The Rich Young Ruler

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In the Bible’s four biographies of Jesus – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – exactly one person declines his invitation to “follow me.”

What could possibly be so powerful or insidious that it would compel someone to walk away from the chance of a lifetime?

That would be money. 

We should pay close attention. 

The Gospels describe this man in three different ways.  In Mark he is “rich.”  In Matthew he is “young.”  In Luke he is a “ruler.”  Thus he’s become known as the Rich Young Ruler.  In Matthew 19 he approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  “Keep the commandments,” Jesus replies.  “Which ones?” the man counters.  After Jesus recites a number of the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament’s call to love one’s neighbor as oneself, the man replies, “Check, check, check.  I’ve got those covered” – apparently thinking this interview is going splendidly. 

Then Jesus, identifying the fact that this man’s possessions mean more to him than anything else, drops the hammer: 

“’If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.’  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is almost impossible for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’” (19:21-24).

This is a jarring text. 

To say that Jesus’ followers over the centuries have tried to wriggle off this hook in creative ways is putting it mildly. 

We comfort ourselves with the assurance that we’re not the rich people he’s talking about.  In 2015, for instance, 80 individuals owned as much wealth as half the world’s population.  In 2016, that number went down to 61.  In 2017, it was 42.  In 2018, it was just 26.  Billionaires have generally done quite well during the pandemic.  Since the spring of last year, the number of American billionaires has grown from 614 to 664, and their overall wealth has increased by $1.3 trillion. 

Now, those are the people Jesus must be talking about.  Those folks had better get their acts together. 

But as Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on Matthew, the man who walks away from Jesus doesn’t just have a lot of money.  Money has him.  The underlying Greek in the text literally reads, “For the young man was having many things.”  He has an ongoing preoccupation with stuff

If anything is true about life in the United States, it’s that the vast majority of us are impacted by the worry, image-consciousness, and pride that inevitably go with “having many things.”  If you’re affluent enough to own a computer and an email account to read this reflection, you’re in Jesus’ target audience.

Yes, but money is a vital necessity, isn’t it?  We need money to support our families.  We need financial resources to help the poor.  The Good Samaritan needs wine, oil, and a donkey or he won’t be able to help that guy who gets mugged in Jesus’ parable.

All true.  Money is a crucial thing.  But it is also an exceedingly dangerous thing – for the simple reason that it threatens to displace God as the source of our security.   

Money makes promises it can never keep:  I will take care of you.  I will make you happy.  I will protect you from disappointment.  I will free you from worry.  If you get just a little bit more of me, I promise I will never nag you again.  Right. 

This is idolatry of the first order. 

Countless teachers and preachers have assured their listeners that while Jesus makes a radical “ask” of the rich young ruler, that doesn’t mean he’s asking the same thing of us.

Granted.  But whatever Jesus is asking of each of us, it will almost certainly turn our lives upside-down.  Jesus challenges every generation to do something with their resources that reflects authentic discipleship.  Every disciple – from the billionaire to the middle class to the poor – must experience economic transformation. 

We often hear words like this during stewardship and fundraising campaigns.  We’re pretty sure we know what to do:  Write a check.  Make a pledge.  Help a worthy cause.  That’s the need of the hour, right?

Responding with generosity is a wonderful thing.  But it is not the essential thing.  Above all else, getting money and “having many things” must be called out as the ultimate rival to God’s rule in our lives, and then dethroned. 

“Money is life’s scorekeeper,” says one of America’s billionaires, who just happens to be a recently departed resident of the White House.  But Jesus counters by saying, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). 

If Jesus is not our treasure, then he doesn’t have our hearts.  It’s just that simple.  And just that unsettling. 

What about the camel and the eye of the needle?  I admit that early in my ministry I embraced the view that this referred to an unusually low gate in Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye that forced camels to get down on their knees – something they took little pleasure in doing.  According to this perspective, well-off people need to humble themselves and be generous and all shall be well.

But there is no gate in Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye, and there never has been.  The illustration was apparently invented by a creative preacher during the Middle Ages. 

Dale Bruner insists there are no word tricks here.  A camel is a camel.  It was, and still is, the largest animal in the Middle East.  And the eye of a needle is an exceedingly small opening.   What Jesus is saying is that it’s as hard for an affluent, possessions-preoccupied person to enter God’s kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle – unless, that is, there is a miraculous change in the dimensions of the camel or the dimensions of the needle. 

And that is where our hope lies.

Everything seems impossible in this story until Jesus says to the young man, “And come, follow me.” 

Discipleship is not a punishment.  Instead, says Bruner, “It is a deliverance” – a rescue from a mindset that can easily kill our life with God. 

The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous is where we all must start:  “I came to believe that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”  When we acknowledge that we are powerless to stand against our culture’s obsession with getting money and having stuff, we’re finally able to submit our hearts to a grace-giving Savior who can begin to change them.

The rich young ruler, unwilling to take that step, walked away from Jesus.

His story didn’t have to end that way.

Our stories don’t have to end that way, either.