Barrier to Discipleship

The rich young man's wealth led him to decline Jesus’ invitation -- Part 2


Faith Virtue

In my previous post I discussed one way Jesus’ statement about the rich man may have overwhelmed His audience. There is a second way.

Jesus did not say (in Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) how much property makes one so rich that he is like the camel. We all have possessions. How many possessions make us so “rich” we cannot enter the kingdom? If the rich — that is, each of us, because of whatever possessions we have — cannot enter the kingdom, then no one can. Who, then, can be saved?

Let’s take this a step further. There is more than material wealth that makes us like the camel. We are endowed with non-material attributes — our intelligence, our athletic ability, our beauty, our charm, our humor, our musical talent, our mechanical or computer or videogame aptitude. Even if these attributes are not used to obtain money, as in the way a professional athlete uses athletic ability or models their beauty, these attributes are our “riches.”

We each possess at least some such riches. So, like Jesus’ audience, we can be overwhelmed by His statement that we are like the camel and cannot enter the kingdom because of such riches.

At this point, it is good to reflect on the context in which Jesus made His proclamation. A man had come “running up” to Him. One report was that he was “young,” another that he was a member of the “ruling class.” Maybe he was both: the rich, young man. In any case, he was excited about the prospect of talking with Jesus about what matters most in life. He “knelt down before Him,” showing his sincerity and earnestness.

“Good Teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to share in everlasting life?” Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” asks the man. Jesus replies with the ones we have learned in Sunday school, the Ten Commandments: “’You shall not kill’; ‘You shall not commit adultery’;  ‘You shall not steal’; ‘You shall not bear false witness’; ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The man replies, “Teacher, I have kept all these since I was a boy.” “Then Jesus looked at him with love…” Jesus saw the character of this man and saw his great potential. As the Great Physician, He prescribes the one action that would free him from holding back: “There is one thing further you must do.”

The man hangs on His every word. Jesus says, “Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow Me.”

“Hearing these words, the man grew melancholy and went away sad, for his possessions were many.” (Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-30)

Jesus saw his melancholy, his sadness, his walking away. Then He looked at those present and made His declaration about the rich and the camel. It may be worthwhile for us to observe that, in Matthew’s Gospel, the story of the rich, young man follows Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and the disciples (all of them) saying to Jesus: “If that is how things are between a husband and wife, it is advisable not to marry!” (Matt. 19:10)

The story of the rich, young man is the only instance reported in the Gospels of a person who declined Jesus’ invitation specifically to become a disciple. One commentator writes:

What exactly did this man lose? When we examine it, we are ready to award him the prize for having made the world’s biggest blunder. He missed a great friendship. What else in all human history could compare to that prize, an elbow-to-elbow companionship with Jesus, hearing him, seeing him, being loved by him? He missed a great development… Peter [for example] …grew out of provincial ownership into universal sainthood. [This man] missed a great adventure. When he saw the little group of disciples disappear down the road, he did not know that they were walking directly into the center of the greatest romance in history. He might have been the author of a gospel. His influence might have endured to the end of time but for a few acres and a few bags of gold! (Prof. Halford E. Luccock, Exposition of Mark’s Gospel, The Interpreters’ Bible, vol. VII, 1951, p. 805)

And today, Jesus offers each of us His friendship. He offers to develop us from sinner to sainthood. He offers us the opportunity to walk with Him on an evangelical adventure! Each of us is richly endowed in one fashion or another. Indeed, it is the things in which we are rich that prevent us from seeking His friendship and embarking on adventure with Him — and these are the things we must give away. “If your hand or foot is your undoing, cut it off and throw it from you” (Matt. 18:8). If your riches, if your talents, prevent you from entering the kingdom, then give them away, throw them away. As Jesus informed His disciples: With God, it is possible! If we do not, then, despite our hopes and dreams and intentions, we will be like the camel trying to squeeze his way through the eye of a needle.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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