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The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege

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Below is the full-length version of “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege,” an essay published in the winter 2011 Religion & Liberty. John Kelly’s essay was shortened because of space limitations for the print issue. He was passionate about sharing the full version, which he edited himself for readers of the PowerBlog. Mr. Kelly, a financial advisor, also authored a piece in 2004 for Religion & Liberty titled “The Tithe: Land Rent to God.”

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by John Kelly

As Jesus conducted his public ministry, he drew considerable crowds. Within the throngs were, of course, the peasants of the neighborhood, along with longer-term disciples. There were many who wished to see miracles, many who wished to hear his sayings of peace, love, hope and promise. There were those who wanted reinforcement of the Law and those who wished to see some of the Law abandoned. And within all these groups were many who were troubled by personal doubt.

Jesus spoke with these people, engaging them, answering their questions, asking them questions, all the while proclaiming the authority and the efficacy of the Law. He said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish – but to complete them.” He then goes on – he’s trying to make sure his listeners understand: “In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.” (Matthew 5:17-18 – NJB)

Some of Jesus’ most engaging images come from these conversations. Rich and poor, titled and powerless, legalists and apostates, disciples and strangers all had encounters with Jesus that fleshed out for them his view of the Law. However, our lack of knowledge regarding the economic, political and cultural environment in which Jesus lived and preached sometimes hampers our understanding of his message.

One of the more famous of these encounters was with the rich young man. This story is found, in almost identical versions, at Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. He approached Jesus and asked what was necessary to be saved. “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied that the young man should keep the commandments. “I have kept all these,” stated the rich young man, “What more do I need to do?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me.” This was too much for the young man. Scripture says that he “went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

This story seems too hard for most of us. What is fundamentally wrong with being rich? Preachers try to make sense of this passage by assuming that the rich young man was too materialistic, and that the story is a warning to us about that failing. That much may be true, however, that interpretation is about the young man’s reaction, not about Jesus’ words. Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Why?

Let us look at the story in light of the Law and the conditions of first century Palestine. The man called Jesus “Master,” and was familiar with the commandments, even exhibiting some bit of pride that he kept them. It is logical to assume that he was a rich young Jewish man. This also meant that he knew the Law, at least as far as the ordinary Jewish man knew it. Josephus and others affirm that the Biblical command to educate children in the Law was being followed. Paul alluded to this requirement when he said, in Acts 22:4 “At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law …” So, as a boy, the rich young man had probably gone to school under religious teachers, as Jesus had, with the Law and the Prophets as his texts. Being a person who was proud of his observance of the commandments, he attended synagogue or Temple services, so his early education in the Law was continuously being reinforced as an adult.

He was also rich. Now being a rich Jew in first century Palestine was an anomaly. Essentially, the Jews had had their land taken from them. They had been reduced to poverty by the rack-rents of their new landlords. Many had been forced to sell themselves or their children into debt bondage or slavery. Their condition resulting from the laws imposed upon them by the Herods and the Romans had quickly changed their status from that of yeoman farmers to right-less serfs.

Over the previous sixty years, bloody succession fights had transferred rule over the land from the Jewish Hasmonians to the Roman-sponsored Herods. First in line was Herod Antipater, a non-Jewish Idumean. His son, Herod the Great, succeeded him. Presented with this rich and abundant land, Herod the Great could not seem to keep himself from plundering it. To him it was like conquered territory, not worthy of his care; worthy only as a source of his enrichment and a demonstration of his power. He did not dally.

