Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Rich Young Man
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
This reading actually includes parts of the listed gospel readings for yesterday and today, but that seems like a bad split – this definitely seems like a passage that should be considered as one story.
A rich man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do “to get eternal life.” And surprisingly, Jesus tells the man to obey the commandments. Some Christians might say, “Well, of course he should obey the commandments! There’s nothing surprising about that!” But we’ve spent several recent Reflections thinking about passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul insists that none of us is able to obey God’s commandments well enough to earn a place in heaven. So why is Jesus telling this man that obeying the commandments is the way to ‘get eternal life?’
I think in this case, you have to read the whole story, because when you get to the end of the exchange between Jesus and the man, it seems that what Jesus had in mind was specifically to make the point to this man that just trying to obey those commandments is not enough to earn eternal life. When the man claims that he is obeying all the commandments, Jesus tells him that he needs to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. Then, having disposed of his earthly treasure, he will instead have heavenly treasure.
This definitely flies in the face of the ‘American dream,’ doesn’t it? So what’s so bad about being rich? Why does Jesus say, as the man walks away sadly, that it’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God?
It seems to me that one of the consistent messages of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus, is that wealth isn’t evil, but rather that it’s dangerous. That’s because it can easily become a god to us. And as you might remember from past Reflections, when I say “a god,” I don’t mean something that people worship – I mean something that people look to for salvation.
The truth is that we can only have one God at a time. You can either place your hope for salvation in the God of Israel made known to us in Jesus, or you can place your hope for salvation in something from this world. That could be drink, drugs or the pleasures of the flesh, but it could also be a political program or the free market or technology or even your sports teams.
Or, in the case of this story, it can be worldly wealth. But it turns out that God doesn’t have that much interest in people who claim to be Jesus-followers, but who want to accumulate a bunch of worldly wealth as a ‘backup plan.’ Because, when push comes to shove, those who do that have what the Bible calls “a divided heart.” Just look at the man in this story – “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He’s been given the secret of eternal life – and yet he’s sad! Think about what that says about the hold that wealth can have on us.
I suspect that Jesus would say that this story isn’t just about wealth. I think he’d say that other things of this world can have the same kind of hold on us. I think Jesus would say that if there’s anything in the world we’d be sad to give up in order to get eternal life, we should do some real soul-searching about the possibility that it – whatever it might be – might have become our god.
Three other quick points about this passage:
First, the disciples are amazed about what Jesus said about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven. They were Jews, and Jews assumed that earthly blessings were a sign of God’s favor. So naturally, they also assumed that if anyone was going to get into heaven, it would be a rich person. But Jesus points out to the disciples that a person’s salvation rests with God, not with humankind.
Second, Bible scholars have always assumed that the man in the story was not able to dispose of his wealth, and so he missed out on his chance to follow Jesus. But the text doesn’t say that – it just says he went away sad. I’ve shared with some of you that I actually had a friendly debate with a famous Matthew scholar about this once. I said maybe the man went sadly away and disposed of his wealth, then came and followed Jesus like he said. The scholar said it’s possible, but if it were true someone would have thought of it long before me.
Third, I recently came across an interesting bit of trivia that might have something to do with this story. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the same word means ‘camel’ and ‘rope.’ So what Jesus might really have meant is that it’s harder to get a rope through the eye of a needle than a rich person into heaven. That metaphor actually makes a little more sense to me than the one with the camel.
Anyway, the real heart of this passage seems to be a warning against allowing the things of this world to have a hold on us. Because even our blessings can become dangerous if we start looking to them for salvation.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the many blessings you provide for us. But help us to remember always that these are blessings from you, and help us to place our hope for salvation in you, the giver of our gifts, and not in the gifts you give. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 53 and 94; Numbers 16:20-35; and Romans 4:1-12.)