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

bullion gold gold bars golden

One day a young rich man ran up to Jesus to ask what he should do to inherit everlasting life.  In this story, the reader is confronted with the cost and meaning of discipleship. The gospel of Matthew describes this man as “young,” in Luke, he is a “ruler.” While his haste and his act of kneeling before Jesus were unusual, they point to his sincerity. This 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 him 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 man’s own words, he kept the law of Moses diligently. Yet, despite his faithful observance of the Law, something was deficient in his standing before God.

Prodigal Son
Prodigal Son

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. The Lord continued in the next few verses to demonstrate how one does this very thing – by forsaking all and following him.

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

The commandments Jesus listed were from the “second” half of the Decalogue. The commandments from the first half deal 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 this 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 a very real temptation, moreover, doing so was a common practice among the rich of Judean society and was 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, more importantly, it was essential for him to forsake all to follow Jesus.

The rich and the poor are all called to the same walk; to follow Jesus whatever the cost. In this case, the pathway chosen by Jesus necessitated the surrender all his material goods. The rich man had kept the Law; however, that, by itself, was insufficient. What he lacked was a total commitment to Jesus.

Jesus then stated, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” Note well that Jesus did not say “impossible.” This man had assumed that 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, to stress 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. Christ focused on the man’s problem – material wealth. His riches 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 will 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 this promise is a guarantee that disciples will not experience hardship in 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 when they see just 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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