The more I read this story the more I am convinced it is not about treasure, but about trust; not about keeping rules but about seeing the big picture.
It’s initially interesting in Mark’s telling of this story that the man calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Jesus questions him saying: “No one is good but God alone.” To me this hints at the basis for the interaction. This man sees God active through Jesus; he is not just another teacher. He is drawn to Jesus, perhaps to be validated as “good,” but mostly because he is seeking something more.
Jesus first gives the standard “religious” answer: Keep the commandments. This is a checklist, but more than a checklist. This is the binary realm of dualistic consciousness: You have stolen, or not; you have murdered, or not; you have honored your parents, or not. It’s a guide for what Richard Rohr calls “the small self,” the ego that seeks to build itself up, put others down, and exert control.
The law can be a great source of certainty on a simplistic level. It implies a transactional deal with God: “If I do this (or don’t do that), God will accept me and welcome me into eternal life.” It also implies a separateness from those who don’t keep the same laws. And if we’re honest for most of us it allows us to say, “Thank God I’m not like them!”
This is approach is also about “control.” And it is our control, not God’s that really matters. It is I that keeps the commandments, and God is bound to offer suitable rewards.
The man quickly affirms that he has kept all of the commands since his youth – for as long as he has been accountable to do so. As I imagine this scene playing out, I do not hear the man boasting or arrogantly demanding his inheritance. He has come to Jesus as a seeker, asking for eternal life. I imagine the young man saying this in slight puzzlement, with a twinge of sadness. “I have kept all the rules – why am I still seeking?” Knowing the Hebrew texts he might be questioning the psalmist: “I have made the Lord my shepherd; why do I still lack something?”
This deep question gets Jesus’ attention. Mark shares a detail that Matthew and Luke skip over: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” One commentator says that the Greek word translated “look” really means to see deeply, to observe someone and know a truth about them. And what Jesus sees in this rich man moves him to compassion. He understands why the man is dissatisfied by keeping all the rules and desires a fuller, “eternal” life.
Many Christians have translated the phrase “eternal life” into “a place in heaven when I die,” an “eternal reward.” Scholars note that the phrase “eternal life” is difficult to translate. In The Secret Message of Jesus Brian McLaren calls it a life distinguishable from the common life most of us live. It is “a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.”” N.T. Wright calls it “the life of the coming age” – the age Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Brian Stoffregen says eternal life is “experiencing God through the one God sent.”
In that understanding, it makes sense that Jesus “loved” the man (Stoffregen says this is the only place in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus loves someone) by presenting to him not yet another command, but an act that can move him fully into this Kingdom-shaped life.
If I am honest I must admit that sometimes I get hung up on Jesus’ call to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Our culture places a lot of value on what we own, and teaches us to derive identity from it. This command touches on the weaknesses in McLaren’s contrast to eternal life – “life as people are living it these days.” In many discussions of this text that I have participated in, solid Christians focus on the importance of providing for ourselves and our families and don’t consider the import of what Jesus says next: “you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
I hear Jesus not simply calling the man to let go of his possessions, but calling him more deeply into a life marked with surrender and solidarity. Jesus calls him to surrender the illusion that keeping the law earns him anything. He is asked to consider the possibility that God may have use for his wealth that have nothing to do with him, and to let go and live into that possibility. Selling all one’s possessions is not charity but a change of lifestyle. It moves him from seeing himself as different from the poor – even from seeing himself as a benefactor – and recognizing that he is the poor, and the poor are just like him. Selling is an act of solidarity, of standing with the poor in their poverty (as God does), of acknowledging the shared humanity and humility ignored by “life as people are living it these days.”
This entire exchange is about making the transition to a higher stage of the spiritual journey. Jesus calls this man to move from keeping the law’s externals to embodying its spirit. He is asked to leave the dualistic thinking that allows him to keep the law while separating himself from those who are different and enter the world of what Rohr calls “unitive consciousness,” where he would see himself as both saint and sinner, both rich and poor, and experience relationship with God through humble relationship with all of God’s people (not just those like him).
The young man knows he lacks something, and thinks he wants this kind of alternative life, with less focus on the wealth and the rule-keeping that he knows doesn’t satisfy. Jesus offers him that way, which requires taking on a more expansive, less ego-driven way of thinking. (Jesus knew, long before Einstein, that transcending our problems requires new ways of thinking.)
It’s not surprising that the man is “shocked, and went away grieving.” Jesus’ solution is the last thing his everyday small self would think of, and elevates following the rules to surrendering to the rule-giver. Like many of us in Western consumer society, he has many possessions and he is attached to them; selling them is a form of death of the assumptions he has played by his entire life.
I like that this story, unlike so many of Jesus’ encounters, does not resolve with a clear answer or an easy moral. The step Jesus is calling for is not a quick “decision for Christ” as much as a process of developing a new way of thinking, seeing and living. We do not learn whether the man takes Jesus’ offer or settles for his old pattern of keeping the commandments and his personal wealth. Because ultimately this is not his story. It’s ours. And its questions call attention to those we must face on our lifelong spiritual quests.