Question: “I have always been curious about how we should be dealing with Mark 10:17-22, where Jesus advises the Rich Young Ruler.”
Answer: For those not familiar with that story, let me summarize it for you. This guy comes to Jesus, and the text tells us that he is rich (Mark 10), he is young (Matthew 19) and he is a ruler (Luke 18) - he's powerful. He comes to Jesus and he asks what he needs to do to be saved. Jesus's first response it to say, “Well, you know what the Bible says. You know the law.” And the Rich Young Ruler responds immediately that “I have kept all of those Commandments since my youth” So then Jesus looks at him, the text says, and then he says this: “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come and follow me.” And disheartedned by that the Rich Young Ruler then goes away discouraged and despairing of ever finding salvation.
So we need to talk about that text because of the verse I just read. It is very common to hear people cite the verse I just read as if it's point is that this is a Commandment that every single one of us has to follow in an absolute way. And there are two problems with that way of reading the text.
The first problem is that we need to be clear about the stakes we're talking about. I think people use that often as a way of trying to accuse people of hypocrisy, but the Rich Young Ruler's question is “what do I have to do in order to be saved?” How do I avoid God's judgment and find salvation?” And this answer that Jesus gives in this text is different from the answer he would normally give. The last part of it, “come and follow me,” is the same, but the first part, “sell everything that you have and give it all to the poor” - that is not part of the answer he normally gives. If that is the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved,” all of us are in an enormous amount of trouble. Barring a few monks in the Middle Ages who endorsed a idea of absolute spiritual poverty, none of us are living out that command.
Now that in itself doesn't decide the issue, although we need to be clear about the stakes of that kind of reading. The real problem is the second issue I have with that reading of the story, which is that it engages in what I often call “coffee mug interpretation.” Which is the idea that the way we should interpret a text in scripture is by popping out a sentence and slapping it on the side of a coffee mug. Whatever thoughts you have while reading that coffee mug in the morning. that's what the text means.
That's not how the bible works. This story reminds us of one of the key principles we need to have as we try to interpret the Bible, which is that we always need to read a text of scripture in the way it intends to be read. If it's a poem, we should read it like a poem. If it's a prophecy, we should read it like a prophecy. And if it's a story, we should read it like a story. This story is just that - a story.
So let's think about it as a story for a minute. We have this guy that comes to Jesus, and like we said the texts highlight some things about him. He's not just some Average Joe. He is wealthy. He is youthful, so probably kind of overzealous and foolhardy. And he is powerful. He is a ruler. Those things together should already clue us in that what we're not going to get is a story that's just a general command that everyone follows directly.
But he comes to Jesus, and he says, “What do I need to do to be saved?” Jesus responds to him by saying, “Keep the whole of the law.” That already, again, is different from the way Jesus would often respond. But the rich young ruler's answer to that is, “Well, yeah, I've kept it all.” Which, to be clear – our response in the story should immediately be to think, “No you haven't.” The law, even if it's the simplest reading on it's Old Testament terms, when it commands you to love God with all of your heart mind and strength.” Which Jesus points out is the first and greatest commandment.
Or even specific commands, like the tenth commandment against coveting or the first commandment about never putting anything ahead of God. Obviously, this guy has not actually kept those commandments perfectly and fully over the course of his life. More than that, Jesus heightens the law in the way that he talks about it to make clear that it's always meant to push you towards a righteousness even beyond itself. So he says it means, when it says “don't murder people,” that doesn't just mean don't physically kill them but also don't hate them don't despise them. Don't tear them down in your mind. When it says “do not commit adultery,” that includes lustful fantasies of adultery, not just acting that out in the world.
He does that over and over with the Old Testament law because he really wants to emphasize that the law is not something that we can perfectly keep. But the Rich Young Ruler apparently thinks that he has, and so then Jesus looks at him, and it says he has compassion on him. He loves him. There's almost this pity and sadness in the way that Jesus answers. But then what he tells him is “sell everything that you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me.” Read within that story, it's clear what's happening. It's not the Jesus saying, “Oh, here's the one more command you need to get and add to your already otherwise perfect obedience.” What Jesus is saying is, he looks at this guy and he says, “You know what? This is the thing that's keeping you from following me. This is the thing that's going to illuminate the sin in your heart. That's going to show you that there is something in your life that you are putting ahead of God. For you, it is your wealth.”
That is the thing that Jesus names. He calls out that idol, that source of false worship in the Rich Young Ruler's life. And it is in recognizing that, and then recognizing his bondage to that idol, that the Rich Young Ruler ultimately despairs and goes away.
So that shows that that simplistic reading is wrong, but we need to be careful on the other hand because that doesn't mean that the story says nothing. Instead, I think it says a couple things to us at the same time. The first thing it says is that we need to be mindful of our idols - the things that can be in that place for us. It's easy for us to try to make Christian obedience this set of surface-level rules that we try to follow. Which is probably sort of what the Rich Young Ruler was doing. That can cause us to ignore the much deeper heart issues that are leading us away from God.
Secondly, and more particularly, while the commands to sell everything you have and give it to the poor is not binding for all Christians, and it is not something that all Christians even within the New Testament do, it is true that we are called to have a spirit of generosity and a great deal of caution about the dangers of idolizing wealth. Within the church in the book of Acts we see that while they do keep private property and things like that they also regularly selling things and giving to each other as the other had need, seeking to take care of each other and regarding brothers and sisters in the church as more important than the things that they own. Scripture is full of warnings about putting money in a place that God alone belongs, and in a country like America, which is as wealthy and materialistic as it is, that is a warning that we very much need to hear.
However, the biggest thing that we need to take from this text isn't any of those specific practical applications but you recognize what Jesus is trying to show the rich young ruler. Which is that the way to salvation is not through perfectly keeping the law. It's easy to miss that last part of Jesus's statement to him, but he adds to that “sell everything you have and give it to the poor” to “come and follow me.” That ultimately is what Jesus is trying to call him into and call us into. To remind us that the point of this thing is not to reach a place where we're perfectly obeying and have it all figured out. The point of this thing is to look to God, to bend our knee and recognize that He is supreme, and then to go out and look to Jesus for that righteousness. That is the course of salvation, and it's what Jesus is inviting the rich young ruler and us to recognize.