Do We Try To Flatter Jesus Like The Rich Young Man?

Do We Try To Flatter Jesus Like The Rich Young Man? August 23, 2020

Heinrich Hofmann: Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler / Wikimedia Commons

Paul told the Corinthians that they can and will be saved if they held fast to all that they had been taught about the Gospel. But, he emphasized how important it was to put the faith into practice. Their belief could be in vain if they were unwilling to accept and act on all that he had preached:

Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain (1 Cor. 15:1-2 RSV).

If the preaching of the Gospel is merely to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior and that is all one needs to do in order to be saved, how can there be any belief which would be in vain? Paul knew that belief in the Gospel meant believing in all that was taught by Jesus, and Jesus did not teach “Just believe in me, and you will be saved.” Rather, Jesus consistently told people they had to do something in order to be saved. If they believed him, they would do it, and their belief would not be in vain.

Thus, when a rich young man asked Jesus what he should do to be saved, Jesus did not say “just believe in me.” No. He told the rich young man to keep the commandments:

 And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:16-19 RSV).

The man claimed he did all of these, but then asked, what more should he do in order to achieve the perfection expected for beatitude:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions (Matt. 19:21-22 RSV).

Again, note what Jesus did not say: he did not say, “Believe in me, and will be well.” He knew the rich young man, as he knows everyone. He knew what the rich young man needed to be told. The man was self-assured. He said he had fulfilled the commandments, but did he? Was he telling the truth? Perhaps he believed, in some sense, he did, but what he said was not the truth, for if he had been following the commandments of the law, if he truly loved his neighbor as himself, he would not be so exceedingly rich. He would have already been using what he had for the sake of his neighbor. Instead, he wanted it to be said that he fulfilled the commands of God without any need of charity or justice. He hoped that he could get Jesus to agree with him, but Jesus would not. Jesus knew the man was trying to flatter him, but he would not be seduced by it. This is why Jesus would not accept being called good by him, because he knew the young man did not really mean it, he only wanted to charm Jesus with false praise. His love for himself over and against the needs of others was apparent, and so St. Jerome said, he lied:

The young man is lying. For if he had fulfilled in deed what is recorded among the commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why is it then when he later hears: “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor,” he went away sad, since he had “many possessions”?[1]

So many of us are like the rich young man. We go to church thinking we can flatter God. We think we can tell him that by doing so, by giving him praise in church, we show we believe in him, and God will be pleased. We think that is all we need to do to get God to likewise praise us. We might believe, but it is in vain, because we try to dictate to God how he should treat us and what he should expect from us instead of listening to him and doing what he expects from us.  So many of us think we can become wealthy in the world, receive the accolades of the world, appear to be righteous men and women of God, while ignoring what God himself has shown us as the Christian way of life. So many of us, when confronted with the full Gospel message, let our earthly cares, our earthly possessions, our ties to the world cut us off from love, preventing us from following Jesus. In the end, so many of us end up walking away sad because we did not find God approving our avaricious way of life.

St. Hilary tells us we must be careful; we should be concerned about how we use the various goods which we have been given. We can possess riches, but we must not become possessed by them. We must not seek to acquire wealth at the expense of the common good, but rather, we must recognize whatever wealth we receive should be used for the good of all, and not just ourselves. We are at risk of losing ourselves to our possessions if we seek after and desire wealth in and of itself instead of seeking the common good:

How are we supposed to share, and how are we supposed to hold things in common if we do not relinquish those material things to be shared and to be held in common? It is, therefore, a worse crime to possess things for their own sake than [merely] to possess things. But it is a dangerous matter to want riches when innocence is violated by the heavy burden of being occupied with accumulating wealth. On the contrary, serving God is not pursuing the things of the world without [also sharing] in the sins of this world. For this reason  it is difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven. [2]

Wanting riches, doing what we can to accumulate them at the expense of the lives of others, leads to our own undoing. For the more we accumulate such excess, the more we take from those in need, and so the more responsible we are for the suffering which comes from our avarice. The more we reject the common good, and what must be done in order to promote the common good, the more we find ourselves like the rich young man who went away from Jesus.  How, then, does our belief in Jesus serve us? We might say he is good, we might say he is God, but if we act like the rich young man, trying to use our words to put one over Jesus, to hide from him, and from ourselves, how little we follow his commands, how little we truly love and care for him, we will find our so-called belief will indeed be in vain. We only come to him seeking another good, grace, to take and make our own, instead of letting it come to us, transform us, and make us better. Jesus truly wants us to love our neighbor; it is through our love for our neighbor, we truly come to him and recognize him in that love; then, and only then, will our words to him about him be justified, for they will not be said in order to get something out of Jesus, but they will be said out of pure love,  a love which expects nothing in return.

[1] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington. DC: CUA Press, 2008), 219.

[2] St. Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. D.H. Williams (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2012), 206.


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