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The Rich Young Ruler Revisited

We’ve become accustomed to read the story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22) who Jesus commands to sell all his possessions as a kind of cautionary tale. The rich man, upon hearing Jesus’s demands, departs, unwilling to heed the call, caring more about his riches than about the life Jesus offers him.

Now, there is no way to be certain that I can see from the text, but I get no sense that we should automatically assume that this man rejected Jesus’s call. If he had rejected Jesus’s command, one would expect him to go away scoffing, not grieving (10:22). If he had rejected Jesus’s teaching there would be no reason for him to be sorrowful, and yet the text tells us that he departed in great distress.

Add to that that the whole point of the story, according to Jesus, is the hardness of discipleship and the corresponding abundance of God’s power in the face of this hardness. The response of the disciples to Jesus’s statement is the wondering, “Who then can be saved?” And yet this distressed wondering is addressed with the assurance that “for God all things are possible.”

The stress in the text, then, is on the genuine renunciation, the very real dispossession that is required in following Jesus, coupled with the assurance that God’s abundant power can indeed bring even the most compromised of us onto this liberating and life-giving path. Indeed, in reading this text we might do best to see ourselves in the shoes of this rich man. Like him, the task before us is often the journey home, into the depths of our own power and security so that we may renounce it for the sake of the life set before us.


  1. Zack Allen wrote:

    Doesn’t tradition identify the “Rich Young Ruler” as Barnabas?

    Monday, October 12, 2009 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Khegan wrote:

    Barth in his concluding digression which deals with the “The Form of the Divine Claim”, says something similar concerning Mar. 10: 17-31 (CD II/2; pg. 613-630). Barth point is simply to say that without the power of God, the disciples would be in the same situation as the Rich Young Ruler. The fact that they are disciples is simply due to the grace of God. In light of this, the story should not be thought of as a hopeless one, but one that exhorts trust in a gracious God, with Whom the impossible is possible. The response of the Rich Young Ruler to the demand of Jesus does not seem to suggest an outright rejection of the message of the Kingdom, but neither does the response of the disciples suggest that they have fully understood the demand that the Kingdom has on the them (cf. 10: 26). In this regard, Jesus’ concluding statement seems to imply an hopeful open-endedness: the first shall be last and the last shall be first (10: 31)

    Monday, October 12, 2009 at 11:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Never heard that, Zack. Interesting indeed!

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink
  4. Charlie Collier wrote:

    One of the most important parts of this passage comes at v. 21: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing. . .’” It’s important to note that Jesus heaps no scorn or condemnation on the wealthy man. Rather, Jesus sees the man and who he is, and he loves him precisely in summoning him in this particular way. I suppose it is rather terrifying to imagine oneself seen and loved by Jesus in similar fashion. Who among us wants to be seen and loved in such a way that demands more of us than an adjustment here, a tweak there? Most of us would rather take the blue pill. Perhaps the “hardness” of discipleship can be put in these terms—it’s not difficult because God somehow rejoices in difficulty, celebrates agony, or what have you; it’s difficult because the unity of love and truth, the unity of grace and judgment, often casts the most deeply unflattering light on our lives.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  5. myles wrote:

    Can I call for a moratorium on the word “dispossession?” Just like “the other”, I find it a little nebulous and overused.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    dispossession n bad shit that happens and makes you think about how crazy life is and how Jesus is awesome.

    Hopefully that clears things up.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Can I call for a moratorium on moratoriums?

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  8. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I.e., what Halden must often experience in light of the open comment policy on his blog.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  9. Very nice, Halden. Thanks for sharing!

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Dan wrote:

    The first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye returns home, his horse having gone lame… and in the barn he dreams of being a rich man singing “If I Were a Rich Man.” After naming all the benefits of being rich (including his wife having a proper double chin!) he comes to the ultimate benefit and the deepest longing of his soul – he’d be able to spend all his time at the synagogue with the Rabbi and other bible scholars and study the Word of God and pray and live a life of devotion. At that point the story of the rich young man came immediately to mind… If the rich, who have the time to learn and study and pray, and give alms can’t be saved!!!??? where does that leave those of us who spend every minute of their days trying to keep food on the table with no time the study God’s word.

    Good insight into this story and whose to say whether this young man may have been among the first to sale his possessions and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles if he hadn’t already done so before the opening chapters of Acts

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  11. Claire Carlson wrote:

    Many, many years ago I read the conjecture that the rich young ruler might be Barnabas, in a book entitled ‘the Treasures of the New Testament’. I haven’t been able to find the book again (can’t remember the author) and I’ve not heard the suggestion again. I’d be very interested to hear more.

    Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 5:30 am | Permalink

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