“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
“’Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
“At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Mark 10:17-22)
If you read my last post, you might be wondering what part of being a disciple you’re missing.
You certainly aren’t the first, as the passage at the top of the post attests. This unnamed man, perhaps a Pharisee or a member of the Sanhedrin like Nicodemus, came to Jesus looking for an answer about the way to eternal life.
Jesus may have recognized the man or known him by reputation (only Luke’s account calls him a ruler), but in any event he knew he wasn’t dealing with someone unfamiliar with the law. “You know the commandments,” he said, and ticked off several.
I’ve kept these all my life, he said.
Then comes Jesus’ answer, either illuminating, surprising or unsettling depending on the way you’ve read the passage or had it explained to you. (Despite its importance, I can only think of two times I’ve ever heard this story taught or preached in 44 years as a Christian. I’m not sure why.)
Briefly, some observations to help understand the passage.
This isn’t an invitation to “come down to the front to receive Jesus” replete with extended loops of piano or organ music in the background. As I’ve said in another post, people turn this passage into a pretzel to avoid the appearance of a salvation-by-doing-good-works proof-text.
Second, when you are trying to find and apply any passage’s message, you should note generalizations and particularizations. Jesus used a generalization after the man had gone: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
The rich is a category of persons comprising many individuals, including this young man. It’s a group characteristic that entering the kingdom of God is difficult for them, according to Jesus.
Difficult, but not impossible. In fact, in Luke the story of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, appears in the very next chapter (19:1-10) with a very different outcome. The existence of particular rich persons who enter the kingdom doesn’t contradict the generalization that it’s difficult for most.
The issue with the rich young man is illuminated by other passages in Scripture. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus taught elsewhere (also a generalization, by the way). “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Mt 6:24), a particular example of that truth.
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” Paul wrote (1 Tim 6:10). It’s interesting that two striking confrontations in the early church had to do with money: Ananias and Sapphira holding back money they received for land they sold (Acts 5:1-11) and Simon the sorcerer trying to “buy the gift of God with money” (Acts 8:20), no doubt to make more money.
With the rich young man, Jesus zeroed in on the “one thing”—which was hardly a small omission, making Jesus’ wording intentionally ironic—that was a rival for the man’s devotion. Another “master,” in other words. And it represented an impediment to becoming a true disciple: “sell everything you have . . . then come, follow me.”
Many different things can be another “master,” not just money. But the testimony of Scripture is that it is a powerful inducement to compromise, dissembling and false devotion (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira), corrupt ambition (Simon the sorcerer) and apostasy because of the convenience, comfort and pleasure it brings.
So it requires special attention and vigilance to resist its allure. It should not be taken lightly, and I’ve tried not to in this post. But I also want to avoid facile conclusions.
So, are you the rich young man? I can’t answer that question. I don’t think I should. It’s not my call to make.
American Christians are an easy target when it comes to applying this passage because of the standard of living we enjoy. It’s difficult for the rich, the prosperous and the affluent to enter the kingdom; I can see that all around me. But as for individual cases, “do not judge” applies (Mt 7:1).
It’s significant that applications I’ve heard are usually generalizations (e.g., We need to trust God, not the size of our bank account). That places it in harmony with Jesus’ generalization, and that’s good. But it also leaves unanswered the question of whether your wealth is another “master” you in particular are trying to serve. Even if the coronavirus has put a big dent in your checking account.
I do know that you don’t need to approach God with faux contrition because the story makes you uncomfortable. So keep calm and . . . well, don’t.
Do you call into the local police station to see if you committed any crimes this week? I didn’t think so. No, if you’ve done something wrong, they’ll come to you.
It is the prerogative and role of the Holy Spirit to convict of guilt (Jn 16:8) and to “take from what is mine [i.e., of Jesus Christ] and make it known to you” (16:14). That’s above my pay grade.