The Rich Man
May God grant us the grace we need to hear His word and the faith we need to respond. Amen.
This passage is a troubling one. It was troubling for the disciples, for the wealthy ruler, and it is for us. It seems too radical, too abrupt, too … well, too immoderate to suit our tastes. But it’s easy to miss the truth when it is delivered in moderation. The truth, however, can be unmistakable when delivered unvarnished, undiluted. And that is the kind of powerful truth-telling Jesus is known for.
Luke places this event in the midst of a series of incidents and parables designed to indicate the character of discipleship
“A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ”
The word translated “ruler” is from a Greek word generally meaning, one who has administrative authority, ‘leader, official.’ ” It is used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin.
Luke tells us “he was very rich.” pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience. And so we have an earnest man, probably because of his wealth and earnestness about spiritual matters, a person entrusted with governance in the synagogue, a ruler, a respected person in the community.
Most of the wealthy, religious people who asked Jesus public questions were trying to trick him into some imprudent statement. But this man’s question was no trick. It was a sincere question to which he needed to know the answer — how to inherit eternal life.
The question tells us several things about the man
He must be feeling inadequate in his spiritual preparation somehow or he probably wouldn’t ask the question.
He sides with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees (another religious party in First Century Judaism) because the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. And this question clearly implies that he does. He believes that eternal life is something that one earns or merits by what he does.
He addresses Jesus as “good teacher,” a somewhat improper way to address a Rabbi, and Jesus rebukes him concerning his careless address:
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good — except God alone.’
The man can’t understand anything else Jesus will tell him unless he grasps that our relative standards of goodness are so much different than God’s absolute goodness and God’s standards of righteousness.
After pointing out his inadequate understanding of “goodness,” Jesus proceeds to inquire more of this man’s — and his culture’s — measure of righteousness.
The man’s response is immediate. He has kept all the commandments, but still senses a lack, an incompleteness, or else he wouldn’t have come to Jesus in the first place. Now Jesus speaks to the young man’s point of need:
Jesus said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
It is an ironic exchange that Jesus proposes — exchanging fabulous wealth here on earth for fabulous wealth in the Kingdom of God. Many in history have tried to buy their way into God’s good graces — many of the world’s beautiful cathedrals, temples, and mosques are inscribed with the names of generous benefactors. But Jesus is not proposing buying anything or doing anything glorious. He isn’t proposing a massive contribution to the Jesus Christ Evangelistic Association that will spread the Gospel in perpetuity.
Jesus proposes the man selling all his property and giving the proceeds to those who are least able to reciprocate
Money, however, isn’t the only thing that Jesus asks the man to give up:
- Possessions, what money will buy,
- Status and influence that wealth affords.
- Power. Wealth is power. It buys influence.
- Community leadership. The man isn’t very likely to continue as a respected ruler without his wealth.
- Family. The man probably comes from a wealthy family. But if he disposes of a huge chunk of the family wealth, will his siblings understand and accept it? Will his wife and family? His father or mother if they are still living?
But Jesus’ words don’t just upset the rich ruler. They also upset us. I have heard many times the response to this passage: “That doesn’t mean everyone should sell what they have, does it? If everyone did that it would result in chaos.”
Obviously. But why are we even worried with the question? Do we, too, feel possessive of what we have? Do we fear that Jesus may require us to do something that would cost us too much? What are we afraid of?
The story of the rich ruler exposes a raw nerve in us that causes a reaction. But disposing of wealth was not all that Jesus asked the man to do.
However, I don’t think that the following Jesus invites this man to do is just figurative. I think he is inviting the man to join him on his journeys, to become one of the disciples who enjoy the immense and unspeakable privilege of spending time with Jesus and learning from him on a day-by-day basis. What a wonderful invitation!
But the invitation implicit to us is no less wonderful. We, too, are invited to come to Jesus, and then to follow him on a spiritual life journey. To enjoy his company, his presence. To be taught along the way by his Word and Spirit. To become part of his great extended family, the Body of Christ throughout the world. And to be filled with hope in the closing days of our journey as we know his promises and feel his comfort with us.
“Come, follow me,” is the invitation Jesus extends to you and me.
But the challenge for disciples remains. Is there anything, any hindrance, that you are unwilling to give up to follow Jesus? You may not be wealthy, but if there is something you possess, or that possesses you, laying it down is a vital part of following Jesus. He must have your all. And he calls gently to you: “Come, follow me.”
Dear Father, Jesus’ words have a way of piercing our hearts and defences we have built up against you and doing things your way. Make us tender-hearted. Gently expose the reservations of our hearts, as you did for that wealthy man those many centuries ago. But give us grace to be able to obey you. Forgive us, Lord, for clinging to the remnants of a life independent of you, and make us wholly yours. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.