus, who often accepted invitations, but never coerced himself into someone’s home. When the larger picture of Jesus’ life is viewed, we see that He was eager to invest in those who invested in the Messianic Kingdom. Zacchaeus was one of those children of Abraham who was of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and Jesus sought him out to proclaim his entrance into the Kingdom, whenever that might be.

Notice that when the Pharisees accuse Jesus of eating with a sinner, Zacchaeus stops the conversation, stands up, and makes a declaration—

Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” Luke 19:8 (NKJV)

The King James, New King James, ESV, and several other translations get the tense correct. The New American Standard Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, and others decide to interpret rather than translate, and take the present active participle “I give” (literally, “I am giving”) into a future (“I will give”). Zacchaeus, upon hearing the accusations that he is a sinner, stands up and declares his righteousness. Perhaps he even points to one in the crowd of accusers—a rich, young ruler from a nearby town—the very one who  had refused to sell what he had and give it to the poor—and hears him say, “I thank God I am not like this tax collector!”  The hypocrisy so incensed Zacchaeus that he stood and clearly declared that which he was already doing!


Only eternity will answer some of the questions we have about these two rich men. Clearly, however, they stand as a contrast in character. While my salvation cannot be gained by selling my possessions and giving to the poor, I certainly want to possess a Kingdom character of generosity—willing to go above and beyond to repay anyone I may inadvertently defraud.  Neither the Rich Young Ruler nor Zacchaeus stand as a standard for normative Christian living today, but both stand, side-by-side, as an illustration of a Kingdom heart of generosity.


Click here to read part 2 of this article, which explains how a New Testament believer is instructed to give his wealth.

To listen to a sermon from which this material is based, use the player below

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