The Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30)
Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
The issue of money, earlier discussed in Matthew 6, raises its head again with the story of the rich young man who was drawn to Jesus. The young man asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he responds that he has done that from his youth. A distinctive element in Matthew’s narrative is that the young man then asks Jesus, “What do I still lack?” He shows great insight in asking this question. We can do everything that appears right but still know that something is not right on the inside. Jesus responds, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
We know from the four Gospels that Jesus did not call all of his hearers to give away all their possessions. Not all people are as burdened by their possessions as this young man was. In his case, the challenge was radical because of his strong attachment to wealth (Matt. 19:22). God knows precisely what is in our hearts and what is needed as we serve him.
Is our treasure in our work, our jobs, our performance and skills, our retirement funds? These are good things (gifts from God) in their place. But they are secondary to seeking first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) and a right (righteous) relationship with God and with others. We hold our wealth and our work on an open palm lest, like the rich young man, we end up turning away sorrowfully from God. (This story is discussed in greater depth in the entries for Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30 at www.theologyofwork.org.)
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The Story of the Rich Young Man: Is There Hope For Us?
Alita Maria Covel Ngo, OCDS • January 15, AD2018
In Mark 10: 17 – 27, a disappointed rich young man walked away from Jesus when He told him what was needed to become perfect. Strangely enough, I have always been attracted by this passage. My focus, however, is not the obvious message. Instead, I look at what may be the more powerful underlying message of Jesus which sheds a different light on the fate of the rich man and reveals hope to the rest of us.
The Rich Young Man Walks Sadly Away
Often I have heard speakers set aside the essential message of the story. They emphasize the surface meaning that those who possess much materially will find it harder to be poor in spirit. The rich have difficulty relying solely on God, unlike the poor. Jesus states it clearly enough: “Children, with what difficulty will they who trust in riches enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10: 24) So what does the rich man do when Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and come and follow Him? He walks sadly away. Here is where the young man is generally assumed to have utterly given up on his ideal of reaching heaven. But, let’s look deeper into Mark’s Gospel passage.
Things to Notice About the Rich Young Man
We first catch sight of the rich man as he was “running up” to Jesus and “fell upon his knees before him.” These are actions of a man filled not only with the determined desire for something but also a man who has great respect for Jesus. He is quite different from the Sadducees and Pharisees who hound Jesus only to trip Him up. The young man is honest and worthy, only asking a question to find out how he can gain eternal life. This the question which has occupied the minds of all true Christians throughout the ages.
Notice how the rich man addresses Jesus: “Good Master…” Then, almost as if to set the young man straight, even curb his enthusiasm, Jesus answers, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but only God.” Jesus goes on to quote the commandments, which the man assures Jesus he has kept all his life. Jesus, who sees into the heart and already knows the virtue of the young man before Him, “looked at him with love.” Could it be that because of the uncommonly just life the man has led up to this point, he has attained the insight, by grace, to see Jesus as the “Good Master,”? Does he recognize Jesus, without even realizing it, as his own Lord and God? However the young man has gained this insight, Jesus artfully points out the truth of his discovery and by what authority He speaks to him before He answers the question.
The Blow Delivered
Finally, Jesus delivers the hard blow to the rich young man. “You lack one thing; go, sell whatever you have, give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven.” Imagine Jesus saying to any of us, “You lack one thing.” That would mean, you’ve done everything necessary in order to possess great riches in heaven, except one thing. What a compliment! He is pleased with your life thus far. Then, not only does He tell you the secret to eternal happiness, but He handpicks you to be one of His followers, by adding, “come, follow me.” Can we truly fault the rich young man for hanging his head and walking away at the unsteadying blow of that moment?
For this young man, Jesus had only recently arrived on the scene. Jesus was nourishing the crowds with words of wisdom, hope and an unconditional love that struck to the core of every open heart, including the rich man. From his reaction, giving up his many possessions had apparently never crossed his mind. He was certainly not expecting this to be the answer to his pressing question. To say “yes” to such a notion would mean to toss away, in an instant, everything that had made him feel secure through the years, and become totally reliant on the Good Master.
We, on the other hand, have the benefit of knowing Jesus more fully. Catholics have the rich context of the Bible, Church Teaching guided by the Holy Spirit, and 20 centuries of Holy Tradition. In addition, we have the powerful examples of the saints from every walk of life. Through their lives they denied themselves without reserve to follow Christ, reaching the heights of abandonment and the peace of selfless love. We have all this to solidly confirm the validity of every word Jesus spoke. In all honesty, even those of us who aren’t “rich” were asked to give up all our possessions in exchange for greater riches in heaven, we would at least give pause. Perhaps we would even retire sadly to ponder our prospects.
Is There Hope for the Rich?
When the rich man retreats, the disciples of Jesus seem to be unsurprised, perhaps even sympathetic at the young man’s departure. Yet Jesus not only reiterates Himself but punctuates His statement with a vivid analogy. He informs His disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” To this statement, the disciples do indeed respond with great surprise, saying, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ astonishing answer is at the same time utterly consoling. “With men, it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Given the virtuous status of the just young rich man when he arrives at the feet of Jesus, the way Jesus sees into his heart and looks at him with love, the instant recommendation from Christ that he leave everything and follow Him, I don’t think we can conclude that the young man never accepted Jesus’s offer. In fact, I think quite the opposite would be more likely. Jesus was ever ready to teach His disciples new lessons on what it meant to be His follower, He knew what words would most effectively benefit the young man for his salvation, as well as the words which would help His disciples understand His mercy and love for them.
The rich young man had everything going for him. Not because he was wealthy but because of the virtue he had acquired through following the commandments of God faithfully all his life. Jesus already knew him through and through. He must have known, too, that he would not be able to embrace His challenge immediately like Matthew, the tax collector. But that was okay. It gave Jesus the opportunity to reach out to those around Him and through time to all of us. Jesus revealed what the power of His grace and mercy is like. If the heart is open to grace, God’s mercy can accomplish in us what would otherwise be impossible for us to accomplish on our own.
A Lesson For Us
Jesus gives the rich young man no less a chance for salvation than the rest of humanity when He says that “for men, [attaining salvation] is impossible, but not with God.” Our God is not one to turn His back on those who strive to be faithful. Indeed, it seems to me that He is most eager to help those with His grace who have fallen out of weakness. They can say with St. Paul, ” For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 10) Did the rich young man return to take up Jesus’ challenge? I like to believe he did. It gives me hope in the unfathomable mercy of an ever faithful Father, who never tires of drawing us to Himself in persistent love.
Just like with the rich man who went away sad, discouragement will get the best of everybody. This will many times during our lives when challenges in life seem too daunting. The important thing is to bounce back in faith, to continue to practice virtue to the best of our abilities. Thereby we remain open to the workings of grace in our souls. In the end, our eyes are cast on the inestimable treasure we were able to store up in heaven, not just for ourselves, but for many others as well.
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Filed in: Scripture • Tags: faith, Mercy, reflections on scripture, rich, Sacred Scripture, self examination, spiritual growth, wealth