The Young Rich Man

SYNOPSIS:  To follow Jesus means to surrender one’s entire life, past, present, and future, and to walk wherever he leads, no questions asked – Mark 10:17-31

Jesus Instructs the Disciples

One day a young rich man ran up to Jesus to ask him what he should do to inherit everlasting life.  In this story, the reader is confronted with the cost and meaning of discipleship. Matthew describes this man as “young” and Luke’s version refers to him as a “ruler.” While the young man’s haste and his act of kneeling before Jesus were unusual, they point to his sincerity, which is confirmed by the comment that Jesus loved him  (Mark 10:17-31).

This is the first instance in the gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to have loved someone and, also, is the first recorded case of anyone asking Jesus how one is to inherit everlasting life.

Jesus responded, “Why are you calling me good; no one is good except one, even God.” In the Greek sentence, the pronoun “me” is emphatic (e.g., “Me, why do you call me good?”). According to the young man’s words, he had kept the law of Moses diligently, Yet despite his faithful observance of the Law, something was deficient in his standing before God.

Jesus pointed him to the one God who alone is good. The second half of his response can be translated, “no one is good except the one God.” The ultimate purpose in life is to know and love this one God. Jesus continues in the next few verses to demonstrate to this young man and to his disciples how one does this very thing – by forsaking all and following Jesus.

Christ did not dispute the young man’s claim that he had faithfully kept the Law. This is another indicator that something deeper than simply keeping the Law of God is required to inherit everlasting life.

Prodigal Son
Prodigal Son

The commandments Jesus listed were from the “second” half of the Decalogue. The commandments from the “first” half dealt primarily with a man’s vertical relationship to God. The ones from the “second half” addressed a man’s horizontal relationships with other men and women (e.g., do not steal, kill or covet).

The last five commandments were all presented as negative prohibitions: do not steal, do not kill, do not covet. By requiring the young man to give all his possessions to the poor, Jesus demonstrated the positive and ultimate way to fulfill those commandments: in positive acts of kindness and mercy to others.

In his reference to the Ten Commandments, Jesus included the phrase, “do not defraud,” instead of the original wording, “do not to covet.” As a rich man, perhaps coveting was not a very real temptation, since he already had more than most; however, defrauding his poorer neighbors was and, moreover, was a common practice among the rich of this society and so amounted to the equivalent of covetousness.

Jesus responded once more, “You are lacking one thing; go, as much as you have sell and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, be following me.” The one thing the man lacked was not his need to give to the poor, but much more importantly, it was essential for him to forsake all and follow Jesus.

The rich, as well as the poor and the disenfranchised, are all called to the same walk; to follow Jesus wherever he goes and at whatever the cost. In the case of this rich man, the pathway chosen by Jesus necessitated that he must surrender all his material goods for the sake of following him. The rich man had kept the Law but that, by itself, was insufficient. What he lacked was a commitment to Jesus; his demands go beyond the requirements of the Torah. The commitment to Jesus must be total.

Jesus then stated, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” Note well Jesus did not say “impossible.” The emphasis in the man’s query was on what he must do in order to be saved. He assumed entrance into the kingdom required great human effort and deeds. Jesus used a hyperbolic picture, the notion of a camel passing through a needle’s eye, an absurdity, to point out that human effort is insufficient to enable anyone, even a devout rich man, to inherit the kingdom. But with God all things are possible.

Jesus did not categorically condemn wealth or possessions. Other wealthy individuals in the gospel accounts were not required to sell everything. Jesus focused on this man’s problem – material wealth. His riches were the real problem that prevented him from doing the one thing necessary for him to receive everlasting life: to follow Jesus no matter the cost.

Jesus promised that those who give up everything to follow him would receive “a hundredfold” back in this life. Often overlooked is the inclusion of one “negative” item in his list – “persecutions.” Neither the gospel message nor Christ’s promise is a guarantee that disciples will not experience hardship in this life, including persecution for the sake of the Kingdom.

As Jesus previously made clear, to gain life a disciple must first lose it. Thus, in Mark 8:34-37, “If anyone wills to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and be following me. For whoever wills to save his own life shall lose it, but whoever shall lose his life for my sake and of the gospel, shall save it; for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in exchange for his life?”

Christ’s parting declaration in this story, “many who are first will be last, and last, first,” is his classic description of a great future Reversal of Fortune. At the Judgment, many will be surprised by who receives the greatest rewards and who loses the most. At that time, human expectations, status, and standing will be reversed in surprising ways. To follow Jesus means to surrender one’s entire life, past, present, and future.

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