What The Rich Man Lacked

Normally, I wouldn’t repeat one of my posts from What Would Jesus Do Now?, but it also happens to be a pretty good summation of what I intend to share in chapel Monday morning at my children’s school. So if you’re curious about what I’ll say to several hundred kindergarten-through-sixth-graders, read this version:

How many of you have too much stuff? I mean you have so much stuff you can’t find a place to keep it all in your room and it’s hard to keep it clean?

How many of you have parents who have so much stuff that they have to rent a storage space to keep some of it in?

Well, today I’m going to tell you a story about a man who had too much stuff. It’s a story from the Bible, and it’s about Jesus and that man, so it’s in the New Testament. We have to put together the complete picture of this man from three different stories so we can really know what he’s like.

Mark 10:17-31 says he was a man. Matthew 19:16-29 says he was young. Luke 18:18-29 adds that he was a ruler.

They all agree that he was rich. He had a lot of wealth – a lot of money; a lot of stuff.

Mark adds a few interesting details that the others leave out, though, as they tell the story. Anxious to get into the story, Matthew and Luke leave out the fact that this rich young man ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him. As if something was urgent. As if only Jesus could answer how to get the one thing he wanted most. As if he were begging, perhaps even worshipping, the One whom he intends to ask:

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call Me good? Why do you ask Me about good?” Jesus answered. “Only God is good. – You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother …”

And of the Ten Commandments, the Top Ten of the 613 precepts and commandments they would have both memorized for their bar mitzvahs, Jesus named only five of the six dealing with interpersonal relationships, and none of the first four about relating to God. Giving the young man the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, concerning those first ones – as if they go without saying – He omitted Number Ten and made it conspicuous by its absence: “Don’t covet.” That word “covet” means: “Don’t want what others have so badly that you feel like stealing it, or that you wish they didn’t have it and that you did.”

“All of these I have kept since I was a boy,” the young man responded.

Then Mark tells us a little something that Matthew and Luke don’t choose to: that Jesus – looking at him – loved him.

We don’t know who the man was. No one gives his name. Each of the Synoptic writers is stingy with details. And of all the people Jesus encountered, only this man is described as someone Jesus loved on sight. Wouldn’t you like to have that fact associated with your name, recorded in scripture and preserved for all time? That Jesus looked at you and loved you?

It makes me wonder if the young man was John Mark himself. As with his unique account of the young man who abandoned Jesus upon His arrest, leaving behind a (doubtless expensive) linen garment someone had grabbed, Mark does not name the “man” who ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees whom He loved at first sight. Some scholars have wondered if the young man who ran away was Mark. His mother was wealthy enough to have a house that would hold “many people” praying for the release of Peter and John from jail. Was it his money that kept drawing John Mark back home when he later became a missionary? Was he too embarrassed to identify himself as the young man Jesus loved?

Who could have more distinctly seen the look of love meant for him than the one kneeling down and gazing desperately up into the eyes of Jesus?

Whether the rich young ruler was John Mark or not, Jesus certainly did love him. And if he had followed all 613 precepts and commandments, he would have been generous in his giving and his hospitality, as the second tablets of stone required. Jesus doesn’t dispute his claim to have obeyed them all. But it was not enough. So Jesus told him:

“One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. You’ll be perfect. Then come follow me.”

Now we discover why this poor fellow isn’t named. It would have been cruel to do so. Because his face fell, and he got up, and he went away sadly … because he was very wealthy, and had a lot of stuff.

It’s not something that Jesus tells everyone to do. Not quite. Although He does teach “Sell what you have and give to the poor,” He doesn’t include the word “all” or “everything.” It seems to be more like advice, to open one’s self to the joy of sacrificial giving.

But to the rich young ruler, He says “all” or “everything.” Why? Was it because if he tried to follow but kept all his stuff, he would always be looking back from the plow? Because he would not be able to understand Jesus’ call to perfection through sacrifice of self? And that treasure in heaven is never susceptible to moths or rust or theft? Was it because this young man’s stuff was the one thing between him and the thing he wanted most, to live forever with God?

Whatever the reason, he turned his back on the One who loved him. What a heartbreaking moment that must have been for Jesus – to see the young man turn and go! Possibly He couldn’t bear to watch. All three writers say that He turned to His followers and said: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven! Children” – did Jesus actually call His friends “children”? Or was also He talking to the children from the verses before who were still around, hoping He would quit fooling around with the grownups and get back to playing with them? – “… how hard it is!”

How hard it is. Do you think Jesus was trying not to cry? It almost seems like He tried to lift His own spirit with a weak joke when the next thing He said was: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!”

Can you imagine a camel trying to squeeze through that little hole in a needle that the thread goes through?

Maybe it wasn’t a joke, though. His followers didn’t think it was funny. They believed that God blesses those who obey with riches and power and stuff – why, that rich young man would have been a prime proof for them! They were amazed and blurted out to each other, “Well, who then can be saved?”

They had no concept what they were to be saved from. Jesus did. “With men this is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.”

Peter stepped up to the challenge, to reassure himself and the others of their salvation: “But we’ve left everything to follow You!” (They had: even their families; Peter perhaps left his wife and her mother behind when they traveled.)

Now Jesus was reassuring, but with a note of warning as well: “You can depend on this: No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for Me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, unending life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Then, following up on the gloomy mood which had taken Him again, He predicted His death and His resurrection and His plan … His plan to give up everything, including His life, so that others could live forever with God.

I left out something in this story. Did you catch what it was?

Jesus told the rich young ruler – the man who had everything – that there was one thing he lacked.

He never told him what it was.

What do you think the rich man lacked?

What was the one thing he wanted most?

And what was keeping him from it?

– from the accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke

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3 thoughts on “What The Rich Man Lacked

  1. If Jesus didn’t tell the rich young man whom he loved what one thing he lacked, then how can we ever know what one thing – or many – we lack? Or did Jesus know that the young man knew, but wouldn’t admit it to himself?In other words, do we, more than anything else, need to be honest with ourselves – and with God -about who and what we are, even if no other soul know? My husband always says that you may put up a front with everyone else, but that you should always examine yourself and be honest with yourself about how you really are. I truly believe he’s right and so that’s how I always try to be, for better or worse. But, then, I must examine myself before God, too, or else what does it matter? Don’t you think?But, then what?

  2. From an e-mail sent by my friend Kathy (who is too shy to comment online):“I’ve been thinking some about wealth/materialism and the American way. What do you think the rich young man was expecting to hear from Jesus? I wonder, since he was ready with the answer, “I’ve done all that”, if perhaps, he might have expected some sort of commendation. Or maybe, it’s me that I am thinking of …”

  3. What I’m wondering about is what made the young man so desperate. If, as you say and I believe you, they viewed wealth and power as a sign of God’s favor, why was he so worried about whether or not he would inherit eternal life? I just felt like putting that out there as a thought, because it occurred to me that even though I’ve read this passage many times, I never thought about the young man’s motivations before.I like this blog, even though I just found it, and I think your explication of the passage is very good.

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