Today’s story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the most familiar in the gospels. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew and Luke. It is familiarity with all three of these that causes us to call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Though he is rich, or at least identified as “having many possessions” in all three gospels, it is Matthew who tells us he is young and Luke who calls him a ruler. But no matter what we call him, the subject of the story is the same: wealth and its role, not just in the life of this man, but in our own.
Wealth bought privilege in the time of Christ, and it does today. In Jesus’ world, it could be seen as a reward for faithfully following God’s commands. Do you remember Job? When he lost his children, his flocks and herds, all that he had, his supposed friends, who came to commiserate with him, kept asking what sin he had committed to cause God to take away all these things. They assumed Job’s wealth, both familial and financial, were signs of God’s favor. Up to the point of the loss of this wealth, everyone had seen Job as a righteous man, one who had, therefore, received these signs of blessing. The loss of his wealth, therefore, must be outward and visible signs of the loss of that divine favor. As a rich man, he was one of God’s favorites. As one who had lost his wealth, Job had done something to offend God.
Now look again at our Rich Young Ruler. As a wealthy person who kept all the commandments, he must have enjoyed approval, privileges, the envy of his community and regard as one who did indeed enjoy God’s favor. We might expect that he was a favorite of the temple hierarchy, an honored guest among his friends, and probably seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His wealth most likely placed him in the among the first of his community, most decidedly not the last.
To give away all his possessions was to risk losing all of this. His friends might look upon him as Job’s friends looked upon Job. What had he done that he must give everything away and atone by giving it all to the poor? Would selling all that he had include selling his home, not to mention all the possessions that furnished it? And how would he buy food? How would he live? Is it any wonder that he walks away in sorrow?
Our Rich Young Ruler is not the only one distressed. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples when Jesus tells them it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. It is a powerful metaphor. People have struggled with it for centuries. Since Medieval times, some have believed that “the eye of the needle” referred to a very short gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. The word used in the Greek text refers to an actual sewing needle. In any case, Jesus is talking about trying to push something much too large through an opening much too small. The only way to enter that small door is to get rid of all the excess.
Mansions, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God.
Possessions are a primary temptation that comes with wealth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. “I want it. I have the money; I’ll buy it.” As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. Throughout his ministry it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus hopes our want will be to satisfy the needs of others. In the third parable in Matthew 25, the sorting parable, Jesus makes it clear that those who have been attentive to the needs of those around them, those who have offered food for the hungry, something to drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and those in prison, these are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. To care for these ones in need is to care for Jesus himself. Those who are not willing to use their own possessions to meet the needs of others can expect eternal fire.
Considering how harshly Jesus talks about the rich, it is reasonable to ask how Jesus feels about them. The young teenager was not alone when he asked the leader of the Bible study, “Does this mean that Jesus hates rich people?” Thankfully, Mark provides a clear answer when he tells us in verse 21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then goes on to instruct the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come and follow him. Jesus’ reply is deeply rooted not in envy, distrust or any desire to put down one whose position of privilege came from worldly wealth. It comes from the kind of love that would yearn for this man to know his true worth without the possessions, the ways in which God’s love wants to provide for him in ways he can never provide for himself, to know the confidence that he is indeed one of God’s beloved and to live in that light.
As we watch the young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?
Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.
“You can’t take it with you,” is a common bit of folk wisdom. It usually means that when we die, we have to leave all of our possessions behind, so we might as well enjoy them now. What Jesus seems to be saying to us is that not only can we not take possessions with us beyond the grave, but clinging to them, like the monkey to its nuts, holds us captive. There will be places we cannot go, experiences we cannot have, and insights that will never illuminate our lives if we let our possessions possess us.
This does not mean that prosperity should not be seen as coming from God. It can be seen – just as we see wisdom, talent, opportunity and a host of other things – as a gift from God. Too often, however, we fail to recognize that every Godly gift carries with it God’s hope for how it might be used. Joy for us is when we align our use of the gifts God gives with what we discern to be God’s hope. Our Rich Young Ruler is a monkey who cannot let go, free himself of the bottle, and enter into an earthly adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.
In reflection on today’s reading, three questions come to mind:
What are the gifts God has given us?
What is God’s hope for their use?
Are we able to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus?