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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THE RICH YOUNG MAN: THE LAW VERSUS PRIVILEGE
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? (more…)