The Rich Young Ruler: A Second Look

A rich young man knelt before Jesus, asking how to obtain eternal life. He’d always obeyed the commandments. What else should he do?

Jesus gave a challenging answer: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor. Then come, follow Me.” 

At this, “the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mk 10:21-2). 

Most people who read this story also come away sad, because they too have great wealth (relatively speaking) and cannot conceive of parting with it. If some readers are not saddened, it’s only because they gloss over this passage, assuming its message is not for them. 

Surely this is the saddest story in the whole world. Imagine having a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, only to go away sad, having been told you must do something you cannot do. To meet God in person and hear bad news! 

What to do with this story? If Jesus is serious that being a good Christian involves selling all we have, why don’t we obey Him? 

Maybe there’s something wrong with our reading of the story? Who else in all four gospels (besides the unbelievably obtuse Pharisees) goes away sad from meeting Jesus? No one. To meet Christ is to hear good news, to have one’s burdens lifted, to be healed and set free. 

Yes, there may be twists and turns, doubts and confusions in working out our salvation. But if the guiding principle of our faith is not the electrifying freedom and joy we have found in Jesus, isn’t something wrong?

Something is indeed wrong. The problem with our usual reading of this story is that we don’t read it far enough. Jesus’ last word is not, “Sell all you have.” After the young man leaves, He goes on to utter the equally famous saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” At this, His disciples are rightly shocked, and they ask, “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mk 10:25-7). 

Here, at last, is the crux of the story. The young man comes to Jesus asking what he can do to be saved, and Jesus responds that it’s not about what he does for God, but what God does for him. For righteousness is not something to be achieved but to be received. Of course there is work to do, but it can only be done by those who are already full of received righteousness, not by those who are striving to attain it. As Paul admonished, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). 

I wonder what became of this rich man after he went home sadly? Was that the end of his relationship with Christ? I doubt it. Rather, that man would have embarked on a profound search for some way in which he could follow Christ—that is, for the way to which he was truly called. 

Was this not Jesus’ motivation in telling him to sell everything? Looking at this poor man—poor in grace—Jesus saw a moral perfectionist, someone who thought he could be good enough for God. Which is why, right at the beginning of their encounter, Jesus points out, “No one is good, except God alone” (Mk 10:18). Knowing full well that this proud young man could never be perfect, Jesus put His finger on the fellow’s greatest weakness, in order to bring him to the end of his human resources and cast him onto the pure grace of God. 

My hunch is that this man’s search for grace would not have lasted long. Soon enough, his sadness would have turned to joy. For had he not looked into the eyes of Jesus? And there he would have seen, not a demanding taskmaster, but love: a love not based on performance, but the love that transcends all human weakness to set a person free. 

This is why Mark’s account of this story contains a shimmering detail not mentioned elsewhere. Just before Jesus lowers the boom on this man, Mark tells us, so beautifully, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (10:21). 

Finally, in my view of this story I have no wish to undermine the literal reading of Christ’s words, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mk 10:21)—a command that has been radically inspirational to many great saints, from Francis to Mother Teresa. However, the words of Charles de Foucauld are worth weighing: “If God allows some people to pile up riches instead of making themselves poor as Jesus did, it is so that they may use what He has entrusted to them as loyal servants, in accordance with the Master’s will, to do spiritual and temporal good.”  

Next Post:  I Like Youngsters: Revisiting Michel Quoist

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