The story of the rich young man is a lesson on a life of detachment from material possessions and a reliance on divine grace. The young aristocrat came to Jesus with an air of exuberance and self-assuredness. He was a man of great wealth and social privilege. He says to Jesus: “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was looking for reassurance that he had all that was required. However, Jesus started by challenging him on what it meant to be “good”. God alone is good and, therefore, calling Jesus “good” must be in recognition of his divinity which is the source of all goodness. Consequently, no one else and nothing can be good except it came from God.
The rich young man has a superficial view of salvation, whereby one only needs to fulfil certain external rules. However, Jesus highlights the one thing he lacks – consideration for the poor. This man is looking for some specific tasks he could do to merit eternal life. Perhaps Jesus would ask him to set up a global foundation to fight Malaria somewhere in Africa, or to build an orphanage in India. Perhaps the Lord would appoint him into the Finance Committee of the about-to-be-formed Church. However, all that Jesus desires is the man’s heart, and that heart is somewhere else. The heart is centred on his wealth and the Scripture is clear that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). Jesus seeks to rescue the rich young man from the shackles of his wealth, which has become a formidable obstacle to his spiritual advancement.
The rich young man knows very well how to acquire wealth but very little about using it for the common good. Regarding the Mosaic Law, he knows how to avoid evil but not so much how to do good. He seeks to keep his money safe in the bank, but Jesus wants it invested – in people. Jesus wants him to learn the value of investing in human capital, and the need to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. By confidently asking Jesus, “What must I do?”, the rich man seems to believe in his ability to construct his own road to heaven. No doubt he genuinely desired eternal life, and we see that Jesus loved him, but his idea of how to achieve that is not exactly right and that is what Jesus steps in to correct – to shift his focus from clinging to riches to spending the wealth for the benefit of humanity, especially the underprivileged. That way he would build riches for himself in heaven.
However, the rich man was so obsessed with his possessions that he did not accept Jesus’ invitation. He went away very sad because he could not imagine a life without his great wealth. The man’s unwillingness to part with his riches for the sake of eternal life underscores the point made by the Lord that it is very hard for those who accumulate treasures to enter the kingdom of heaven. At face value, it might seem like Jesus is launching class warfare against the rich, given his assertion that, it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). However, he is only drawing attention to how an inordinate attachment to material wealth can impede one’s spiritual growth. It is this pitfall that he seeks to take out of the way for the rich young man, so he could be open to divine graces. The rich man’s attitude reflects the lamentation of Psalm 49:2 that: “In his riches, man lacks wisdom; he is like the beasts that are destroyed.”
Like the rich young man, however, many in our time think they could construct their own highway to heaven by means of their wealth. Everyone is required to be charitable and more so the rich. No one can attain eternal life by clinging to their material riches while ignoring the needs of the less fortunate ones around them. A fundamental characteristic of Christian discipleship is the spirit of generosity, solicitude for the poor, and solidarity with the entire human family, because “a man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen. (1 John 4:20).
However, it is not only power and money that one can get inordinately attached to. One can also be spiritually blinded by material poverty if such a person has the spirit of envy in them. One can get attached to poverty when they let it becloud their mindset and negatively influence the way they see themselves, others and God. When a poor person’s life is characterized by bitterness and envy towards those who are successful; when one takes on a victim mentality and sees those doing well as enemies, that is an unhealthy attachment to poverty. When we let their material poverty snuff out the daylight from their horizon and all they see is doom and gloom; when we let our Christian joy get stifled under the mist of jealousy and malice, and our hope gives way to sorrow and despair, then there is an unhealthy attachment to poverty.
The kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about in the beatitudes is not necessarily for the materially poor but for those who are “poor in spirit”, that is those who recognize their need for God’s help and open themselves to it – rich and poor alike. Therefore, whether poor or rich, we must learn not to cling to our material existence, so much that it blurs our vision and openness to God’s grace. When we cling to things, we begin to love them more than people, love ourselves more than others, and ultimately, we begin to turn our back on Jesus.
Therefore, beloved brethren, let us pray today for the grace to always choose Jesus over and above our most prized possessions and relationships, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).