First let me remind you of the passage in question. It is Mark 10:17-22
18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”[c]
20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
I am going to attempt to break this passage down piece by piece, but first I need to make a confession. I used to look at the rich young ruler as some jerky kid off the street, who blew a golden opportunity with Jesus, because he was too selfish and greedy. I thought he was a young punk. I thought he was a spoiled rich kid, with no respect for God or others. I thought he was nothing more than a good chance for Jesus to smack down yet another Pharisee. Boy, was I ever wrong. As a result of this faulty assessment, during my Bible reading I tended to gloss over (even skim by) this powerful story.
What’s worse is I figured I knew it. After all, I had read this passage many times before. Does that ever happen to you, when you read the Bible? It happens to me more than I care to admit. And, the problem is, it is so dangerous to take for granted that you know, with absolute certainty, what God’s word is saying. It is so dangerous to approach the Oracles of God with boredom. It is dangerous to conclude that God’s word has said all it can say to you, and you need not regard it further. I think, for me if not for anyone else, it is a form of blasphemy, because it takes for granted that God, His holy Self, will meet you in the medium of His word, the Bible.
I am just trying to say as much as I can about each point. There might be better ways to organize the information, but I am not trying to tell a story or weave some cogent narrative. Some of the ideas will seem to flat out contradict each other. I am admitting this up front, so you don’t think I’m speaking nonsense. I am just trying to do justice to the text, and really try to see it as it demands to be seen. I do not want to strain it through the matrix of my prior theological convictions, because this narrative is bigger than that. It deserves more than that. I only want to tell the truth, even if it means not getting to the bottom of anything. I invite you to join me here in the tension of deliberate uneasiness, which this passage demands.
- Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? How did the rich young ruler become rich? Usually the young haven’t acquired great wealth. Could he have inherited it? Does he look at his wealth as evidence that God is blessing him, and so assumes that eternal life is a blessing which God will allow him to inherit? Does he reason that, just like he didn’t earn his fortune, he could not earn eternal life? Could it be that he somehow knew, despite the teaching of the Pharisees, that eternal life can only be given, not earned. Did he somehow intuit that only the Father can award eternal life, and it is not like money, something to be stacked, counted, and bartered with? Many in his position naturally assumed that God would bless the especially righteous with earthly wealth. This is why the disciples gasp in astonishment (vs 24), when Jesus announces “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” They were absolutely floored at the implications. If the even the rich, God’s special chosen favored, blessed ones, can’t get it in, how can we the lowly fishermen ever hope to have a shot?
- This is a God fearing Jew, righteous as regarded the Law. (Jesus does not dispute that. In fact, this is one of the things that endears him to the Lord) He took holiness seriously, and had done all to ensure that his acceptance by God was certain. Still, his spiritual hunger showed him that there must be more than faithful Torah adherence. He was compelled to seek out Jesus for the answers to the questions that were gnawing at his soul. Jesus offers the Law, which the young man is confident he has satisfied. Some interpreters would be tempted to accuse the young ruler of spiritual pride and self righteousness. I don’t see how they can come to this conclusions, since even Jesus didn’t. They must know better than the Lord. Self righteousness? Does this sound self righteous? He came running out of the town, and knelt before Jesus. This is not the act of a proud and haughty person. This is the act of one spiritually desperate to hear from God. The rich don’t kneel. They don’t run either. (Remember the picture of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, who hikes up his robes and runs out to meet the boy? This was particularly astonishing to Jesus’ listeners, because the rich don’t run or do anything else which might diminish their status.) The rich don’t chase after homeless street preachers the likes of Jesus, seeking such whimsical and ethereal things as ‘eternal life’.
- Following up on the last point, some Christian theology teaches that no one can keep the Law, which would render the young ruler’s assessment of himself erroneous at best. Why then does Jesus offer Law keeping as a way to ensure inheritance of eternal life? Jesus appears to accept that the man truly has been faithful to Torah observance, and has done so in the pursuit of honoring God. In fact, it is the man’s adherence to the Law which filled Jesus with love for him in the first place. Jesus doesn’t dispute the ruler’s claim about Law keeping, to the contrary the Lord appears to accept it at face value. For my part I see no reason why the Decalogue and the other 600 laws could not be perfectly kept. And, I’m not even sure the Bible really says they can’t be. To the point, it isn’t Torah observance or Law keeping that makes one born of the spirit. A heavenly inheritance is exactly what the spiritually sensitive rich, young ruler was after, and he, rightly, concluded that God would require more than a righteousness from the Law.
