The story of the Rich Young Man appears more or less identically in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. The question the young man poses is an interesting one. He says, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He thinks that we can get to heaven by doing things. If this were true it would only be a question of finding out what things we must do and then once these have been completed we will be let into heaven.
Actually, we know that entrance into the Kingdom of God is something that God freely chooses to bestow on whomever he wishes and nothing we do or don’t do can gain us admittance. We cannot get to heaven by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Admission to eternal life is something that can only be granted as a result of the mercy of God; it is something that is completely unmerited by us.
This young man is completely sincere and he wants to see Jesus urgently, we see this from the fact that he runs up to Jesus. He is also very respectful and kneels before the Lord and addresses him as ‘good master’ or in other translations as ‘good teacher’ and then he asks his question about eternal life.
We should observe here that belief in eternal life was a relatively new concept for the Jews. In the Old Testament we see practically no references to an afterlife, there are just a few towards the end. And even at the time of Jesus there were heated arguments going on about this innovative new doctrine. We know, for example, that the Pharisees believed in the possibility of a resurrection but the Sadducees definitely didn’t. So, we realise that this concept of eternal life was a kind of hot-topic at the time. The young man, however, believes in it and wants to achieve it and so runs up to ask the most authoritative teacher around precisely how to get there.
We might be slightly confused by Jesus’ first words to the young man, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ However, we should be careful not to interpret these words as Jesus denying either his goodness or his divinity.
Jesus then quotes the commandments and the young man assures him that he has kept them since his youth. Jesus then tells him the one thing he lacks and that is radical discipleship. Then comes something unique, Jesus looks steadily at him and loved him. No where else is it stated in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus loved a particular person.
He then tells the young man to sell his possessions and join the band of Apostles thus embracing a life of utter dependence on God. By giving his wealth to the poor he will ensure that he is building up riches in heaven. However, the young man is crestfallen because he has many possessions. The word used here implies that he had a lot of land and presumably also a fine house and he cannot bear the thought of giving these things up and so goes away sad.
Jesus then comes out with the memorable saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ There have been many attempts to explain this phrase; some have suggested that there was a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle which a camel could not pass though. I tend to think that these sorts of explanations are worthless and actually undermine what Jesus really meant.
According to me he chooses this metaphor precisely because it is grotesque, precisely because it describes a complete impossibility. He is telling us that we have to completely detach ourselves from material things in order to enter the Kingdom. As my Grandfather used to say, ‘There’s nae pockets in shrouds.’ We cannot take our possessions with us when we die, nor any of our other worldly attachments. As we go through our lives we find ourselves acquiring more and more material possessions but when we approach death we discover that we have to gradually detach ourselves from all of them. The final phase of our life is about letting go.
Wealth is morally neutral; it is neither good or bad, but it is what we do with our wealth that brings it into the moral sphere. In the story, this young man with estates and houses is not criticised for having wealth and so we can assume that by giving employment to others and fulfilling his civic duties he was using his wealth well. However, what Jesus is pointing out is that the man’s wealth was holding him back from radically embracing the Gospel.
As always with the Gospel it is our attitude that matters. It is not a question of having wealth or not having wealth, rather it is your attitude towards it. Some of the most avaricious people I know have been very poor. They were poor, but they were in love with money.
The disciples are nonplussed at this interaction between Jesus and the Rich Young Man. They don’t know what to make of it and so they ask about themselves. Peter says, ‘What about us? We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus reassures them and says that they will certainly be rewarded a hundredfold. Those who follow Jesus in a radical way will surely inherit eternal life. But we have to understand that it is only God who can grant this gift. God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
The upshot of all this is that we need to embrace radical discipleship. We may be following the way of life set out in the Gospels but we need to do more that that. We need to being doing something more radical. We need to be going the extra mile with our faith, doing something beyond the call of mere duty.
In our lives we need to find something specific which requires us to go beyond the usual expectations. We know of people who assist in hospitals or prisons or with the homeless. They have chosen a particular form of service that is out of the ordinary, something that is beyond normal expectations. We know of people serve in soup kitchens or food banks or in charity shops. Others teach English to refugees or assist with the care of young children. They give their time freely and generously in the service of the less fortunate, and we can see from their lives that their discipleship has moved from the normal to something more radical.
This Gospel text is reassuring but challenging. Sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom is an essential requirement of those who wish to truly follow Christ. The Christian follows a difficult path in life but it is a journey with a destination. And the destination is nothing other than the Kingdom of Heaven.
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Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket