The Rich Man
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man came up and knelt before him, and asked him, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commitment adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all pf these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. And the disciples were perplexed by these words. But Jesus said to them gain, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
I still remember the night I first read Mark’s account of Jesus and the rich man. I was fourteen years old. I was at a church camp and the camp’s chaplain asked me to read Mark 10:17-27 out loud at the Sunday morning service. So tucked comfortably into bed the night before, I rehearsed reading these verses when suddenly the words, “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,” scared the hell out of me. I’m still not really sure why because I wasn’t, and still am not, rich.
Jesus was on the move toward Jerusalem, Mark writes, when an unnamed man approached him, knelt down and asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Good Teacher!” was a very rare greeting, thrown out to flatter Jesus, and perhaps to elicit a positive response to his question. But Jesus returned no word of greeting.
The story proceeds with some tension when Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’” In other words, follow God’s “Instructions” in the Torah. And note that Jesus substituted “do not defraud” (do not cheat someone for economic gain) for “do not covet.”
Jesus’ words, according to Mark, rolled over the young rich man like water off a duck’s back. “Teacher,” he said, “I’ve observed all these from my youth.” Now according to Jewish wisdom tradition, only three men in history had followed the Torah in its entirety: Abraham, Moses, and Aaron. Standing before Jesus was a young man who thought he just might be the fourth.
While Jesus didn’t take him down a few notches, he did provide some reality therapy. Mark writes that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.” This is the only instance where Mark describes Jesus as “loving” someone. “One thing you lack,” he said, “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But something stood in the way. Another love called out the man’s attention: his love of wealth and clinging to possessions stopped him cold in his tracks when he heard Jesus’s instructions. He was struck, shocked, deflated, and in the end, he sorrowfully walked away, clinging to his wealth and possessions. This is the only account in Mark in which Jesus directly asked someone to follow him, only to have that someone walk away.
The first time I read this story more years ago than I want to remember, I was scared too. But what frightened me more was when I learned that some human beings throughout history did sacrifice all they had when they answered the historical Jesus’s call to “come, follow me.”
Peter said, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you.” Zacchaeus gave away most of his loot out of sheer gladness that salvation had come to his house. The early followers of the Jesus Way claimed that nothing belonged to them and sold what they had and shared everything in common so that none would be in need. And what about the poor widow who put two coins into the temple offering box? Jesus praised her for putting in everything she had to live on. How could you be happy to see a widow living on a fixed income do something so reckless? Perhaps Jesus understood something human beings continue to fail to grasp. And this is what scares me.
When I was a student at the Claremont School of theology, I was enrolled in a course in church history when I read about one of the first desert hermits of the Church, who lived around 250-350 CE. Antony was raised in Egypt by wealthy, Christian parents. They died when Antony was just a teenager, leaving him and his sister all their possessions. As Athanasius tells the story: "Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according to custom into the Lord’s House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked about how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostle’s feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”
Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers–they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair—that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister’s sake.
The next time Antony entered the church assembly he heard God say, “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.” Antony could not even sit through the service; without any reservations he went out and gave his last reserve to the poor.
My Professor, Jane Dempsey Douglas, told the class, “Frankly, this story frightens me to death.” Someone asked, “Why ” “It frightens me,” she answered, “because this man went to church and heard the very same verses that we heard in this this morning’s chapel service. Anthony went and sold everything he had and moved into a cave in the desert in order to seek God. Today I heard the same verses and I’m going home after class for a nice bowl of soup and maybe a nap after lunch.”
Long ago, Jesus invited a young man to let it go, to stop clinging to the impermanent things that made him wealthy. He couldn’t do it, and sorrowfully walked away. He could not trade the wild, upside-down ride of being a disciple for the security his possessions offered. And there you have it. Clinging to anything in an impermanent universe merely separates us from one another and from God as it hastens the process of our dying while simultaneously causing suffering to other human beings and the life forms with whom we share Planet Earth. This is why it’s so difficult for a wealthy man or woman—or any of us—to enter the Commonwealth of God on own merits. This is why it’s a good thing, as St. Paul, Augustine, and Luther discovered, that God’s grace washes over all of us like a waterfall. Once we awaken to this reality, we are, hopefully, able to at least partially give up our clinging to the “stuff” that separates us from one another and from God.
 Khaled Anatolios (ed), Athanasius (The Early Church Fathers). London: Routledge, 2004, 75-6s