Jesus and the Rich Man: A Call to Radical Individualism


Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Discussions of earthly systems almost always come down to disagreements over the use of capital — how it is distributed, created, or managed. Therefore, if we are concerned with the heavenly implications of our earthly systems, we must come to terms with how God views our earthly wealth.

Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke include a story where Jesus addresses this topic directly. In the story, Jesus asks a wealthy man to give all that he has to the poor. Since plenty of people use the story as an excuse to demonize wealth and the creation of it, I wanted to clarify my thoughts on the matter.

The wealthy man begins the conversation by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus answers with this:

You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’

When the rich man explains that he has done these things since childhood, Jesus responds with this challenge:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will havetreasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Upon hearing this, the rich man becomes very sad and turns away, effectively rejecting the call of Christ. After the man leaves, Jesus explains the situation to His disciples with this now-popular refrain:

How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

It is here where most people end the story. The moral, they tell us, is that wealth is bad and sacrifice is good — for if it is so difficult for the rich to get into heaven, certainly Jesus would advocate a diminution or eradication of wealth.

But that is not what Jesus does.

The disciples seem troubled by Jesus’ response and ask, “Who then can be saved?” — to which Jesus responds by telling them that earthly challenges do not preclude Kingdom pursuits:

“With man this is impossible,” Jesus says, “but with God all things are possible.”

I have previously discussed the way God values obedience over sacrifice, and this is a similar lesson. Jesus was not bombarding the rich man with a list of good deeds to show him where he was going wrong. Jesus was pinpointing a weak spot in this man’s heart. He was testing this man’s obedience, and the rich man failed.

At a fundamental level, this story is not about money or riches or even the poor. It’s about keeping our hearts aligned to God’s will. It’s about listening to the voice of God and doing what He says no matter how foolish it appears in earthly terms.

The rich man had done his homework. He had gone to Temple. He had read his Scriptures. He had figured out his salvation. But what he hadn’t done was get his heart to a place that put God’s vision before his own. When Jesus told him to do something uncomfortable, he was not willing to follow through.

But even if the wealth itself is not the problem, Jesus is still saying that having more earthly possessions makes it more difficult for us to enter the Kingdom of God. Here is where the Christian socialist would note that equalizing poverty is preferable to maximizing prosperity, which is where I think we find the most pertinent element for our discussion.

As I mentioned earlier, Jesus is specifically honing in on the fact that earthly challenges do not preclude Kingdom pursuits. You can have all the wealth in the world, but with the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit you have the ability to overcome such challenges and use your resources for God’s purposes.

Taking up such a challenge zeroes in on the very essence of Radical Individualism.

For those who would say that the rich man is the embodiment of individualism, they would be confusing self-interest with worldliness, for when we look at the rich man’s decision we see a drastic misalignment of self-interest. After all, Jesus put the initial challenge forth in the very context of individualism: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

It seems then that the rich man either lacks the wisdom or the faith to actually believe that obeying Jesus will bring him treasure in the long run. The ironic part of all this is that Jesus goes on to imply that the rich man would have had more of a reward because of his enormous wealth.

In Luke, Jesus puts it this way:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.

In Matthew, he puts it this way:

[E]veryone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

This is a point far too often missed by Christians. God is not calling us to a life of poverty or despair or isolation, just as he is not calling us to a life of masochistic libertinism. He is not asking us to cut ourselves off from the world and shield our lives from every earthly thing. He is telling us that we must strive to pursue earthly greatness in a heavenly context, despite the challenges that such a pursuit will throw our way.

The fundamental challenge? Staying true and obedient to God.

He may ask you to give up your wealth. He may ask you to leave your comfort zone. He may call you to a third-world nation. And if you’re rich, it will probably be more difficult. But that is an opportunity to show your love for God, not a danger to cower from.

Whether rich or poor, what we need to realize is that following God’s voice will always bring more fulfillment than what the world offers.

This is properly aligned self-interest.

All of this is somewhat difficult for us to understand, particularly because God’s ways are higher than our ways. Our human viewpoint is vastly limited, even though we’re tempted to think it’s profoundly comprehensive.

In Matthew, Jesus ends the story by reminding the disciples of the counterintuitiveness of the Christian pursuit: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

It is this understanding — the upside-down economics of Christianity — that should drive our pursuit of God and our stewardship of earthly resources. It’s a difficult journey, so let’s not confuse foolishness with self-interest along the way.

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  • Swift

    I always blithely interprteted the command as “Sell all that possesses you and distribute to the poor.”

    In the alternative, if we took the plain meaning of the text, it creates a paradox. If the man had sold all that he had, he, too, would have been poor. The command to “distribute to the poor” would then include him — so he would need to keep some for himself, and thus could not give away all he had. This may sound like legalistic wrangling, but it brings up an important limitation on the command: One is not required to give to the point where he himself is in poverty.

