My hope for the rich young man
"Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:21-22)
I have hope for the rich young man. In fact, I think there’s something we can learn from him. Now, I know he gets a bad rap. I know he “went away sad” when Jesus told him to sell what he had. But there are some remarkable details I noticed in their exchange that suggest that there’s real good at work in his life, that this is in fact a turning point that leads him to follow Jesus. And there’s something else: I don’t like that we think of people by their faults. It’s like remembering Thomas by his doubt or Peter by his denial. And maybe, just maybe, by the end of this you’ll have a whole new perspective on our (possibly maligned) friend the rich young man.
1. Despite his worldly wealth, he desires eternal life.
Yes, he’s rich. He’s probably been used to getting what he wants when he wants it from the time he was born. I’m sure he knows the comfort the world can provide, and he probably revels in it. I bet he has a whole flock of camels and alabaster jars full of oil and more gold, frankincense, and myrrh than he knows what to do with. But still he comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” Still he hungers for eternity. Still he has that undying desire for more than the riches of this world, riches he’s smothered by. I’m sure he’s used to asking the question, “What must I pay to gain…?” but here, he comes seeking something his excessive money could never buy.
I need to learn from this man. I, too, am rich. Not in the financial sense, necessarily (though compared to the world at large, I’m sure I’d be considered so), but in many other ways. I am healthy, I have a family who loves me, I have a home and a job and a disposable income. The gift of faith God has given me makes me rich, too. He gives to me daily joy, perceptible love, grace that constantly makes up for my lack. It is easy to forget how truly poor I am, how often I fail to be the woman He desires me to be. I can forget to come to Him expectantly, longingly, desperate to be saved. I can forget to desire eternal life, as the rich young man does. I forget to set my sights on heaven in the midst of the riches I see around me. I must learn to let my heavenly desire grow and surpass all others.
2. He knows he is still lacking something—observing the commandments is not enough.
The young man doesn’t go to Jesus for validation, for a pat on the back. He goes to be stretched. He must have wondered what Jesus would say, have been prepared for his answer. He’s looking for more. Perhaps dissatisfaction with his cushy life has been creeping in, and he knows something’s got to give. Yes, he has been following the commandments as Jesus instructs. I love to picture the young man’s immediate response, to imagine him even cutting Jesus off to say, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Yes, but what else? Yes, but there’s more. Yes, but that’s not what I need to hear. He’s got that refreshing insatiability we young adults often do.
Confession: I love a good pat on the back. I love to be validated, affirmed, congratulated. I love for my efforts to be praised rather than my faults called attention to. How necessary it is for me to go to Jesus to ask that very same question the young man does. What do I still lack? How am I living selfishly? How am I failing to love you, Jesus, and my brothers and sisters? In what ways have I not become who You intended me to be? I must allow Jesus to shed light on my lack.
3. He went away sad.
Yes, he goes away sad. He doesn’t rush off with great joy, ready to pawn his every last possession and turn his life upside down. He hasn’t been waiting around for an invitation to relinquish his prized earthly goods. He doesn’t have a holy detachment from his belongings—he’s been storing up his treasure on earth, not in heaven. And there are two options here: either he goes away sad at the news that he will not gain eternal life because of his unwillingness to lose his wealth, or at the news that he must cast that wealth aside—wealth he has treasured and found comfort in and been identified by—in order to gain eternal life. I like to think it’s the latter. First of all, Jesus’ first instruction to him was to go, and he does. Go, sell, come, Jesus says. Going is step one. I imagine that he goes mourning the forthcoming loss of his riches, riches he is willing to part with. Perhaps it’s a little, pitiful, reluctant yes, but it is a yes just the same. (I’m familiar with those.) And just imagine how much joy it would bring Jesus for this to be the young man’s response: “Teacher, I do not want to sell what I have. I am attached to it all. Giving my wealth away terrifies me. It is unheard of. It makes no human sense. But I WILL do it. I choose to. Because I believe that You are worth it. Because my desire for eternity with You surpasses all that this world has given me.” Just imagine! Even more joy, I firmly believe, than if he had immediately said, “Of course I’ll go and sell everything I have! I was hoping you’d say that! I’ll go do it right now—don’t go away!” Jesus loves a changed heart.
I need to approach Jesus expecting to be changed. I need to know that I will hear things from Him that I do not want to, that will uproot me from my firmly settled plans and ideas and visions of my life. I hope I do not leave my time with Jesus each day sad, but I often do wrestle with Him. I do give Him a talking to. I do question and push back and resign myself to perplexity sometimes. I want to be changed by my encounters with Jesus. I want Him, need Him to be God in my life, to take control and lead me where I do not expect to go. Because, without fail, His plans put mine to shame.
So, whether or not that rich young man did gain for himself treasure in heaven that day, let’s learn from him. And let’s go and follow Jesus.