Poor rich young ruler. He just didn’t get it. He thought he had it made in this world. He was rich, he kept the commandments of God from his youth, and he even understood that Jesus was a good teacher. What else could God possibly want from him?
What Jesus wanted was the one thing that He told Martha was needful: to truly worship and adore Him. Jesus doesn’t express it this way but instead demonstrates it to the rich young ruler and His audience by being much more specific. “One thing you lack, rich young ruler. Sell your riches and give them to the poor.”
Too often we read books, listen to music, and watch movies, passively accepting the premise of the storyteller even when the story is a lie or the storyteller malicious. To a large degree, the stories we tell are our lives, and for this reason it’s important that we carefully select which stories we read. For this reason we shouldn’t passively accept the premises of Hollywood and the networks.
But we often read the Bible this way too, I think. It would be easy to uncritically accept the rich young ruler’s claims to have kept the commandments from the time he was young. Technically, maybe he had kept himself from adultery, murder, theft, and bearing false witness and had honored his parents. Of course, maybe he lusted or was angry (which Jesus says are violations of the commandments) or stole from God in his tithes.
But there’s an even larger problem: there’s something missing. Jesus didn’t recite all of the commandments. In fact, He purposefully left out the most important one: to love God with all of his heart, soul, and mind. What the rich young ruler didn’t realize and what we don’t realize is that the commandments are all connected to this greatest commandment and are expressions of it. Just as every other sin is a manifestation of pride, of asserting self over God, every keeping of the commandment is love for God.
Being a good teacher, Jesus tests His students (I just love his practical exams!) Jesus could have simply listed the 1st Commandment with the others, and the rich young ruler may have justified himself, saying, “Yes, I have loved God.” But Jesus knows better than to deal with the generalities that men like to hide behind and instead goes for the jugular.
He’s almost like a divine Lieutenant Columbo who appears to have let the suspect off the hook. And then, just as the suspect thinks he’s gotten away, Jesus turns and says. “Oh, just one more thing, man . . . .”
Jesus says, in effect, “I’m glad you’ve obeyed Me in all of these other ways, but let me give you a true measure of your love for Me. There is one thing I want you to do that will demonstrate your true love for Me. Will you sell your riches for me and give them to the poor?”
We know the rest of the story. The rich young ruler was sent empty away (in the words of the Magnificat), unfulfilled by the greatest riches in the world, because he had great earthly riches and was not willing to exchange them for treasure in heaven. Sports fans still lament the fact that the Red Sox exchanged Babe Ruth too cheaply, thus incurring some sort of cosmic curse (which has now been lifted).
But we, with the rich young ruler, make a far worse trade. We trade heaven for earth and heaven for hell, and we trade God (who is our treasure) for ourselves. We exchange the things we want for the One Thing we need – and we think we’ve come out ahead.
The truth is that we are all the rich young ruler. It’s easy to compare ourselves to someone richer and say “I’m not rich,” but the odds are that if you’re living in the U.S. in the 21st century that you’re rich by any fair historical or global comparison. Even the poor among us financially are rich in other ways: in health, in mind, in time, in opportunities.
And every one of us is like the rich young ruler in clinging to our one thing that keeps us from God. For the rich young ruler, it was obvious that his riches were his stumbling block on the road to Christ and glory.
But what is it for you? There is undoubtedly at least one thing in your life that is standing between you and Jesus. What is it? What is it that keeps you from running out to meet Jesus every morning and evening? What is it that keeps you from church?
Oh, you can make all sorts of excuses. But don’t bother making them to me or other sympathizers. Imagine that you are the rich young ruler, standing before Jesus with your poor excuses, and then imagine how well they’ll stand up before Him.
Whatever that one thing is that is keeping you from Jesus is your Cross. Only Mark records the other words that Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler. After Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, He added: “Come, take up your cross and follow Me” (verse 21).
Jesus is saying to you: “To love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, you must take up your Cross. You must give up that one thing that you still cling to as your security blanket. That one thing is your cross, and it is my Cross in your life. Will you sell your riches for me and give them to the poor? This is what I did for you, and it’s what I require of you if you truly want to follow Me.”
So what is it that one thing that God is asking you to give up? What is the one thing you lack in utterly following Jesus Christ? For each of you it will be something different. But for each of you, like the rich young ruler, it will be your Cross upon which you either deserve death for choosing self over God or by which you are united to Christ and His Cross, and therefore choose life.
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, let the mind that was in You also be in me, that I might make myself of no reputation before You and take the form of Your servant. Help me to humble myself and become obedient to the point of death, even the death of myself, even the death of the Cross. Help me today to exchange the poverty of my riches for Your inheritance in glory. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Think through your typical day and how you devote yourself to the Lord. What kinds of things happen during the day to distract you from Him? What choices do you make to cling to something in this life instead of Him? What things are at the heart of your not fully giving yourself to Him?
Resolution: I resolve to meditate until the Lord has shown me the one thing that I lack in following Him. When He has spoken, I resolve to practice giving up that one thing today and to express this giving up in a practical and tangible way.
© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson