An Additional Layer on the Rich Young Ruler
If you grew up in church or have any literary knowledge about the Bible, you may be familiar with a story involving Jesus, some random rich dude, and something about a camel going through the eye of a needle. A story in which a well-off young man comes up to Jesus to ask a question as old as consciousness itself: “How do I obtain eternal life?” - phrased differently - “How do I avoid death? How do I live forever?”
I have recently pondered why this young man approached the God-man with such a question? Perhaps he was simply afraid of death, or maybe he was curious of what kind of lot he would possess in the next life. The doctrinally sound Christian has likely been taught to read this narrative from an angle in which the rich young ruler is a cocky young man whose question is a mere ploy to receive some form of moral kudos and/or affirmation of a self-righteous life from Jesus, who he sees as a good teacher or moral authority.
But could we humanize this character with a little more psychological and moral depth rather than dismissing him for egotism, shallowness and a primitively simplistic fear of death. Some may say that doing so would be reading too much into the text or extrapolating that which is not present. But even the soundest exegesis-obsessed theologian and church-goer make the most basic assumptions when it comes to the scriptures as to make their readings subjective in understanding and application.
For example, in this particular case, the character in question is described as a rich young ruler, but no where in the written word does it reveal how young, how rich, nor what he ruled over. Our scope of this individual’s background is quite limited and mostly defined my our socioeconomic and cultural consciousness of what we think youthfulness, rich, and the title ruler means. We are given qualitative metrics not quantitative ones. Using this scripture many-a-Christians have stiff armed wealth and those who have, in their estimation, a lot of it. Such assumptions about who this young man is and his interaction with Jesus we draw presumptive conclusions about the lesson or takeaway of this story from Matthew 19.
With that said, since everyone else seems content to blow wind under their personal and cultural assumptions about this passage, let me add my own layer to this story as I attempt to answer the question of the aforementioned why. I’m sure my thoughts and reflections are not purely original, as so many other thoughts and personal takes in this world.
I believe that the rich young ruler asked the question pertaining to eternal life due to his sense that he did not possess eternal life, rather than to receive some sort of moral pat on the back from Jesus. While reading through this passage again a couple weeks ago, I could not help but consider the reason why he did not believe he possessed eternal life at the time of his asking.
As we later find out, he has lived what, at least according to him, seems to have been a very morally upright life. In the socio-religious context and the karma-filled beliefs of his day, we would assume that he would have felt some sort of confidence in his attainment of eternal life via his moral uprightness- the keeping of good deeds and the abstinence from bad deeds. So, again I asked myself, why was he uncertain about his eternal trajectory?
Despite his confidence in his earthly, behavioral and outward track record he was acutely aware of his unworthiness of eternity, or at least a positive eternity — his unworthiness of a positive forever. I believe that the rich young man knew he didn’t deserve the reward and benefits of a positive eternity. He knew that he didn’t deserve eternal goodness because he knew himself; he knew who he really was on the inside. Despite the grandeur of his riches, his position in life, his kingdom, and his moral image and activity he knew he was not good. I believe that he defined himself by the flaws and failings that he detected within himself.
Humans are keenly aware of our vulnerabilities, flaws, weakness, lack, and wrong doing. In fact, more often than not, many of us are simultaneously our biggest critic and fan because we approach self-assessment with an unavoidable bias (both for and against) and with a limited scope of the self since we can only see ourselves from the first person perspective. In my opinion, the rich young ruler asked his question to Jesus because he knew his keeping of the commandments was not enough, and that his moral activity was neither the answer nor the solution to it. It could very well be that when Jesus listed out the commandments in response to his inquiry that the young man had a sense of relief, even a feeling of self-righteousness building up; as I mentioned before, humans often over credit themselves as much as they unreasonably criticize themselves. At Jesus’s response, the young man visibly starts to get excited and frustrated at the same time. As I read this portion of the passage I could hear him say to himself in growing annoyance and excitement, “I already know all of this. I’ve done all those things! Is that all that’s really needed to attain eternal life?” With more frustration and caution I imagine him trail off, “What am I still missing? What am I still lacking?”
The young man verbalizes his inner thoughts to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these [commandments] from my youth.” Translation: “I’ve been doing all of this, but there must be more. Teach me teacher, teach me something new. What else is there?” Though the good teacher acknowledged all that he had already done and abstained from, I see a young man who is not fully satisfied with the answer of Christ. He was still seeking where he was still missing the mark.
Then Jesus replies: “One thing you lack: go and sell all that you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
At this the rich young ruler becomes downcast and with great discouragement departs from that place. Why? Because Jesus confirmed the very thing he knew deep inside of himself: he was, and would never be good enough for eternal life. No title, no merit, no amount of wealth, and no moral act/living would be enough to purchase eternal life. What he thought made him a standout candidate for eternity became the barrier to his entry into the kingdom, not because of his status or his possessions in it of themselves, but because he had placed his identity on those things and acts which he thought brought him merit. The two had become intimately intertwined and in reality the question of his soul was not, “was my wealth, status, moral actions, and rituals enough?” rather it was, “Am I enough?” His answer to his own question was a resounding “No!” Not being able to sell his possessions and giving up his reputation and status was an indicator of his inability to decouple himself from those things/behaviors and the subsequent realities that existed and resulted from them in his life. The definition of who he was/is was determined by the outward variables — rich, young, ruling, and commandment keeping — and because he could not sell his possessions, give to the poor, and leave his label in life behind to follow Christ, he determined and presumed that he would not be able to attain eternal life- that he was neither good enough to attain it nor worthy of it.
But in the scripture it is written that Jesus looked at the young man in love. He watched him as he dismayed over what Christ had just said to him. He watched him in love as the young man turned over Divinity’s words in his mind with his eyes to the ground. The young man missed the gaze while calculating his pays and ways. Jesus looked at him in love because to Jesus, he was enough.