The rich young man and us: thoughts on Mark 10.17-31


February 19, 2014 by jmar198013

Many of us are probably familiar with the character called the “Rich Young Ruler” from Sunday school lessons. We meet this privileged fellow in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, when he comes to Jesus seeking spiritual guidance.

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.” (Mark 10.17-31 CEB)


Many have been those who marvel along with the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” If one of the good guys is hell-bent, what does that say about the rest of us? Likewise, people commonly want to know if what Jesus said to this rich fellow–that he would need to sell everything he owned to care for the poor, then he would receive eternal life–applies to everyone, or only to this one person? Most of the time, the answer given seems crafted to comfort the comfortable. It is suggested that since Jesus is God, he was able to see directly into this man’s heart, and he found that the rich guy had a “heart issue” with materialism. So he told this guy to go sell what he had and give the proceeds to the poor, because that is the sort of corrective that this particular fellow needed to get his “heart” right. Then he would be able to trust God for his salvation, instead of trying to save his life by acquiring a lot of stuff against disaster. So, a command such as this wouldn’t apply to most of us–only perhaps those who have serious issues with greed or materialism. For the vast majority of us, the way to apply this story is by means of a general principle–we will need to “travel light,” to “wear the world like a loose garment,” etc.

The problem with this interpretation is that elsewhere, Jesus speaks of selling our possessions to provide for the needy as a practice for all disciples–not just the yuppies who would receive life coaching from Jesus CEO. For example, in Luke 12.22-34, we read:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

Notice here that this parallels (and clarifies) what we see in Matt. 6.19-34, as well. Jesus cannot have been clearer: God’s reign is to be manifested among the disciple community. One aspect of God giving us the kingdom is that we invest our share in this life into those in need. What we invest in the poor is not stolen, and does not waste away. When the community of disciples invests in the poor, our heart is in solidarity with God’s. His will is being done–as in heaven, so on earth.

In the Lucan passage, Jesus is using the call for disciples to divest themselves of their mammon by investing it with the needy to describe the life that will be possible when we desire [God’s] kingdom and trust that these things [the stuff necessary to sustain our lives] will be given to you as well. This is the sort of faith that will allow disciples to do just what Peter says they have all done in Mark 10.28, just after the exchange between Jesus and the rich man: “we’ve left everything and followed you.” Now, this is something you hardly see interpreters of the “rich dude had a heart issue and Jesus’ word was meant particularly for him” bent emphasize. What Jesus asks of the rich man is the very thing the other disciples have already doneNamely, to leave behind everything and follow Jesus. I mean, if your station in life is rich guy, leaving everything behind would involve divesting yourself of lucre. And if you need to get rid of all that loot, who better to get it than those who don’t have anything?

Ah–but we don’t like things to be that simple. And we will often resort to systematic theology to muddy the waters. Well, ministering to the poor is all well and good, but to make it a condition for eternal life–isn’t that like trying to buy your way into heaven? Isn’t that works-righteousness? And so we go on trying to jam camels into needle eyes, in the name of a systematic theology we basically equate with the word of God itself. Ah, but what about the Word of God himself?

We object that leaving everything behind to follow Jesus–which might very well involve giving away our wealth for the sake of others–is an unreasonable demand. I would suggest that in light of what Jesus says about about camels and needle eyes, we should rather admit that the unreasonable demand we make upon ourselves is that we expect to cling to our stuff, to our lives, so jealously, and not thereby injure our souls. I don’t even know that this is possible with God. If we cannot even sacrifice stuff, how can we ever be expected to make the sacrifices of the soul, spirit, and even body required to forgive and be forgiven; to repay evil with good; or to love our enemies and welcome strangers?

But I suspect that something even more problematic than materialism is at work in our failure to recognize the demands Jesus places on our lives in passages like Mark 10 and Luke 12. In the Western, and especially American, capitalist idiom, money and property are not ends of themselves. They purchase freedom and autonomy. The more of them we have, the less we must acknowledge that we depend on God and each other for our daily existence. I am afraid that when we balk at the idea that we might need to leave it all behind for Jesus, it is not simply because we are decadent. Rather, it is because we fear having the live the way Jesus describes in Mark 10.29ff:

“I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life.”

We fear, on some level, being responsible for and responsible to these new brothers, sisters, mothers, and children God gives to us (and gives us to) in the church. We fear the commitments that will be made on our lives when we live in houses that belong not only to us, but all these other strange kinfolk God chooses for us; as we must eat from farms that we cannot decide on our own what to grow in, nor harvest by our own devices. We shudder at the idea that eternal life might depend upon selling everything for the sake of the poor, because we know then we will have to acknowledge that we have always been beggars before God. We have always owed something to someone else. We do not desire to have our lives determined by families we have not chosen in houses we did not design on farmlands we do not own.

In short, I am afraid that the snare that will not allow us to leave everything behind like Peter and the others is not materialism, or even security, but this thing we Americans especially call freedom. We would rather have the freedom we can purchase than the freedom that allows us not to chase after what you will eat and what you will drink; but rather, to stop worrying [and] desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.


6 thoughts on “The rich young man and us: thoughts on Mark 10.17-31

  1. Xyhelm says:

    Great post!

    Just three days ago, I taught this passage in Mark 10 in the adult Bible class. I made some of the same applications that you have given here. Here are some passages I shared to show that Jesus’ teaching to the rich young ruler is also to us and to show that being rich has its many problems.

    John 12:25, Matt 6:20, Acts 4:32-37, 1Tim 6:9, Jam 1:9-11, 2:5-7, 1Tim 6:17-19, 2Cor 8:12-15. I believe this verse is the most powerful instruction to us when it comes to this subject: 1John 3:17.

  2. Jack Hairston says:

    I suspect that Christians do not sell everything and depend solely on God because they do not see their teachers doing so. The Apostles saw how Jesus lived, and followed his example. How about it, teachers?

    • jmar198013 says:

      Yes! You gonna join in? Because if I sold everything I owned, we might be able to get by on it for a month . . .

      • Jack Hairston says:

        Ummm, once you sell everything and give away the proceeds, there’s nothing to get by on. That’s when it gets scary–no place to lay your head, just like the Son of Man. (How to explain the new reality to the Missus?)

  3. jmar198013 says:

    I think that’s why Jesus envisioned a disciple community–the brothers and mothers and houses and farms and children and all that. If you leave everything behind, you become the poor. Then we all have to take care of each other like family. A lot of folks these days resent their biological family ties–how radical it would be in a world of no commitments for people to choose to be committed to each other voluntarily like this.

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