“WHO, ME?” – We can easily imagine the consternation of the rich young man when he heard the Lord tell him: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This incident is related in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); each of them describes this young man slightly differently. In Mt and Mk he is described as rich and “young” (the Greek word refers to someone in his late twenties or early thirties); In Mark his youth is emphasized: he is described as “running” up to Jesus who “… looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21), perhaps as one would love an eager adolescent.
In Luke he is described as a “ruler,” (Greek, archon). This could mean that he was a member of the elite ruling class or that he was an archon of the local synagogue. Since he is described as a person of great wealth, he was most likely from a socially important family.
In Mark he is portrayed as eager and seriously curious. In Lk, as many Fathers read it, he was trying to trick Jesus with his question. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, described him in this way: “He fancied himself as having learned the Law and supposed that he had been accurately taught it. He imagined that he could show that Christ was introducing laws of His own and of dishonoring the commandments given by the most wise Moses…. Observe how he mixes flattery with fraud and deceit, like someone who mingles vinegar and honey. He supposed that he could deceive Him in this way” (Homily 122 on Luke).
These two contrasting depictions of the rich young man illustrate how narrative details in the Gospels are not necessarily meant to be of historical importance. Rather, they are to illustrate the point of a teaching. In the case of Mk’s eager learner, the point is that Christ’s invitation is an act of love. Gaining treasure in heaven excels by far the amassing of earthly riches. In the case of Lk’s trickster, the teaching is that Christ does not annul the Law but He fulfills it.
An apocryphal gospel from the late second century, known to some of the Fathers but now lost, adds an interesting thought in the same line. When the young man shows his reluctance to follow the Lord’s counsel, “The Lord said to him “How can you say ‘I have kept the Law and the prophets’? seeing that it is written in the Law ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ and look, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clad with dung, dying for hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and nothing at all goes out from it to them.”
If you claim to love your neighbor, you must be ready to do so in deed as well as in word.
The heart of the passage is not the character of the inquirer but the counsel which the Lord gave him: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This advice involves a sequence of three separate acts, one following upon another. First the young man is told to “Sell all you have,” to divest yourself of everything which people in the world value. Attachment to these things is what keeps people from attaching themselves to God. Preoccupation with them distracts us from focusing on the union with God which we have been given. As the Lord said elsewhere, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).
People who have comfortable lives, as well as people who are just getting by, can be equally “attached” to the things they have, or what they would like to have. If our inner live is focused on acquiring things, or on the things we already have, then these things are our masters. Our preoccupation with them prevents us from being concerned with the divine. The first step for the rich young man – and for any of us – is to evaluate how much “all you have” matters to you. Could you live without the internet or your favorite TV channels? Would you willingly give them up to devote yourself to God’s service?
The second step in Christ’s plan for us is to “distribute to the poor.” If we wish to serve God, we begin by using our material wealth for the benefit of those who truly need it. The spiritual realm may be beyond us, particularly if we are beginners in the spiritual life. We may find the nitty-gritty world of ministering to the poor to be a more accessible and less threatening way to begin following Christ.
In our comfortable society, we may have gotten used to overeating, to drinking too much, to demanding continuous leisure, entertainment or information. We may consider them essential to our way of life. If so, we might do well to reflect on these words of St Basil the Great:
“Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may be repaid for your kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance?
“But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a greedy person? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed…
“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong” (Homily on Greed, 7).
Once a person has dealt with his reliance on earthly things and is firmly set on serving God, he or she is ready to follow Christ. This may mean physically relocating to a different city or even country. It may mean becoming involved with a mission in another part of town. It always means uprooting ourselves in some way from a life with which we have become comfortable, at least for a while, and going where we may be needed.
Is This for Everyone?
In Matthew’s rendering of this scene, the Lord’s instruction is prefaced by the words: “If you want to be perfect…” (Matthew 19:8). This has led people over the ages to assume that His teaching here is for monks and nuns – those whose lifestyle is directed to spiritual perfection. The rest of us just hope to get by.
Actually, Christ’s intention is clear: striving for perfection – the opposite of legalism – is essential to true religion. Thus the Sermon on the Mount was concluded with this invitation to a godlike life, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Striving for perfection with repentance and humility became the hallmark of early Christians. This teaching eventually led to the rise of ascetics and monastics, but did not originate with them. From the first, Christians saw their task as to strive for purity of heart, lessening our vulnerability to and dependency on what St Paul calls, “the desires of the flesh and the mind” ( Ephesians 2:3).
People with responsibilities in the world cannot literally sell and distribute all their goods. They can and should avoid slavery to them: the psychological need to possess or to prefer possessions to people.