Another Rich Young Man Involved in a Hit and Run

Another Rich Young Man Involved in a Hit and Run August 18, 2014

Well, it wasn’t exactly his fault. I mean, he wasn’t even driving. He wasn’t even in a car. In fact, the nearest car was some 2,000 years away.

Yes, I’m referring to the rich young man that Christ addressed in Matthew 19:16-22, and it’s the story of today’s gospel message: Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. But one thing that I’m pretty certain about, after some reading, listening, guidance, and reflection, is that Christ is not calling each of us to a life of poverty. The stories of Job, David, Solomon, and Joseph of Arimathea easily put that notion to rest.

No, there’s another – and much harder – point. And it should be pretty obvious: it’s not riches that block us from receiving the fullness of God’s grace. It’s our hearts. It’s our reaction to His call. It’s our response to His grace: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

This may well have everything to do with our riches. But more than likely it doesn’t. Consider: we as Americans, no matter what our level of affluence, remain fully entrenched in the top 1% of the world. And many of us undertake good works with our riches. In turn, so does the Church throughout the world – which couldn’t do so if universal poverty were the goal.

No, it may be our failure to give of our time to those in need. Or it might be our luke-warm emotions in response to the over-flowing grace that fills our lives and families. Or it could be our self-affirming, self-centered prayers – or our non-existent ones. Well, something is blocking each of us from receiving all of God’s grace. What is it? Is it our personal riches after all?

With time, reflection, prayer, and patience, I’m just now beginning to grasp mine. But man, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me still.

So why “hit and run”? In all honesty, the truncated sermon I heard today was that Christ, in this passage, was asking us to “step up our game just a bit.” True, yes. I think that he is always asking us, leading us, compelling us to do just that. But I couldn’t help but walk away with the feeling that we missed the mark today. A timely message was lost in a service that felt all too rushed in just under 25 minutes. How I wish that we could have taken even five more minutes and drilled a bit deeper, reflected just a bit more.

An unfortunate “hit and run.”


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  • Jake

    But I’m struck by the similarity between the “Rich Young Man” passage and the Bread of Life Discourse. I don’t know that I disagree with you, and indeed Father Longenecker posted a similar interpretation of this passage here on Patheos a few months ago. But I do wonder about all the interpretations of this passage that take the sting right out of it, that soften a hard message.

    This passage just reminds me so much of the Bread of Life Discourse with
    the way that you have a hard message delivered, it boggles Jesus’ followers—and send followers away—but Jesus in response doesn’t back away from His message. In both passages, when His hearers are shocked
    by His message and go away in dismay, Jesus never says: “No, wait, wait, don’t go away, I’m just speaking in metaphor or symbolism or figures of speech or hyperbole, you’re just not taking my words in the right way.” Rather, in each passage, Jesus emphasis and repeats his point multiple times, making it more intense with each repetition.

    The Bible first tells us that Jesus looked at the rich young man, and “loved him,” and then in that love told him:: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
    and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mk 10, 21.
    In response, the rich young man “went away sad, for he had many
    possessions.” Jesus doesn’t stop him and say: “No! No! Don’t be sad, I’m just speaking in hyperbole or symbolically! You don’t really have to go and sell your possessions!”

    And the reaction of the rich young man doesn’t indicate that he took Jesus words to be metaphor or symbolism or hyperbole—it’s hard to imagine the rich young man going away sad if he understood Jesus to really mean something like: “Use your wealth wisely; you can keep it, just use it wisely,” or “examine your life carefully and see what is keeping you from being a better, more full follower of me.” That kind of a message wouldn’t seem to elicit at all the reaction that the rich young man in fact has. And the Bible specifically indicates that the rich young man was sad because he had many possessions.

    I’m curious what the rich young man did—the Bible also doesn’t tell us whether he followed through and sold all he had and then went and followed Jesus. What if it turns out that the rich young man was the Ananias who gave sight to St. Paul or one of the other early Christians mentioned in the Acts and letters whose full stories we never hear—I wonder if we actually do hear more about him later without knowing it, like the woman with the Alabaster Jar who may have been Mary Magdalen. Or it could be that the rich young man declined to follow Jesus. We don’t know. But the Bible does make clear that Jesus didn’t stop the rich young man when he left saddened, apparently to go and make his decision whether to sell and follow, or not.

    Rather, the rich young man is left with the decision the Lord has given him to make, and Jesus doesn’t stop him to tell him that he’s misunderstanding Jesus’ words. To the contrary, Jesus says: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” When Jesus disciples are amazed at these words, Jesus repeats it again! And then a fourth time, Jesus repeats the same message, this time delivering the famous line: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

    The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke are the same, except that in each of those accounts Jesus delivers the message three times, rather than four: but in each account, Jesus, out of love for the rich young man, tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor, in response the rich young man goes away sad, and Jesus never stops him, and Jesus never softens or backs away from his words or says anything else to indicate that he’s speaking in symbolism, metaphor, or hyperbole—rather, in response to the rich young man’s sadness, Jesus repeats and emphasizes, in even stronger terms, his message. Just like
    in the Bread of Life Discourse., a passage that I’ve heard taught as one to
    take literally, with the repetition and increased emphasis as arguments in
    favor of taking it literally.

    As I say, though, I just don’t know. I checked Catena Aurea. Some of the comments compiled there take the passage literally as an admonition to sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Others see various distinctions between “controlling” wealth and “being controlled by” wealth, and still others see other lessons in these passages. Obviously it’s a very profound
    section of Scripture and has engendered many different readings by some of the
    Church’s greatest exegetes down the ages! As you write, it’s not a passage that can be understood quickly and easily, probably because it is so hard and counter-to-the-world in its message! That’s why I’d love any additional thoughts that could shed more light on this passage.

  • Jake

    I e-mailed Father Longenecker this same question I posted below, and he
    noted that some people are called to give away everything and live in apostolic
    simplicity, and they remind us that we are to have the same spirit of
    detachment and generosity even though we do not give all away literally. Thanks Father!

  • Tom Zampino

    Thank you for sharing your very thoughtful response. And thanks for coming over to my blog!

  • niknac

    We must do two things. We must do all that Christ calls us to do and until we are living exactly in Christ’s image, we must refrain from exhorting others to do the same.