The Rich Man
As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
This week’s passage on “the rich man who walks away” has been troublesome for Christians since its earliest tellings.
- Can the rich not be saved?
- Does Jesus disassociate himself from God?
- What’s all that business about camels and needles?
There is so much that is confusing here. I would argue that it’s only as difficult as we make it out to be.
The first thing to note is that the rich man who questioned Jesus in the passage was sincere and beloved by Jesus. The man ran up and fell on his knees before Jesus and has zealously kept the law since his youth. He wasn’t trying to trap Jesus, as was the case last week with the Pharisees. Rather, he recognized Jesus as someone who knew the way to eternal life and was simply trying to be certain of his own life in the world to come.
Yet Jesus bristled at his greeting. Why? “Good teacher” was a kind, acceptable greeting in Greek. But in Hebrew or Aramaic, it gives too much glory to the human who is being greeted and is unheard of outside of this usage. God’s name is “the Good.” Elsewhere, when receiving good news, people are to “bless The Good who does good”.” God is the only one to be called good, and Jesus, though in the very nature of God, didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped/stolen.
Manner of address aside, the rich man asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus lists the social commandments (with an addition of Deuteronomy 24:14-15—“do not defraud [workers],” which would have been especially applicable to rich employers).
We should pay attention to the commandments that Jesus lists here. Obviously, the man reverenced Jesus and was eager to be with God in the world to come. But he was also clearly rich because of his garments. Jesus lists the laws about abusing one’s neighbor. It’s relatively easy, when freed from the pressure of daily toil with others, to forget the needs of others and our responsibility to be our siblings’ keepers. Jesus recites these laws for the man to make sure that he hasn’t been abusing those less fortunate than him. The rich man assures Jesus that he has fulfilled his requirements to his family and neighbor since his youth.
Jesus loves this man who doesn’t use his wealth and power to harm other people. But Jesus says he does lack one thing: he must sell all he has and give it to the poor to have treasure in heaven. Note what Jesus doesn’t say here: the man didn’t have to give away everything to enter eternal life (as in his original question). This is not a question of how much he had to give away to secure salvation for eternal life. That’s not how eternal life works! Humans can’t gain eternal life through their works—that’s God’s job. The rich have the same and only hope as anyone else—God’s salvific work on their behalf!
What the rich man risks missing out on is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not the same thing as eternal life in heaven. Please don’t get those two concepts confused! The kingdom of God is the expansion of God’s rule here on earth in this life. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying for the kingdom of heaven to advance in this time and in this place. That isn’t some eschatological hope of the future, but the work of the body of Christ to be done now in our lives. It is the participation in the present work of the kingdom of God that is difficult for rich people to participate in. We know it isn’t impossible though. Jesus had rich supporters who helped advance his ministry and the kingdom of God.
Today, one doesn’t have to look far for stories of rich people giving to charity and doing holy work. But we can’t forget that there are two means by which Jesus evaluated the rich man.
- The first is not injuring other people in the making or maintaining of wealth. If a CEO makes billions of dollars and donates much of that to charity but pays starvation wages, so that people can’t afford housing or medicine, they have defrauded their workers and not kept the commandments.
- The second means for evaluating the behavior of the rich is to ask if they are self-sacrificially generous with their wealth. If a person pays living wages and doesn’t mistreat others but isn’t generous with their wealth, they aren’t fully participating in the kingdom of heaven, even though they didn’t violate the commandments.
The rich man from the passage goes away sad. I think this is because he was genuinely hoping that Jesus would give him a passing score and congratulate him on his sincere effort instead of telling him he had failed to live in a most holy way. The text doesn’t say, but maybe the man went home and sold all he had and continued to devote himself to living righteously or maybe he didn’t. We just know he went away.
After the man leaves, Jesus talks about how difficult it is for the rich to participate in the kingdom of heaven, going so far as to say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some teachings try to explain away the severity of Jesus’ pronouncement by arguing that there was a small pedestrian door in city gates. A camel laden with goods was too big to pass through this door, but a camel that was stripped of goods and lowered its head could squeeze through. It’s easy to see why this is a popular teaching. A little humility and you’re in, no problem.
The problem is that we don’t have any evidence for this understanding for at least a thousand years after Jesus’ resurrection, nor calling the pedestrian gate the “eye of a needle” nor even a pedestrian door in a larger gate until centuries later.
In Jesus’ day, the eye of a needle was about the same size as today. Fitting a camel through that eye isn’t just a matter of a little humility and shedding of possessions. It’s impossible. And it needs to be impossible for Jesus’ point to have the power that it would have for the original hearers.
This tricky passage becomes much clearer when we notice that eternal life and the kingdom of heaven (the kingdom of God) are two different concepts. There are no special rules for the rich or the poor in entering eternal life. God can make that happen—for humans it is impossible, but not for God. Participation in the spread of God’s kingdom here on earth is a different matter. It’s easy for the poor to want an anti-empire where God’s justice overturns the might-[and wealth]-make-right order that we observe. For the wealthy, things are already good and desiring to shed our wealth-power so that God can be in charge isn’t as attractive.
Hear the good news! Even when Jesus described how difficult it is for people to make that switch in orientation from building up wealth here to building up God’s kingdom, he points to how eager God is to reward the smallest movement toward the kingdom of heaven.
I spoke of the LWR truck earlier during the Ministry Moment, but another thing I like about the truck is the physical action of loading and interacting with people as they drop the items off.
We do a lot of fundraising at GSLC for a lot of good things and ministries that are present around us, but there is something about the physical activity that had some meaning for me personally. I was hobbling around last weekend and in some pain, but it was ok because it was to make a positive difference in our world. I wasn’t sore from playing a sport, or doing yardwork…I was sore to benefit others in this world in need. That meant something different.
I realize we all can’t lug boxes in trucks and stack them over our heads. But I’m glad I can while I’m able to because there will come a day when I won’t. But right now in this moment of my life I am able and hopefully I will continue to be willing.
Serving beside our young people is a honor. It is a way for my actions to back up that faith I claim to have and want every week. To see our young people with a servant heart is a legacy that I can get behind, and I hope to be a part of for a long time to come.
Giving is giving. Whether it’s our time, our talent, or our treasure it’s not just that we give…it’s the WHY? That is part of this story I pulled from our passage this week. And that is the importance to glorify God by my actions as well as with my words. Givers aren’t better than servers, servers aren’t better than prayers, prayers aren’t better than others. The key is that we all do what we can to keep us close to God. We know, individually, what those ways of helping others so let’s keep doing those things; and not because we think it will get us something but because we already have something through Jesus we can give glory to God freely.