The Rich Young Man

The Rich Young Man

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year. Fr. Aidan Nichols preaches on the man who had kept all the commandments and whom Jesus loved.

Today’s is one of those Gospel readings that show you what a Gospel is for, why the Gospels are there at all. Jesus’ encounters with other people are not just told because they happened. They’re told because they put us on the spot. We’re brought face to face with the challenge of Jesus and have to come up with a response.

Take this incident of the rich young man. This young man comes up to Jesus. He’s a good, solid, upright, well-instructed, devout young Jew, a fine specimen of Jewish humanity. That’s clear from the conversation with Jesus.

Jesus reminds him of the Ten Commandments which then, as now, were the bases of a good life. The young man replies very simply: these he has kept from his earliest youth. Not a boast. Just stating a straightforward matter of fact.

There’s no suggestion that Jesus either disbelieves or disapproves of what he says or the way he says it. Quite the contrary.

He looked steadily at him and loved him.

Loved him for his uncomplicated integrity, his sheer basic goodness.

But this goodness is not enough.

There is one thing you lack.

Here comes the bombshell.

Go, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, and follow me.

Being good is not a sufficient condition for being a disciple of Jesus. Indeed, in the first place it’s not even a necessary condition. There’s something even more fundamental than goodness — so it turns out — and without this ‘something’ that’s even more basic than goodness, you can’t even get started on the journey to the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

Whatever can it be? It’s the recognition of the falseness of our claim to be rich, to have all we need. We can be as good as we like, but if we think we’re sufficient unto ourselves, then the God Jesus proclaimed is shut out of our lives.

In the case of the rich young man, it was literal riches – cash, property — that filled in the emptiness that should have been there. In our case, it may be another kind of riches. It may be intellectual riches, it may be emotional riches.

In each case we make a false claim to be able to cope with anything in life — to buy our way out of situations, to talk our way out of situations, or to charm our way out of situations. And this is what has to be cleared away before we can become disciples.

The Kingdom is the reign of a God who is Love: who is unconditional, overflowing, complete and utter generosity. A God who by his own nature keeps giving himself away, as the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us. A God who would lavish himself on us.

We know from experience that to admit our need of love from anyone is a humbling experience. It is humiliating actually to feel sick because the signs are that X or Y has ceased to love me. Humiliating because it entails recognising my need, my not being sufficient unto myself.

Along with that recognition must come the knowledge that if my happiness depends on something or someone outside me, over which or whom I have no control, then I may never be happy. And then what a crowd of demons jump out of Pandora’s box! It’s easier to stick with the idea of being rich or clever of good-looking or nice and leave it at that.

The revelation of an all-loving God means we can’t just leave it at that. We could be so much greater, bigger than we are, because the divine Lover is dying to make us so. The crucifixion was the final appeal to us to start to live from this love, but God’s wanting had been going on the whole time.

The question for us is: What are we going to do about it? Shall we change the orientation and tenor of our lives? Or shall we say it’s all a bit too risky? Shall we go away like the rich young man? Sorrowfully, of course. But go away all the same.

Readings: Wis 7:7-11 | Heb 4:12-13 | Mark 10:17-30

fr Aidan Nichols is a well-known and prolific writer and theologian.