A certain ruler asked him (Jesus), “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
For anyone who reads the Bible with an open heart, these are extremely hard words to swallow, especially for those living in the present Western World which is considered by many to be the wealthiest context in all human history. What does Jesus mean in this passage? Does he mean that if you are rich, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless you literally sell everything you own?
As I've been going through the Gospel accounts, I am amazed at how frequently and directly Jesus approaches the topic of wealth and possessions. Jesus gets right at the heart and holds no punches back. At first glance, most of us (myself included) will mistakenly read this text in either a moralistic or relativistic way. What I mean is this: In a moralistic reading, we take Jesus' command to "go sell everything and give it to the poor" as a universal rule that must be literally followed by anyone who truly considers themselves to be a Christian. The story is then a direct moral imperative to be followed literally and universally. The other end of the spectrum many of us will fall on (especially if we have great deal of wealth), is a relativistic reading. We read Jesus command and instantly think that there is no way this applies to me or actually demands a change from me. Jesus didn't really mean what he said. In this reading, we relativize the text in such a way as to protect our self from being faced with our own sinfulness. I think it is important that we examine our hearts and be honest with ourselves in regards to where we fall on the spectrum. Like I said, for those who hold on tightly to their wealth, and are consumed with building their own little kingdoms of comfort, you are probably going to fall on the side of relativism. On the other hand, for those who are often discontented with the status quo of 'safe, individualized, lifeless, consumeristic Christianity', you might find yourself imposing pharisee like rules on people. For the person who struggles deeply with self-righteousness (like me!), you might read the text in a moralistic way as a way to justify yourself.
At the end of the day, both of these ways (relativism and moralism) are incorrect ways to understand what Jesus is really getting at. The proper way of understanding this text is a third way, lets call it a 'gospel' reading of the text. When we read this text in light of the whole gospel story, it is evident that Jesus is getting at something much deeper than a simple moralistic formula for how to deal with wealth and possessions. Rather, Jesus is getting at the radical way in which the gospel completely reorientates everything in our lives. In other words, Jesus is saying "the gospel changes everything." Being in the Kingdom of God is a complete reordering of everything in our lives.
The story of the Rich Young Ruler is piercing because along with the heart of the young man in the story, our hearts are also revealed. In the story, the young ruler goes away sad because he realizes that the cost of following Jesus is too high; he is not willing to sell all that he has to follow Christ. The problem here wasn't so much that the man had possessions or power, but that he loved and trusted his wealth above God. His hearts orientation was out of whack. His life was out of order. The purpose for this story isn't ultimately that we might all sell our possessions, but that we may see the way we, like the young ruler, trust and love things (like wealth) more than God. We put other things (in this case, wealth) at the top of the pecking order. When Jesus says that you can't enter the Kingdom of God if you are rich, this means that only way you can enter the Kingdom of God is if you are living under the loving and righteous reign of the King. For a disciple, or a person living under God's reign, all other compartments of life fall under this ultimate allegiance. Money, possessions, relationships, work, family, time, energy, food, religion, they all must be orientated under God. They all must be submitted. We can see by the rich young ruler's response that this is a hard pill to swallow. Here was a man who kept all the rules and who zealously tried to live for God, but there was just one area of his life that he trusted and loved more than God.
So, the take away isn't so much a moralistic rule to follow, but a paradigm shift. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings us into a completely new worldview. Wealth is no longer something that needs to grip our hearts affections, but is something to be freely given to our God. This story is a way to ask ourselves, "what is it that I trust and love in more than God," "what do I look to in order to gain significance," or "what compels or controls me?". For this man, it was his wealth and power. That was the barrier between him following Jesus. Is this true of us? How we respond to Jesus' challenge, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it," (Luke 9:23-24) reveals where are hearts are at.
To close, there is good news in all of this. Just thinking about this now, I realize all the ways I fail to orientate my life completely under Christ's Lordship. It seems impossible. The crowd following Jesus thought the same thing. Read how the story finishes:
"Those who heard this asked, 'Who then can be saved?'
Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with man is possible with God'"
The good news is that Christ died in our place, and resurrected, that we, along with him could be resurrected to new life. Jesus lived, died, and rose that in him, we might receive a new heart, one that is orientated toward God. In our own strength and religious zeal, this is impossible. With God's supreme power and unfailing love, this is possible.