If you were a rich man

Of all the accounts of personal meetings with Jesus, the exchange between the wealthy young man (he’s a ruler in Luke’s gospel) may be best known for its outcome: “He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mk 10:22). End of story.

I have heard a lot of takeaways from this episode over the years that are less than satisfying. A superficial reading can leave the impression that being wealthy is totally incompatible with being a disciple of Christ.

A straightforward examination of the narrative contradicts this, however. We’re dealing initially with a specific individual (unnamed, but still a unique person) who asks Jesus a question, Jesus takes his request at face value and then tailors his answer to this particular person, who rejects what’s offered.

It’s only after the man responds that Jesus makes a generalization: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 23) But even when he employs hyperbole to reinforce this observation (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”), it’s simply hard, not impossible:

“With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (v. 27) If it were impossible–if the wealthy were summarily excluded–just rewind to the beginning of the encounter. Why take the time to answer the man’s inquiry at all?

This kind of bar-the-wealthy bias also runs into problems when you turn to another wealthy man who in some ways was a mirror image of this unnamed young man: Zacchaeus, “a chief tax collector [who] was wealthy” (Lk 19:2).

In addition to being wealthy, Zacchaeus would have been viewed as a Roman collaborator as well as greedy (leading the crowd on hand to grumble that Jesus was going to the house of a “sinner”).

Yet here is Zacchaeus’ declaration (with some echos of Jesus’ words in Mk 10): “Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (19:8).

Jesus’ response? “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Hard? Yes. Impossible? No.

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