That he succeeded is known through a number of sources. Josephus relates that during a succession struggle after Herod the Great’s death in about 4 BC., ambassadors from each of his sons’ camps tried to make their case for successor kingship to Rome, in the person of the emperor, Caesar Augustus. One son’s ambassadors recounted what Herod had done during his reign

… they declared that he [Herod] was indeed in name a king, but that he had taken to himself that uncontrollable authority which tyrants exercise over their subjects, and had made use of that authority for the destruction of the Jews … there were a great many who perished … they that survived were far more miserable … not only from the anxiety they were in … but from the danger their estates were in of being taken away by him.
Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 17.11.2

The passage continues saying that Herod lavished attention and adornments on cities within his kingdom that were occupied by foreigners, but Jewish cities, with the exception of Jerusalem, were ruined and utterly destroyed. The indictment continues stating that whereas, when he took the kingdom, it was in an extraordinary flourishing condition, he had filled the nation with the utmost degree of poverty. Harkening back to the longer passage above, concerning “estates,” Josephus writes that, using trumped-up charges, Herod would confiscate the land of original possessor families or of previous, formerly favored recipients of confiscated lands. So some of these lands were “owned” contrary to the principles of the Mosaic Law already. Now things would get even worse. The “dispossessed,” if they had substantial means, were in deep trouble. Some Herod had killed; the rest were made to give him or his cronies a constant stream of “gifts,” which finally brought them to ruin. The lands were given over by Herod to remaining elite Jews and foreigners who would comply with his corrupt practices. Violent extortion became rampant. Peasant revolts formed overnight; they were put down mercilessly. In a very short time, the people were reduced to deep poverty and even slavery, this from being so individually prosperous just a few short years before. In The Wars of the Jews 2.6.2, Josephus writes that … the Jews had borne more calamities from Herod, in a few years, than had their forefathers … since they had come out of Babylon.

The land they had legally possessed under God’s Law was now in the hands of a distant privileged few. Because the Mosaic land tenure system was primarily based on God’s statement, “the land is mine,” (Lv 25:23), the individual Jewish possessor families had paid rent to God in the form of the tithe; now they were forced to pay rent to the new landlords. Regardless, the priests and the Pharisees demanded that the standard tithes be continued as well – but now on their wages, for they no longer had land. Furthermore, there were now taxes to pay, the equivalents of today’s sales and excise taxes, as well as tolls, fees and whatever arbitrary levies the tax collectors came up with. At the Temple, freewill offerings were no longer freewill; they had become mandatory. Money offerings could only be made in Temple shekels, which, not being in general circulation, had to be purchased at scandalous exchange rates. Each different faction of the power elite demanded, and got, their pound of flesh. The average citizen was driven down by this oppressive regime. The economic Law of Moses, which had protected the people from such abuses for so long, had been crushed.

Yet this Jewish man who approached Jesus was rich. How had he escaped his brothers’ fate?

Although most of the new system had been imposed from the outside, there were a few Jews who participated in it from the top. There were Jewish landlords, Jewish tax farmers (Matthew, the apostle and Gospel writer, for one), and the Jewish family of Hannan, who, according to the Talmud, had the sacrificial pigeon and money exchange monopoly at the Temple. There were Jewish governmental officials who worked under both the Herods and the Romans. Jews were certainly part of Herod’s court and the Roman procurator had Jewish advisors. Contrary to the ancient Exodus principle of equal rights, these Jews had been granted privilege. It follows that our rich young man, being rich, was probably a landlord, a tax farmer, a governmental official, or else some other person of governmental privilege. The non-Jewish world had operated with grants of privilege for millennia. It was the only way within the world’s system that one could become and stay rich. However, privilege was alien to the Law of Moses. Under the Law, there were almost no rich and no poor. Since the exile, the Jews had understood this.

A Jew who accepted privilege was therefore knowingly complicit in the upending of the Law. If a Jew was a landlord during this time, he knew that he was part of the problem, and he could see the effects of the imposed system on his fellow Jews. This is not to say that these individual Jews might not also have done some good. They might have given to the poor or tried to advise against punitive new regulations and laws. Nevertheless, they knew that their gains from the system were illegal under Jewish or Mosaic Law.

