To me, one of the most powerful encounters that Jesus had was his encounter with the rich young man (Matthew 19:16 – 30, Mark 10:17 – 31 and Luke 18:18 – 30). It’s an encounter I can imagine Jesus having with me, and a great many people in our culture – even though we don’t consider ourselves rich (or young).
The encounter: A young man walks up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him that he knows the commandments. The young man claims that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus doesn’t dispute that, but says that the young man lacks one thing. Then Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and then come and follow him. Then it says that the young man drops his head and walks away sad because he has great wealth.
That’s a barebones retelling of the encounter. There are many books and sermons that seek to highlight the nuances in the story. For me, I think the message is pretty simple. To live life as God intended, which is embodied in the way of Jesus, requires sacrificial, self-giving love that benefits the least of these. The most powerful example of such love is the concrete act of giving one’s riches – that which goes above and beyond what is needed to meet one’s basic needs – to those whose basic needs are not being met (generally called the poor). In the encounter, Jesus presents this as a choice. The young man can keep his wealth while letting eternal life slip from his hands as his neighbors suffer. Or, the young man can spend his wealth on the poor, follow Jesus and experience life.
The man walks away sad, choosing – at least in that moment – to keep his wealth.
It’s easy to be sorrowful over the young man’s choice. But I have to give him credit. The young man respected Jesus enough to do the decent thing. He walked away from an invitation he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, live up to. The young man also took Jesus seriously enough to actually choose. He choose wealth, but at least he choose something. That the young man was sad indicates that he knew the full weight of the choice. To me, what the young man did is far better than what many do today. Today many turn the way of Jesus into a mockery by trying to find a way to keep their money and their eternal life, too.
If you want to keep your money that’s your choice. But at least have the respect and decency to walk away sad! That has more integrity than perverting the way of Jesus by seeking to make God and mammon friends.