Surely the young man had a name. But we don’t know what it was. In fact, we know next to nothing about him, except that he was young, rich, and a person of some status. The people who saw him fall on his knees before Jesus probably knew who he was. We don’t–and from that anonymous distance we may feel safer in softly clucking our tongues at the guy who listened to Jesus but just didn’t get it, the poster child for clueless materialism.
One wonders, then, why Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21, NIV).
The man certainly couldn’t be faulted for his earnestness. His question about what he needed to do to have eternal life was neither an attempt to entrap Jesus nor to engage in some abstract intellectual debate. He was serious, possibly even desperate. I envision a man who today would be addicted to self-help books, talk TV, and motivational workshops, even hanging around after the workshop to ask The Big Question, hoping for The Answer.
Jesus, of course, didn’t give him the answer he expected. Keep the commandments? I’ve been doing that ever since I was a kid! Again, we might be tempted to judge him harshly for this response: who could have the outright audacity to make such a claim?
But note that the young man didn’t say, “That’s it? Keep the commandments? Sweet–looks like my place in the coming kingdom is assured!” He said, “What do I still lack?” (Matt 19:20)–which to my ears is a way of saying, “But Jesus, I’ve done all that, and something’s still missing. Please, please tell me what it is.”
This, I think, is why Jesus loved him: Jesus has compassion for the lost, for this sincere young man who is drowning but can’t figure out why. He therefore gave the man the answer he needed–but not the one he wanted. Already, the commandments Jesus had cited suggested that the man needed to retune his personal piety to matters of interpersonal justice. But the specific application–sell everything, empty out your investment portfolio, and give it to the poor–was too much to bear.
Not surprisingly, the disciples now show that they too are lost. When the young man walks away in bitter disappointment, Jesus turns to them and utters one of his most famous metaphors: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:24). Scholars have endlessly debated whether this was really what Jesus meant–a camel and a needle? Isn’t that a bit odd?
Well, yes–but surely the point is found less in the metaphor itself, and more in the disciples’ reaction: jaw-dropping, heart-stopping astonishment. Like the rich young man, the disciples were firmly embedded in a particular understanding of goodness and piety. We may look down on the rich man, but the disciples did not; his life was clear confirmation that God rewards the pious with good things. For Jesus to question that man’s place in the kingdom left the disciples sputtering, “But if someone like him isn’t a shoo-in for the kingdom, then what chance does anyone else have?”
When I read this, I’m left wondering if we shouldn’t be astonished, too–at least more than we usually are.
For a time, the headlines of the past year were clogged with reports of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its spread across the nation and globe. Taking aim at the super-rich, the populist slogan “We are the 99%” sent a clear message: Corporate Greed Is What’s Wrong With America and We’re Not Going to Take it Anymore.
There’s no question that our nation’s economy is floundering, nor that the income disparity between the highest and lowest wage-earners is a growing problem. Greed is real. So is economic injustice. But these things are not found only at the top; they’re shot through all strata of society. They’re not merely diseases of the corporate boardroom. All of us who, like the rich young ruler, have spent more of our time and energy laying up treasures on earth rather than treasure in heaven are implicated.
Spiritually, we are the 1 percent.
The upshot of Jesus’ message to his disciples was that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt 19:30). The question I have to ask myself is, “What are all the ways in which I want to be first, to be successful, to be at the head of the pack?” Neither poverty of spirit nor poverty of pocketbook are things I regularly seek. In fact, I resist them. I don’t mind being religious. Just don’t take away my power or social standing.
And don’t touch my stuff.
It’s a continual challenge to align my values, inclinations, thoughts and decisions with the kingdom that Jesus preaches: “but with God, all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). If it were not so, we would all be lost.