As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran 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 commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the 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.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asked Jesus. Having done well for himself in this life, he wants to know how he can be equally successful in the next. At first Jesus gave him the expected answer: he quoted the commandments to him. This was about the only occasion in the gospels that Jesus gave someone the expected answer: it was an answer that the young man would have known already. “You know the commandments…” Jesus said. The man replied, “Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days.” This declaration must have made him feel that he was the brightest light around. But he had said it to the wrong person. He was confident that he could stand before God on his own merit: he had kept all the commandments since childhood. His self-assurance – even self-congratulation – is identical to that of the Pharisees.
Immediately Jesus drew him further on and challenged him to a new way of life. We are used to hearing this story, and therefore most of its impact is lost on us. In the time of Jesus wealth was generally seen as a guarantee of God's blessing (as well as of social status). But Jesus told him, “Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” This was too much, and the man went away sad. He was no longer the brightest light; he would be remembered forever as the only one in the gospels who refused a direct call from Jesus.
But if Jesus is now saying that wealth is no guarantee of God's favour, then how can you know how you stand with God? Jesus repeated what he had said, even adding emphasis. No one could remain unclear about his teaching: wealth, and the false sense of security that comes with it, can destroy your relationship with God.
Two opposing visions of life come face to face in this story. It is a head-on collision, but strangely there are no fireworks as in the clashes with the Pharisees. Mark’s gospel even makes the encounter an affectionate one: “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and said...” (Matthew and Luke write simply, “Jesus answered...”). All three gospels say that the rich man became “sad.” He was indeed a conscientious man, and was not trying to discredit Jesus in the style of the Pharisees. He was a follower of traditional beliefs (incidentally, Matthew alone calls him “young”); and he seems like a man who had taken in what Jesus said, even though he did not feel able to follow it.
Some commentators suggested that the eye of the needle was a small gate at the entrance to Jerusalem called the "Needle's Eye Gate." But this clearly blunts the force of his statement. A camel could conceivably get through such a gate, but Jesus is asserting the impossibility of a rich man entering the Kingdom (the presence) of God. When the disciples heard this they were understandably puzzled. They came from the same tradition as the rich young man. “In that case,” they said, “who can be saved?” Jesus’ reply is the key to the whole episode: “For men it is impossible, but not for God.” We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Only God can spring us from the trap of our imagined self-sufficiency. It is not by our own resources, whether spiritual or material, that we come into God’s Presence, but by God's own gift.
|Back to calendar|