One of the most obvious bible passages that relates to personal finances is the story of the rich young ruler. The passage, which is found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tells the story of a man asking what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. The question is one of the most pertinent questions because since those of us living in western society are the rich, it forces us to ask whether we need to give away all of our wealth. Does God’s message suggest those who are following Jesus to give away everything we have? Such an extreme message seems to suggest that financial planning of any sort is the opposite of what Jesus commands. This seems to be the opposite of what this blog is about, but if we refuse to go the extreme, do we lost the identity as Christians. This paradox is one that has puzzled the church for some time, so I thought I would spend some time reflecting on it.
Here’s the exact words from Mark 10:17-31:
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again,“Children, how difficult it is[a] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him,[b] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfoldnow in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Initial Commentary on Rich Young Ruler Passage
There are a few preliminary points that I need to point out before reflecting on the question of whether you need to give away all of your wealth. The first, and perhaps more important, is our understanding of “eternal life.” Most often, in Christian circles, this is understood as the path to Heaven. When understood this way, the rich ruler’s question to Jesus seems to be phrased as such: “Jesus, what do I need to do in order to get into Heaven?”
This couldn’t be further from the truth of what he is asking Jesus. Instead, eternal life is more accurately referring to a way of life. In the same way that the “kingdom of God” is referring to a movement that Jesus is starting (instead of some place you go after you die), so is eternal life. This interpretation is supported by Jesus’ response. He instantly refers to the commandments. The commandments were a part of the covenant of Israelites with God – it was about their life with God right now – in this world. Therefore, the rich young ruler’s question, when paired with this understanding of ‘eternal life’, affirms the importance of our action now.
A Possible Interpretation of Rich Young Ruler Passage
The question remains then, what should be the Christian response when it comes to using our wealth. Does this passage suggest that we need to give everything away?
While it may be tempting to support such an idea, I think reading the passage in this way is too simplistic and misses the point of the passage. Jesus’ point is not that everyone who is rich should give away everything that they have, but instead to point out that we are too strongly connected to our possessions. After all, verse 22 says,
Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (emphasis added)
I am not sure about you, but I know that I can relate to this state of being. I know that I am considered on of the richest people in the world. While I strive not to be tied down to physical items or consumed with buying the latest, fastest gadgets, it can be difficult at times. I think we can all relate to wanting the best stuff. The problem is too often we let our consumerism get in the way of following a better path. Instead of feeding the poor, or contributing to a better society, we are caught up taking care of our items. It was just today that I had to run to the DMV before work, drop off my car to get the oil changed, and will have to do several other errands this just to take care of my car. While it is a blessing to have such items, it can also be a curse, as it has the potential to drain all of my free time.
If we understand this passage this way, it helps re-affirm our act of being intentional with our finances. Planning, one of the core fundamental values of this blog, is supported. Following Jesus or even caring for others does not mean that we do the opposite of financial planning, but the exact opposite. In order to help others, we need to weigh the options and be purposeful to not get caught up in consumerism. Jesus asks us to step away from the distractions for the benefit of others. Last but not least, it is important to point out that I am not saying that you should forego giving. This isn’t in support of the idea of hoarding all of your wealth to yourself because it is yours and we are supposed to be wise with our money. Instead, this is an attempt to hold in tension the willingness to help others while also planning ahead for the financial needs that will come up with your family.
Do you identify with the rich young ruler? Is it difficult to avoid buying the latest items?