In the Book of Ezra, the prophet gathered the leading citizens of the country on account of their lawbreaking. He told them to release their fellow Jews from slavery, to forgive them their debts (including mortgage debts), to restore confiscated or foreclosed land to its legal possessors, and to rid themselves of their non-Jewish wives. They complied because they knew these offenses were against the Law, not because they feared violence at the hands of Ezra, or because they voluntarily wished to become more virtuous. Ezra did not waste much time explaining the Law to them. They knew it already, as did the rich young man five hundred years later.

This man, after telling Jesus that he has kept the Commandments, asks, “What more do I need to do?” He may have been looking for a way out of his privilege dilemma. He seems to be pressing. Perhaps he is feeling guilty. He may not think that Jesus will give him a pass, but that there might be some way, through charity or some other means, to right himself with the Law.

Jesus, for his part, seeing the man pressing for an answer beyond the Commandments, probably perceives that here is someone who might be ready to renounce the privilege system at the root of the people’s plight. He replies, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor …” After all, his possessions are, under God’s Law, the fruits of his participation in the kleptocracy of the Herodian/Roman system. The rich young man was living off stolen goods. Those goods should be returned to their rightful owners. Selling them and giving the proceeds to the poor marks a good faith effort to do just that. When Jesus asks him to get right with the Law, the rich young man understands the context of the request, as do those who witness the exchange. Jesus knows that he has made a difficult request. The Scripture says that he looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him. So he offers two enticements. First, he tries to make it easier on the man by promising a substitution: you will have treasure in heaven. He then offers membership in the messianic company: come, follow me.

The rich young man was in turmoil. He well understood how only compliance with the Law would cause Jesus to let him off the hook. He could feel the love Jesus felt for him, yet he couldn’t bring himself to give up the security of his riches. This Galilean prophet would not compromise his views on the Law. The rich young man made his decision. He sadly walked away.

There was probably silence as the rich young man walked off. The encounter was quite dramatic. This prophet, who seemed to approach everyone with love, gave the rich young man very little wiggle room. The Law, including the economic Law, seemed very important to this teacher.

Matthew and Luke agree with Mark, quoted below, about what happened next:

Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were astounded by these words but Jesus insisted, “My children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Mark 10:23-25

In first century Palestine, the rich, of whom Jesus was speaking, were the privileged. Again, in the Baal-inspired world, only through privilege could a person become rich. And the privileged, particularly the Jewish privileged, knew that their government-granted advantages were paid for by taking from the ordinary populace some of its economic freedom. Jesus said that this recognition made it virtually impossible for the Law-knowing privileged to merit an eternal reward with God. Indeed, he went on to say that it would be difficult for anyone to merit it, presumably because everyone broke the Law – all were (and are) sinners. Then, to drive the point home, he returned to the rich, whom he set apart as particularly grievous lawbreakers. He said it was almost impossible for them to favor reestablishing the kingdom. The familiar eye of a needle comparison left little room. Once Jesus had made his point, he added that God could still ignore the cold demands of justice and, using mercy, save the rich as well as the poor. He sums up the lesson in verse 27: “By human resources it is impossible, but not for God: because for God everything is possible.”

The world ran on the privilege system, the law of Baal. It seemed inescapable, yet Jesus would not make accommodation with it. Better to renounce all of its trappings than to compromise with it. Yet he did say that there was hope – individually, in God’s mercy, and as a people, in God’s Law. God’s Law eliminated privilege. God’s Law provided for everyone. It had in the past and it would again – if only his people would reintroduce it.

So the rich of Jesus’ time were very different from the rich of today’s western economies. Today’s rich, by and large, have earned their riches, or are the progeny of those who have. There is no injustice in such accumulations. The warning and condemnation in the story of the rich young man refer to the ever-present temptation to accumulate riches through government grants of unearned privilege. Our task, in light of the story, is to keep such corrupt systems from reappearing.

Mr. Kelly is a Financial Advisor for a major financial services company. He resides in Peoria, Illinois. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Other Law of Moses.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Roy Langston

    John Kelly wrote:

    “So the rich of Jesus’ time were very different from the rich of today’s western economies. Today’s rich, by and large, have earned their riches, or are the progeny of those who have. There is no injustice in such accumulations.”