    Either way, I still find this verse impenetrable because I am not quite sure what exactly the rich man did wrong. It is clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus doesn't despise wealth — in fact, some of his commands favor the wealthy (e.g., his telling borrowers to give more to lenders than they owe). Perhaps Jesus means for the man to sell all his chattels (movable property) but to keep his capital (e.g., land). Perhaps the man had kept the negative commandments (the “do nots”) but had neglected the tithe (which in that day went to the poor); thus, the command to “sell all” and “distribute to the poor” was to make up for this neglect. And though we're not told, we might assume that the man, even after selling all, would continue to produce income. He was a “ruler” — perhaps a teacher or scholar of some kind.

  • Swift

    I always blithely interprteted the command as “Sell all that possesses you and distribute to the poor.”

    In the alternative, if we took the plain meaning of the text, it creates a paradox. If the man had sold all that he had, he, too, would have been poor. The command to “distribute to the poor” would then include him — so he would need to keep some for himself, and thus could not give away all he had. This may sound like legalistic wrangling, but it brings up an important limitation on the command: One is not required to give to the point where he himself is in poverty.

    Either way, I still find this verse impenetrable because I am not quite sure what exactly the rich man did wrong. It is clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus doesn't despise wealth — in fact, some of his commands favor the wealthy (e.g., his telling borrowers to give more to lenders than they owe). Perhaps Jesus means for the man to sell all his chattels (movable property) but to keep his capital (e.g., land). Perhaps the man had kept the negative commandments (the “do nots”) but had neglected the tithe (which in that day went to the poor); thus, the command to “sell all” and “distribute to the poor” was to make up for this neglect. And though we're not told, we might assume that the man, even after selling all, would continue to produce income. He was a “ruler” — perhaps a teacher or scholar of some kind.

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  • Reyjacobs

    First, some manuscripts of Matthew read “Why do you call me good? None is good but one. But if you would enter life, keep the commandments.” But others read “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good, and if you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Obviously this “ask me what is good” reading is the correct one. It avoids the absurdity of Jesus saying that he himself is not good (and avoids him denying being God). But it also directly answers the man’s question “master what GOOD THING must I do to have eternal life?” And as for the part where he is told that he lacks something. IN MATTHEW notice Jesus does NOT volunteer this: the man asks “what lack I yet?” Jesus, almost reluctantly says, “IF YOU WANT TO BE ***PERFECT***: go sell all you have and give to the poor.” Selling all he had and giving to the poor was NOT for salvation but for perfection. The way to be saved was to keep the commandments. The rest of the story about the man going away sorrowful was not because he wasn’t saved but because he couldn’t be perfect which is what he really wanted (he was a perfectionist). The commentary about it being hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven that comes afterwards is clearly made up by a scribe who just didn’t get the point of the story.

  • Reyjacobs

    Luke and Mark have less details than Matthew. In Lk and Mk it is made as if Jesus volunteers that the man lacks something. In Matthew it is shown that the man asks “what do I still lack?” and Jesus answers “If you want to be PERFECT…” This is the missing piece of the puzzle. Mark and Luke misunderstood the story. They also changed the man’s original question. In Matthew “[Good] Master, what GOOD THING must I do to obtain eternal life?” In Mk and Lk “Good Master, what must I do to have eternal life?” Note in Matthew there is a GOOD attached to the question of what he must do. He not only calls Jesus good but he asks him what GOOD THING he must do. This is further witnessed to by different versions of Jesus’ response in the manuscripts: “why do you call me good? Only one is good, i.e. God. But anyways, if you want to enter life, keep the commandments” versus “why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good. So, if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” Without realizing how the scribes misunderstood and changed the story, you cannot understand what Jesus actually said and why. And an in depth study of MATTHEW’s version is necessary to finally getting it.

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  • http://www.godsgreatestcommandment.com Doug

    Beautiful piece Joseph.  The very essence of His message.  I liked your statement: “At a fundamental level, this story is not about money or riches or even the poor. It’s about keeping our hearts aligned to God’s will. It’s about listening to the voice of God and doing what He says no matter how foolish it appears in earthly terms.”  This passage reveals the rich person’s self-focus clothed in a God-focused facade.  It helps for each of us to ask ourselves what our inner heart is aligning with–God’s will or self focus?

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/166586164298522625 Remnant Culture

    @JBTanqueray @ValuesAndCap Sure. I comment on Jesus & the Rich Man here http://t.co/PxVuSoRd & here http://t.co/VbW5wAtj

  • http://twitter.com/franco_fino/status/174350987027415040 Franco Fino

    Maybe you should read up on this @MittRomney http://t.co/yuMoFYQd :The parable of Jesus and the Rich Man. Obama 2012

  • Mike

    Give up what you worship before God.  Give to those that know the greatest need in the community.