I love the challenge that the story of Jesus and the rich young man presents, especially in our current context. The story hits on themes that are familiar to us, both as Lutherans and as Americans.
For Lutherans, we see a familiar paradigm. The rich young man becomes someone who trusts in his works and in his ability to accomplish the Law. Jesus sends him away dejected and sorrowful precisely because he has placed his trust in his own works and his own righteousness rather than on the all-important “one thing,” which most take to be faith or, at least, something similar to it.
For the American reader, I think it takes a different dynamic. Americans, especially in our hyper-politically charged times, are constantly thinking about wealth. We are either convinced that the bourgeoisie elite are hoarding the wealth or that we are doing too much to stifle wealth creation. Thus, some find that when Jesus says, “‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’”, there is a ringing endorsement of their prior political feelings about the wealthy. Meanwhile, others feel challenged by Jesus’ statement on those who have been blessed with a fortune.
Perhaps the challenge of this text can push us in a different direction from these takes altogether. Instead of getting mired in debates as to what income level you can be while still having an easy time entering into heaven, it might be that Jesus is encouraging us to think a little bit deeper about what the life of faith should look like for us as Christians.
In order to get to the heart of the matter, I think we need to take the rich young man’s claim at face value. This person is seeking eternal life, and runs to the fountain and source of life, Christ Jesus. He wants something good, in this case the divine rest and peace that comes with the assurance of life everlasting, and he has even gone to the right person for such a thing. It’s here that Jesus plays a little game of sorts.
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”
The rich young man, I believe, is sincere in his belief that he has kept all of these. He’s the equivalent of a good Christian who has been raised in the Church all his life and has kept all the rules. Who could possibly argue that it’s a bad thing to try to keep all these commandments from God? What is it that he lacks then?
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
We often place the focus on his lacking the “one thing,” but what if our focus should be on the command to sell all that he has? Jesus, in a very pastoral way, is encouraging him to throw out all of his accomplishments, toss aside his feats of the Law, and get rid of the creature comforts that provide a sense of safety and security. These things are ultimately not God and are not responsible for the peace that we seek in this life. Similarly, when the disciples are confused about the relationship between Christianity and the wealthy, this seems to be Jesus’ answer as well. Even if you have earned your fortune, climbed your way to the top of the organizational flowchart, and worked to get to where you are in the corporate world, these things ultimately don’t matter in terms of salvation. Sell what you have and focus on the one thing that remains, which is grace received through faith in Christ Jesus. The only thing that can provide that ultimate rest and that assurance of eternal life is Christ Jesus. Toss aside everything else including your accomplishments. He is the one thing that remains.
We should all relate to the rich young man in some way. We should be pursuing eternal life and seeking it out. We should be running to Christ Jesus with our concerns as well. But where our path and the path of the rich young man diverge is in our experience of Christ. Whereas the rich young man walks away sorrowful having realized he had great possessions, we can walk away joyful. Why? Because we can sit at the foot of the cross and marvel at the fact that Jesus has sold everything he has, up to and including his lifeblood, as he ransomed back the Church from sin, death, and the devil. He is the one who goes beyond what is possible for us in forsaking everything in order to win eternal life on behalf of sinners. This gift is the one thing that remains in the life of every Christian.