Midway through the Gospels, we’re introduced to a character known simply as the “rich young man.”
The Gospel of Mark provides us with a vivid introduction, saying that “there came one running, and kneeled to [Jesus],” indicating both a sense of urgency and deep respect on his part.
He sought out the Master Teacher with a single question; a question that had perhaps carried him over miles of dusty roads and fields in search of one true answer.
In Mark’s verses, I can picture the beads of sweat trickling down this young man’s forehead; I can hear his words cut short as he simultaneously attempts TK to regain his breath and asks the question that has been burning in his mind and soul:
“Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
The Lord begins by affirming this young man’s goodness.
“Thou knowest the commandments…” he reminds him, then adding “Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.”
The young man replies, perhaps with a sense of relief perhaps with a twinge of self-righteousness,
“Master, all these have I observed from my youth.”
“Then Jesus beholding him loved him…” In beholding him, gazing into his soul, the Savior of the world, the creator of heaven and earth and all things within, was perfectly aware of this young man’s righteous desires.
He loved this young man perfectly for who he had been up to this point and who he was now trying to become.
Because he knew and loved him, Jesus answered the young man’s question with the one key to unlocking the gates that lead toward eternal life:
“One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.”
“And [the young man] was sad at that saying, and he went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10: 17–22).
Born into an imperfect, albeit fortunate station in life, this young man slowly walked away from divinity to continue his struggle with humanity.
The rich young man occupies all of five verses in the Gospel of Mark (plus six in Luke and seven in Matthew). His exchange with Jesus abruptly concludes in seeming defeat, sorrow, and regret.
He’s most often the mascot of gospel lessons bestowing the virtues of seeking the kingdom of heaven over riches. “If you really want to have eternal life, sell off the world and don’t be like that dude,” being the primary takeaway.
It’s easy to simplify what little is given to us in this story. It’s impossible to imagine what happened next as we hear no more of him.
All we know is the following:
- We know that he has tried to live a good life all his days
- We know that he loves Jesus and that Jesus loves him
- Jesus knows him and is willing to acknowledge his innate goodness
- We know that he is human and flawed
- We know that he is incapable, in a specific moment in his life, to make an incredible almost inhuman leap of faith in order to find higher ground
Does that sound like anyone else you know?
Why would the Savior, knowing this young man, as only he can, ask the nearly impossible in a moment of sincere personal interrogation?
If he truly loved him, why would he allow him to walk away seemingly empty-handed?
Wouldn’t he prefer to keep him close and nurture the seed of faith just beginning to blossom? At very least, why not ask him to tarry a while?
We don’t have the answers. As is the case in most scriptural accounts, we’re left to interpret a perfected Savior’s approach through our very imperfect lenses of mortality.
In this life, we naturally accumulate riches. Sometimes, as in the case of the rich young man, they hold monetary value.
More often than not, however, the riches we accumulate are much more personal.
Every day brings with it tens of thousands of thoughts, words, and deeds.
Each thought, word, and deed has the potential to develop a value, whether that be emotional, spiritual, or physical. While the majority of these pass through our lives unnoticed, there are enough “deposited” regularly into the savings account of our lives to amass a significant estate.
Some piles of personal riches are a splendor. They are polished to perfection and resonate perfectly with our perception of a life well-lived.
These are the riches we’re eager and willing to show the world. They might include…
- Our most rewarding and fulfilling relationships
- Personal talents that we’ve worked hard to develop
- Achievements we thought once impossible
- Insights that we’ve gained through meaningful study
- Possessions of which we are especially fond
In a world filled with beauty and opportunity, many of us thankfully have accumulated plenty of these type of riches.
But what if you were asked to sell these riches, all of them, in the somewhat abstract name of discipleship? With which would you be willing to part? For most of us, we’d gladly first part with physical possessions if it guaranteeing more time with loved ones or our talents.
Then there are those piles of riches that build up from the roughest threads in the tapestry of our lives. They’re the parts of ourselves we often lock tightly away, held under heavy emotional and psychological surveillance.
Often unwanted and rarely understood, these riches grate on the fabric of our souls. They might include…
- The physical, emotional, and mental weaknesses that conflict with our perception of the “happy lives” of everyone around us
- Personal struggles with doubt and fear
- A seemingly unnatural gender identity or sexual preference
- Difficult personal relationships with others and ourselves
- Trauma, sickness, death…
In our very imperfect and difficult day-to-day, it’s equally impossible to escape the accumulation of these riches.
Paradoxically, these are often riches we would gladly sell off in exchange for a higher definition of living yet remain wedged into soles of our being like a freshly trodden pile of poop.
For the rich young man, it was impossible to sell all he had at the moment.
That didn’t mean, however, that he gave up the fight.
Often we are asked to give up the things that either matter most to us OR simply won’t let go of us.
We might struggle for years with debilitating doubt, depression, identity issues, you name it without any seeming hope of change.
That does not make us unwilling disciples. It makes us human on the long winding path towards perfection.
What I read in the Savior’s exchange with this particular young man is not the failure of an individual to give it all, but rather a willingness to keep at it.
As C.S. Lewis once penned,
“The work of devils and of darkness is never more certain to be defeated than when men and women, not finding it easy or pleasant but still determined to do the Father’s will, look out upon their lives from which it may seem every trace of God has vanished, and asking why they have been so forsaken, still bow their heads and obey.”
The lesson I glean from the story of the rich young man is that most often we won’t be able to sell what we have in the moment.
I believe that’s okay.
I believe that the Savior, beholding us and loving us, will still always ask us to give up more than we can at the moment.
He will do this out of perfect love (not hate).
He will do it as a way to force us to question ourselves and the purpose of this life. Most importantly, he will do it as a way for us to grow in empathy and love for others (and ourselves).
“Walking away” any given day doesn’t mean giving up. It just means we’ve got plenty more road to trod before finally making our way back to Him.
Someday we will meet him again and, having learned that which was needful, we’ll willingly hand all our riches over in exchange for eternal life.
In the meantime, we’ll keep moving forward as best we can.