You know the time that Jesus encounters the rich young man - or the rich young ruler, depending on the translation? And remember how this intense young man seeks Jesus out and asks him what he needs to do to make sure that he’s on the right path? It’s a neat encounter. The way I see it, this guy is honestly searching for moral truth. He really wants to know how he can be righteous. And I believe him when he says that he’s kept the commandments. I used to think that he was being naïve in that he didn’t really know what he was claiming, but I’m starting to think that maybe, he really DID keep them. After all, they were pretty clear and if you were just going by the letter of the law, maybe it wasn’t actually impossible to keep them. So if we think for now that he is telling the truth – that he HAS kept the commandments – the fact that here he is, asking Jesus what more he needs to do implies that he intuitively knows that keeping the commandments is NOT enough. And, possibly – he wasn’t alone. I bet there were lots of pretty righteous Jews who had grown up in families which took the instructions in Deuteronomy 11:19-20 to heart. Families where the rules were taught, modeled, reinforced – where compliance was rewarded and where kids grew up knowing “right” from “wrong”. So here this guy is – a product of his culture and family – I think he would be a young man with a stellar reputation and perhaps his wealth or his social power would be interpreted as the evidence of a life God blesses. But it’s not enough, and he knows it.
So then Jesus unpacks the commandments and sums them up with one thing that this earnest young man lacks. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and come along with Jesus for the ride. Honestly, I’m surprised by the outcome. Bottom line is this: the rich young man turns down the offer – he goes away SAD because HE IS A MAN OF GREAT WEALTH. Ironic, eh? The very thing which could be seen as the indication of blessing for obedience – the wealth, the social power – Jesus says, just give those things up and come hang out with me. But he can’t do it. In fact, it doesn’t even seem that he gives the idea much thought. He chooses to go back to what he knows – what seems safe and secure and comfortable. He goes back to affluence. He goes back to a way of being that he knows is NOT fulfilling. A way of living which he knows is missing something. An empty righteousness.
I’ve thought about this encounter and I’ve even spoken about it some. I’ve never been satisfied that my interpretation of it has been accurate. I usually qualify the clear instruction of Jesus to this young man by saying something to the effect that it doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus expects US to actually sell all that we have and give to the poor. I say it’s more about whether or not we would be willing to… whether or not we have made our money and our influence an IDOL, which gets in the way of our relationship with God or with other people. I join the majority view which rationalizes and justifies our affluence and lets us off the hook. I say that of course Jesus doesn’t REALLY think we should sell everything. Surely Jesus knows that if we give ALL that we have to the poor, it’s not really going to make any difference. The poor will always be among us. We can’t help them all. Jesus says so himself.
But what if he really DOES mean it? What if it’s not really about the poor and what our small contributions – even if we give it ALL - can do to make their lives better? Here’s the thing: what if the act of getting rid of our riches is not about what it can do for the poor at all but all about freeing US from the temptation to trust in our wealth, our wisdom and our strength? And in case you don’t recognize that reference, it’s Jeremiah 9:23-24 – the prophet clearly tells us NOT to boast in these things but rather, if we’re going to boast we should boast that we KNOW and UNDERSTAND God, who is a God of justice. So what if our perfectly normal and natural participation in the social and economic structures of our society IS the problem? I know. This sounds WAY too radical. This is the sort of thing you might expect from an overly idealistic teenager. From someone who hasn’t yet figured out that you can actually do more good by going along with the world the way is. You know – get an education, get a good job, make lots of money and then you can enjoy a very comfortable life for yourself and still have some alms to give to the poor. You might even sacrifice some hard earned vacation time to go on a mission trip so that you can see first hand how desperately the poor need your help. I know. I don’t like where this is headed either. But I just can’t shake the thought that maybe Jesus really meant what he said. And as I think about it – holding this thought up to the light – it’s actually totally consistent with lots of other things that he said about justice and faith and warnings about money.
Final comment: even if we can convince ourselves that the idea of giving our material wealth away so that we can follow Jesus is ONLY for those who are too attached to their wealth, do we dare to ask God to clearly show us if that means US? Surely not I Lord…?