    This claim is not only false, it is absurd and outrageous. Almost all substantial accumulations of wealth are the fruit of privilege, and the rich of today, like the rich of any time in history, have very rarely made any contribution to production commensurate with the share of production they appropriate for themselves.

    The most common way to get rich is to pocket publicly created land value. The widespread popular desire to get in on this scam caused the recent global financial crisis. Other common forms of privilege that have given the rich their unearned wealth are government-issued and -enforced intellectual property monopolies, private commercial banks’ privilege of issuing debt money, utility monopolies, broadcast spectrum allocations, mineral “rights,” government subsidies, no-bid government contracts, etc., etc.

    When I examined how 21 American billionaires Forbes described as “self-made” had obtained their wealth, all but four had mainly done it by privilege, sharp practice, trading and manipulating privileges, or government favors of various kinds. Only four of the 21 — less than 20% — could actually have achieved their positions of wealth by commensurate contributions to production. And even in those cases, it is not clear how much they had benefited by privilege, only that they MIGHT not have. The other 17 CERTAINLY had. That ratio is no doubt far worse among the hundreds of billionaires Forbes didn’t consider “self-made”:

  • Ken McNeff

    Thanks for this article and response. Your analysis seems spot-on, with two caveats: Jesus asked the man for the one thing he treasured more than God, his wealth, although the reasons you gave might be why he so treasured it; also, Mr. Langston’s comment is a bit harsh to those who dream up a new product or way of production and have the wherewithal to bring it to fruition (as opposed to those who have an idea but don’t perfect it enough to patent it, or get the patent and can’t produce it, or sell the rights to a company that stuffs the idea rather than allow the improvement–as happened with disk brakes in the 30’s.) I did especially like Mr Kelly’s perspective on tithe as land rent, and Mr. Langston’s picture of the greed and privilige that have in many ways shaped America. I have been reading in the Oxford Book of American History about the many government-sponsored ways that gave privilege or the opportunity to gouge, graft, and grab anything available.

  • Roger McKinney

    Very impressive chapter by Kelly. Thanks! I had come to a similar conclusion after reading some of Douglass North’s works on institutions. North says that in the traditional form of government the ruler gains the support of the elite by giving them the privilege of looting the masses. That didn’t change until the creation of the Dutch Republic.

    Another historian has written that the “honored” ways of getting wealth in the past were looting in war, kidnapping for ransom, obtaining a monopoly from the king, or taking bribes as a member of government. Commerce was despised.

    Roy: “the rich of any time in history, have very rarely made any contribution to production commensurate with the share of production they appropriate for themselves.”

    How do you know? Sound economics says they do. Do you assume Marx’s labor theory of value?

    Roy: “The most common way to get rich is to pocket publicly created land value.”

    What does that mean?

    I agree that the politically connected do have advantages, but patents and copyrights aren’t among them. Anarcho-capitalists and socialist-libertarians don’t like them, but their logic is very shaky. BTW, you forgot to add the socialist-libertarian hatred of corporations.

    The main way that the state enriches the wealthy at the expense of the poor is through monetary policy. Inflationary policies transfer wealth from the poor and working classes to the rich.

  • John L. Kelly

    Mr. Langston, even though you seem very angry, I think you partially make my point – that it was privilege Jesus was talking about, not wealth. I don’t know if your analysis of the Forbes list is correct or not (it sounds like you’re approaching the survey with less than an objective eye), but I believe you are correct that privilege plays a very significant role in America today. Most of today’s governmental activity, Federal, state and local, consists of parceling out privilege. That the economy is still growing attests, I believe, to the fact that privilege has not completely overwhelmed us. If things were as dire as you describe, we would not grow and would begin to regress.
    I do believe privilege is alive and well in our society. And I believe it is growing. Jesus hated it, as should we all.

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