- Jesus asks a strange question: ‘Why do you call me good?” Only God is good? Was this a test? Was Jesus trying to provoke the man to find out what, if anything, the Holy Spirit had revealed to him? Already in Mark 8 Jesus tested the disciples in the same way asking, “Who do men say that I am?”. To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ.” Without ever affirming this revelation, in Mark, Jesus tells them not to repeat what they’ve just said. (Verse 30) “Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” As we’ve already mentioned, Jesus seems to be advocating that not only is he not equivalent to God, but also a works based righteousness. I’d like to remark here just how challenging Mark’s gospel is. Surely, the author of the book would not have included this passage if he thought it contradicted Jesus’ divinity, right? Surely Mark had some complex theological framework in place to explain away the difficulty of Jesus’ seeming denial to be equal with God. We know that Jesus was perfectly secure with his identity. He did not need frenetic disciples frantically reminding him of who he is. Could it be that Jesus says no one is good but God, in order to further shake the young man’s confidence in Torah observance? Jesus does not deny himself, of this we can be certain.
- Since the Law has been found to be inadequate, Jesus offers Discipleship, disentanglement from the worldy riches which have ensnared him, relationship to Jesus himself, and, preeminently, a taking up of one’s cross. The ruler figured there was something more. He knew intuitively that something was missing from his spiritual life. He had an itch that could not be scratched, no matter how hard he tried. He came to Jesus looking for a definitive answer. When he came face to face with Jesus, the ruler expected the Lord to add a new command or promote some new kind of prayers he could say. The rich, young ruler was met with an unforeseen turn of events, because Jesus told him to lose something, in this case his wealth, not gain something. Jesus said sell your possessions then give away the proceeds to the poor. He said all this without adding any new commandments to the Law. Jesus did not ask the ruler to finance His and His disciple’s ministry. Jesus didn’t want the mans’ money. He didn’t need it. He wanted the man to separate himself from his idol, in this case Mammon. At the same time Jesus figured, “Hey, why shouldn’t the poor benefit from this exchange?” This was more about getting the ruler to lay down his idols, than it was to about giving to the poor. You see, sometimes living for God is not only about what He calls you to start doing for Him, but also what He calls you to separate yourself from. Sometimes he will ask you to give up everything. Aren’t there several parables about just that? Didn’t Jesus say to lose your life, in order to gain it? Doesn’t the Lord comfort his disciples by telling them that all they have given up will be added to them one hundredfold?
- Identify with the poor, serve and love them. Give up your love of security. The ruler suffered from two of the seven deadly sins, and they are Greed and Sloth. Spiritual sloth is a deadly sin, because it causes us to neglect the truly important things of God. We may even fill up all our time by attending to lesser matters, in order to be too busy to give God his due. These two deadly sins come from misplaced love, which is also love of the lower at the expense of the higher. Of course spiritual neglect is a part of this. The ruler chose to busy himself with keeping the Law, but it does not seem he ever learned to really love God or his neighbor. The immediate context of this passage shows the danger that having many possessions can put your soul in. Humans, especially 21st century Americans, tend to get absorbed with material things. They are tangible, useful, valuable. You cannot trade 6 microns love for a loaf of bread. I can’t keep the meat and milk in my house from spoiling by surrounding it with goodness and joy. Only matter can deliver the physical needs of matter. Only God can inspire love of God.
C.S. Lewis said, ” Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.
- I believe this man was really and truly seeking to honor God. I think it was this spirit which moved Jesus to love him and offer him discipleship. Jesus really did want to see this young man “inherit eternal life”. Isn’t it interesting that this person was unable to accept Jesus offer so readily as, say for example, Peter, John, Andrew, Matthew. It seems like people who never felt the oppression of poverty, hatred from one’s neighbor, or the scorn of being an outsider, never developed the ability to accept Jesus offer. Jesus offered him the remedy that his soul desperately needed in order to become the kind of soul which would seek, follow, and truly love Jesus.
- My conclusion is this; Jesus will always ask you to part with the things keeping you back from following him. He will hone in on what you covet most, and demand you lay it at his feet. No secret sin is safe. No pet project, day dream, career goals or personal aspirations may be kept back, if he asks it from you as a sacrifice. For this man, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But, this was too much for the young ruler. Jesus wants to separate you from that which keeps you separate from Him. As the parable of the pearl of great price teaches us, in order to receive the kingdom of God you must be willing to sell off or trade away all that you have. From this point forward you own nothing, and everything is a gift for God. You now make your living off of the kindness and providence of a divine, benevolent liege-Lord.
To be continued in Part 3