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The Rich Young Man
16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “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.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
The first half of Matthew’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the rich man was yesterday’s gospel reading, and the second half is today’s. But it seems to me that you need to read the whole thing together to get the point of what’s being said here, so we’re combining it in one day’s reflection. That will make this Reflection a little longer than usual, so thanks for your patience with that.
A wealthy young man approaches Jesus to ask about the way to eternal life. He asks about “what good thing” he needs to do, and Jesus points out that only God is good, apparently meaning that the way to eternal life is obeying the commandments God has handed down.
We might read those words with some puzzlement, because Christian theology teaches us that we can’t earn eternal life by being good enough to deserve it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted us to read the whole passage together, because in the second half of the story (in verse 26), Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
And just how impossible it is for us to live up to God’s standards is illustrated by the rest of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. When the man says he has kept the commandments all his life, Jesus calls him on it. One of the commandments the man claims to have kept is “Love you neighbor as yourself.” So Jesus tells the man to go and liquidate his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man’s reaction shows that he has not, in fact, kept that commandment, because he wants to keep his wealth rather than share it with his poor ‘neighbors.’
After the disappointed rich man goes off, Jesus turns to his disciples and speaks the famous line about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven.
In saying this, the scholars say, Jesus was using the same kind of Semitic humor as his comment about getting a speck out of someone else’s eye while you have a log in your own. Actually, scholars in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke point out that in that language, the word for ‘camel’ was also the word for ‘rope.’ So the image Jesus was expressing here might have been one of trying to get a rope through the eye of a needle, which seems to me to make more sense than the ‘camel’ translation.
But in either case, Jesus was using a ridiculous word picture to make a point: that great wealth is more often an impediment than a help in the life of faith.
It seems to me one part of this passage that’s usually overlooked – but shouldn’t be – is the disciples’ shock at what Jesus said. In the Hebrew way of seeing things, wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If a person was materially blessed, it was assumed that God regarded that person as especially virtuous. So when the disciples heard Jesus say it was impossible for the rich to enter the heavenly kingdom, they were stunned. Jesus had turned their whole understanding of the nature of salvation upside down.
There’s still a lot of thinking among people of faith that connects material blessing with spiritual health and righteousness. The whole “prosperity gospel” movement is based on promoting that connection. But there are some real problems with that kind of theology.
First of all, that outlook tends to promote a sense of entitlement on the part of people who think of themselves as “good Christians.” People who worship regularly, study the Bible, pray faithfully, etc., can convince themselves that since they’re doing all these things, they can expect to be materially blessed. They can even come to think that God owes them prosperity, so to speak.
And if they’re not materially prosperous, folks who embrace this sort of theology can come to resent God for failing to keep his part of the bargain they think they’ve made. Or conversely, that their poverty is punishment for some great sin they’ve failed to confess and repent of.
And if you regard righteousness and material blessing as going together, then it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that any person who’s poor in material things must be spiritually poor, as well – that their poverty must be some sort of punishment from God. And if you allow yourself to think that way, it’s a short step to concluding that you don’t have to help the needy, because their poverty is ‘their own fault.’
But we’re not guaranteed a prosperous life if we follow Jesus, and those of us who are materially blessed have no justification for judging ourselves as morally superior to the poor. In fact, many of the needy have a strength of faith that those of us who are comfortable could learn something from. The poorest segment of the American population is African-American, and statistically African-Americans pray, worship and study the Bible more than white Americans.
But our hope should not rest in the things of this world, anyway. Rather, our hope should rest in Jesus – in following him as faithfully as possible, and in trusting that in his kingdom, the need for material things will be a thing of the past and all we will need will be the eternal presence of our God.
Let’s pray. Lord, set us free from our attachment to the things of this world, and from the thought that our blessings are a sign of our spiritual superiority. Move us to express our love of neighbor, as well as our true discipleship, by sharing generously with your needy children. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134, Obadiah 15-21; and I Peter 2:1-10.)