“A ruler asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus asked him. ‘No one is good but One–God. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.’ ‘I have kept these from my youth,’ he said. When Jesus heard this, He told him, ‘You still lack one thing; sell all you have and distribute it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me. After he heard this, he became extremely sad because he was very rich.”
~ Luke 18.18-23
This is the familiar story of the rich young ruler, often told from the point of view of one who would not pay the cost of discipleship if it meant losing his financial standing in the community. While eternal life brought security, he could not part with the social safety net that his wealth assured while on earth. He had perhaps hoped to have the “best of both worlds.” Jesus uses his story to prove that wealth would not make a good traveling companion when on the road to the kingdom of God. Jesus said to the ruler whose countenance had fallen after hearing His words, “How hard 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” (18.24-25).
He had what many would consider everything: wealth and health. He was a good person. He kept the law; he had good morals. He came from good stock. He had good parents who had raised him to have good manners. He or his parents must have done the right things because they were rich. And because they were rich, they were successful, right?
In our society, wealth and success go hand in hand. We believe that if someone is poor, it is because they are too lazy to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We say things like “If you work hard, good things will come your way.” But what happens when you do and they don’t? And what do we mean by good things?
This story reminds me that it is not enough to do the right thing when it benefits you as the commandments kept him out of trouble and in the good graces of his parents. I would argue that he believed in the law and practiced it because it bolstered his position and social appearance. The commandments were more like life skills or practices in social etiquette than a way of living and being in the world.
This is evident in his inability to let go of his material possessions. Here, we see a crisis of belief. He trusts Jesus as a teacher but will he submit to His lordship? “What do I believe in more? Which identity do I have more invested in? Which one do I want to maintain– ruler or disciple of Jesus Christ?” It is not a question of knowledge but commitment. This is a matter of devotion.
This is his day to decide whether or not he will “put away childish things,” the toys of this world that he might follow Christ (I Corinthians 13.11). And we are no different, race has placed us in the same position as the rich young ruler. We believe that we are good because of the social coloring of our skin. We’ve done nothing to deserve it or its privileges; it is inherited, a given. We are good people either because of social privilege or marginalization. We are good because we have wealth or we are good because we have been victimized by the “theys” of this world.
But, if asked to give up all that we have been in order to see all that Christ is in us, would we do it? Would we leave behind us all that has been done in order to see what Christ is doing? Would we let go of all of our hookups and our hangups for the freedom found in Jesus Christ? Or, are we more confident in the favor of God than the social rewards of race? How would these questions affect our countenance? Would Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a white/black/red/yellow/brown/beige person to enter the kingdom of God? Selah.