Luke simply identifies the questioner as a "ruler." The Greek is "archon" -- a generic term for anyone in power, not specifying office or authority. It's the same word Paul uses a few places where he might be referring to Roman authorities (up to and including Caesar) or spiritual powers (angels, demons and the like, especially those given authority over specific geographic regions) or several other possibilities of "powers." Combined with the Greek word "polis," or 'city,' Luke uses this word to refer to the bureaucratic officials of Thessalonica in Acts 17 -- the "politarchs." So we don't know much about the man who questions Jesus except that he has authority, power of some kind. Through the story we will learn more, but this is enough to start with.
Having power changes people. If you have been in a situation where you have power, you know that you have a sense of agency, of capability, of the ability to make decisive changes. If you have been in a place where you have no power, on the other hand, you feel like a victim, like there's literally nothing you can do to influence your situation. The contrast couldn't be more stark. The fact that this man is a ruler, that he has authority and power in some measure, shapes everything that happens between him and Jesus.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He doesn't ask "Who should I beg for eternal life?" or "How is eternal life given?" The question implies that he can make things happen, which is interesting -- because even he frames the issue as an issue of inheritance. By definition inheriting something is at least partially beyond one's control. There is a deep and rich theology in the New Testament of our inheriting eternal life through the death of Jesus. Paul is especially good at this in Romans, but here the ruler seems to think he can influence the execution of Jesus' will (puns intended).
Jesus plays along, eventually, but first he needs to call out the man's assumption: Why has the man addressed him as "Good Teacher"? The ruler uses the word "agathe" which means ethically, morally, or spiritually good. It's not just good as in "I'm having a good day" or "that was a good meal" but rather the deeper sense of "You are a good person" or "That was a good thing to do." It carries some weight. It's right up against the word "holy," and Jesus focuses on it for just a moment. Why, he asks the ruler, did you use that term to describe me? "No one is good but God alone." To the ruler this must have seemed like a rebuke in the moment. However to the disciples standing nearby (who had for some time been growing into this understanding) and to us reading later, it is obvious that the ruler has glimpsed something of Jesus' true nature. Jesus is, in fact, the God who is good. Goodness, uprightness, righteousness are his essence.
Before we can spiral down the rabbit hole into that topic, however, Jesus moves right along. He says, in effect, you already know the answer. Here is a basic recitation of the Law. What Jesus does not say here is critically important. He cites five of the Ten Commandments, and every one he cites comes from the later part of that list -- the commandments that apply to relationships between humans. He doesn't cite the first few that have to do with loving God above all others. And note that Jesus doesn't say that keeping the commandments will give the man eternal life. (It is extremely interesting to contrast Mark and Luke's versions of this story with Matthew's -- Matthew being written to a primarily Jewish audience who understood the Law as Torah, as a covenant like a marriage covenant, as a relational guideline to living in love with God, rather than a rigid set of ethical expectations as the gentiles and much later the Reformers would have it. As post-Reformation gentile Christians in the 21st century, we usually read these words through those filters and have a hard time getting back to the subtleties of a Jewish understanding of the Law per Matthew's version. Luke is often a better version for us to understand because, written to a gentile audience, it removes the need for at least one layer of required trans-cultural translation.) Jesus here is indeed a Good Teacher, and in this case he is -- at least partially -- setting up his student by revealing what the student has already understood: Though he has lived according to the rules all his adult life, he still lacks something.
Sell all that you have. Jesus speaks incisively into the man's soul, diagnosing his particular idolatry. This is not an eternal principle to be rigidly applied across the board, though so many of us are in bondage to our worldly wealth that it often seems like it. To generalize Jesus' directive here might require us to ask something like, "What owns you?" What most possesses you? What is too dear to give up? What is that treasure that pins the location of your heart? We all have idolatries that keep us from leaping to follow Jesus. Do you know yours?
To put a different twist on things here, we might say the ruler is teetering on the verge of falling in love with Jesus. He is captivated by the beauty and goodness he sees in this Messiah, and he longs to have what Jesus seems to possess -- eternal life. But like the young Ebenezer Scrooge confronted with the possibility of life-changing love, the ruler cannot escape the clutches of his hunger for wealth. Jesus stands before the ruler and implicitly says, "I have what you lack. Let go of what holds you back and come with me." A generation later the author of Hebrews will lay this before us explicitly (Hebrews 12:1-2). "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so close and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" -- this is the choice that confronts the ruler. And sorrowing, he chooses his idolatry.
Jesus sees his sorrow and recognizes it for what it is. We sometimes speak as if freedom -- political or spiritual -- is simply a beautiful gift that is obviously better than any kind of bondage. However, as Ursula K. LeGuin has written:
"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it."In Jesus' day as in ours, people saw wealth as a mark of God's favor. Who hasn't envied a Bill Gates? Who hasn't wished at some point to win the lottery? Jesus explicitly states what the wealthy learn by hard experience: Having too much is no gift. The strings of wealth and possessions and properties and even human relationships can tie us too much to this world and its ways. Peter (v. 28) seems to be looking to Jesus for reassurance -- we've left our homes. Have we done better than this ruler? Jesus affirms the choice Peter and the other disciples have made. Jesus himself is the treasure worth selling all else; he is the one relationship worth having. And having him, casting all aside to have him, we receive back again riches beyond measure, relationships of depth and quality that heal and enrich our hearts, family and community and love and so much more.
Trouble is, the losses look so fearful from the ruler's side. Death looks like a terrible ending from our perspective. Resurrection and all that goes with it seems like a myth, a dream. Love seems like an impossibility. But the risen Jesus stands as witness to the reality of abundant life -- not just for some distant eternity in a far-off heaven, but starting here and now, sucking the marrow out of the bones of this existence as we live into the reality of following him.