It’s not because of any details in this text, but based on details from Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the same story, that we call this man the “Rich Young Ruler.” In all three versions the man has many possessions, and thus it grieves him to hear Jesus tell him he must sell them all and give the money to the poor in order to follow him into eternal life. But only in Matthew’s version is he called a young man, and only in Luke is he called a ruler.
I wish we had a name for him, but we don’t. Oftentimes when people are named in the Gospels, it could be because the people who first read or heard them knew those people somehow. Later in Mark, when Simon of Cyrene is called on to carry Jesus’ cross for him, the names of his sons are given—Alexander and Rufus—leading some to believe that they were members of the early Christian community. Similarly, when the blind man Bartimaeus, whom we’ll meet in next week’s reading, is healed in Jericho, he follows Jesus “on the way,” and “the Way” was an early name for the Christian faith; so it’s likely Bartimaeus was a disciple of Jesus from that moment on, and people knew him, or knew of him.
But we don’t know the name of the man in this text. In Luke, however, he’s called “a certain ruler,” which could mean Luke’s original readers knew who he was; but even there his name isn’t given. So we don’t know, and his name could just as easily be any of our names, because his stumbling block could very well be our stumbling block, too.
The man came to Jesus and knelt down, the right posture for someone seeking to learn something from a rabbi. His question was sincere: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man has kept the commandments his whole life; does he think there is something more he needs to do? Does he feel like there’s something missing in his life? We don’t know, but he does appear to be asking because he sincerely wants to know, not as a test or an attempt to entrap Jesus.
And Jesus looks at him—not just a sidelong glance, but seriously looks at him, sees who and what he is, maybe a little of what made him tick; some might say Jesus could see right into his soul. As he looked at him, it says Jesus loved him. Why does it tell us that? We often say that Jesus loves everyone, and of course I believe it; but I think this is more than that or else it wouldn’t be so remarkable.
Jesus and the man connected in some way, and Jesus understood that he was genuinely seeking to be part of the Kingdom of God (which is what is meant in Mark when anybody gets to talking about eternal life). Jesus probably also understood that what he was going to ask the man to do was going to be very difficult. I think it would be very hard for most of us sitting here, myself included.
Some preachers have softened the blow for us—after all, in comparison with much of the rest of the world, even the poorest of us here are unimaginably wealthy—by saying that this was only one man, and he was the only person Jesus ever told to get rid of all his wealth; so we’re not necessarily called to give away all our money and possessions, but to identify the one thing that is hindering us from entering the Kingdom of God, and setting that aside.
But quite frankly, for a great many people in this country, I suspect that one thing would be exactly what it was for the man in our text today. I’ve got some really nice stuff, a big house and two nice cars (if the one ever gets out of the shop), pretty jewelry and musical instruments, a pension accumulating. And given that, I don’t think it’s right to say, “Well, thank God he isn’t going to ask me to do that; only that one man had to give up his fancy possessions.” Maybe he just hasn’t yet. But if he did, I wonder how I’d react.
Would Jesus be so very compelling that I’d gladly leave everything to follow him, even my opals and my pension? Or would I go away shocked and grieving at the prospect? What about you?
What is it about wealth that makes it such a stumbling block for those who want to enter the Kingdom of God?
In Jesus’ day—and I think this is probably the case for us today, at least on some level—material prosperity was actually seen as a sign that a person was righteous, and as a result blessed by God. We can see it in the Psalms and Proverbs—the very first Psalm talks about how those who delight in God’s Law, and meditate on it day and night, will find that “in all that they do, they prosper.” (Granted, there are a lot of places where the Psalms complain about the wicked prospering, and Proverbs 17:8 speaks of how a person who gives bribes will prosper at every turn. But the notion that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing became the prevailing understanding among Jesus’ people.)
There was also the reality that only those who had material wealth were able to perform all the religious rituals the Pharisees had determined were required in order to be considered righteous before God. For Jesus to tell this man that he had to give up all his wealth to enter the Kingdom of God ran counter to everything that was a given in his culture.
That one might not be the case for us, but it is true that money buys power and influence. This isn’t something new that’s just become part of American politics in the last few years, either, with the very broken campaign finance system we’re operating under. In this country back in the mid-1800s we had Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine controlling politics in New York; in the Renaissance the Medici family controlled not just politics but also religion in Europe.
(Of course, a person can use their wealth and power for good; Warren Buffett has encouraged the world’s most wealthy people to sign his “Giving Pledge,” promising to give the majority of their wealth to helping others. 207 people have signed the pledge, including Buffett, of course; filmmaker George Lucas; hoteliers Barron Hilton and Richard and Nancy Marriott; tech figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg; Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; and many others of a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. And one of the signers of Buffett’s pledge, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has been involved for many years in bringing technology into poorer schools, helping eradicate dangerous diseases in poverty-stricken parts of the world, and so on. It’s because he has that wealth, and the power and influence that come with it, that he’s able to get these things done.)
Once we have wealth, and the power and influence that come with it, it’s a very difficult thing to give that up. No wonder the man in our reading today was shocked and went away grieving.
The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like earthly kingdoms do. In the Kingdom of God, those who are used to throwing their weight around will be humbled, and those who are used to being ground into the dirt will come out on top. That man could well have been one of the former; he had many possessions, and maybe they bought him some power in the world he lived in—and Jesus was asking him to become like those who had nothing, no money, no power, no voice, no place to lay their heads. It’s a difficult thing. It would be difficult for us, even though we are here today because we are trying to follow Jesus and live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
But you know what? Nowhere does it say that the man, after going away shocked and grieving, didn’t come back. It doesn’t say this man couldn’t follow Jesus. We don’t know what happened to him after this. Maybe it wasn’t that day, maybe it wasn’t even the next, maybe it took years, but is it thoroughly impossible that the man could have taken what Jesus said to heart, and eventually was able to do what Jesus told him to do?
We just don’t know. But there’s one thing that gives us hope—gives hope for this man, and gives hope for all of us, as we sit here in the wealthiest country on earth, with material blessings some people in the world couldn’t even dream of having.
This man came to Jesus with a request: Tell me what I need to do in order to inherit eternal life (in other words, to be part of the Kingdom of God). And what Jesus told him he needed to do was shocking and left him sorrowful. And the disciples were bewildered: they were also a part of this culture that said wealth and power were signs of God’s blessing; so if Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, who could be saved? Who would be able to do what it takes to be a citizen of the Kingdom?
“For mortals, it is impossible,” he said. Rich or poor, powerful or vulnerable, we cannot do what needs to be done to be saved—not a single one of us, not the rich young ruler, not Peter, nobody. But for God, all things are possible.
Left to his own, the rich man would never be able to give up his wealth…but who’s to say the words Jesus spoke to him, the love Jesus had for him, didn’t continue to work in his heart and in his life even after he went away shocked and grieving? Who’s to say he never turned away from the things that held him back from following Jesus into the Kingdom of God? And if he could have, then who’s to say anyone can’t? Mark 15:21; see also Romans 16:13.  Mark 10:46-52, which will be part of our reading for next Sunday.  See Acts 9:2.  Psalm 1:3.  The complete list of signers, and a little information about the causes they support, is available at givingpledge.org.