Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
The “poor” young, rich man in Matthew 19:16-23. I say “poor” because I think he’s gotten a raw deal over the centuries of teaching on the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven. I say this not because I’m young or rich (I’m neither), but because we, as readers of the famous passage, have closed the door to the young man. Here’s the passage about the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-23:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “‘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 ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Jerome Biblical Commentary is unequivocal in its summation of the rich young man’s action: “The invitation [to follow Jesus] is refused.”
But wait a minute. Where does the biblical text actually say that the young man refused the call? It merely says that “he went away sad” in St. Matthew’s account. St. Mark gives us more detail, but no further words on outright refusal: “At that statement [from Jesus] his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
St. Luke’s version is perhaps the most open to a positive interpretation, since he doesn’t say that the rich young man left Jesus at all, merely that “when he heard this he became quite sad, for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
St. Ignatius of Loyola tells us, when reading Holy Scripture, to place ourselves in the Gospel stories, and I think that the story of the rich, young man is one we can do so fairly easily since most of us do “have many possessions,” even if we are not “rich” or have “great wealth.”
In the story St. Mark goes so far as to say that “Jesus looked at the young man with love.” Jesus is not, of course, trying to trip up this would-be follower, let alone fleece him, but is simply calling him to a life of perfection, which is by way of separation of his attachment to his many worldly goods.
We need only look at the example, over a millennium later, of how well this worked out for St. Francis. We all know the story but it is worth repeating: St. Francis did indeed give away absolutely everything, including his very clothes, and was immediately disowned by his father, and, for the most part thought of as some religious lunatic by the populace who mocked him. St. Francis, of course, didn’t care. He simply felt it was unchristian to be in the presence of anyone poorer than oneself. And lest we cast too much a hagiographical sheen on the Great Saint of Assisi: while he lived to see his Order of the Least Brothers flourish and spread, he also saw it splinter and fracture during his own lifetime. (In the words of historian Kenneth Clark, “Even St. Francis knew that he himself was no administrator.”)
If that’s the result of one of the greatest saints the Church has ever produced—a saint who had the Church firmly planted both in Rome and in the Empire—what are we to think of the young Jewish man who “had kept all the commandments” and merely wanted to know what the next step was?
It’s easy to pile on and say, of course, “Well, if I were there, and saw Jesus working all these miracles, surely I would have left everything and followed him!” Maybe. But remember: this was a young man: and his “going away sad” may mean nothing more than this: he had to go home and tell his father and mother (for surely the wealth was not his alone, it was his family’s) and tell them something like this:
“Mom and dad: I’m renouncing all of my possessions to follow the itinerant teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He told me that, though I have kept all the commandments since I was a little boy, I need to sell all that I have, give it to the poor, and follow him. I believe that He is The Christ, and I hope you will respect and understand my decision. I still love you, but I have to follow Him.”
Again, the rich, young man didn’t have the luxury, literally, that St. Francis had—that is, of the Church Triumphant on earth surrounding him on all sides. (Ironically, this is the aspect of the Church St. Francis wanted to modify by embracing “Lady Poverty” and owning nothing, individually or in common.) In fact, the Church was composed, at the time of the story, of Jesus, the Twelve Apostles and Mary, and a shifting group of disciples—including a couple of rich men, namely Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, the former of which was a secret follower.
Can you imagine that long walk home the rich young man had, going over in his head what he was going to tell his parents? Or for that matter his siblings? If he were the eldest son, he would have to pass on the right of primogeniture to the next brother in line. Who knows what that brother would have thought of his sibling’s seeming temporary insanity.
It’s been said that the problem Jesus had during his time with His “Good News” was not that it was “Good” (who would argue with giving alms to the poor?), but that it was new: give all you have to the poor and then come and follow me.
Further, this seems to be the young man’s first actual meeting with Jesus. We know this because he addresses Jesus improperly (and Jesus corrects him “Why do you call me ‘good’?”) and he has an inherent knowledge that, even though he has “kept the commandments” he is missing something (otherwise why would he ask Jesus anything at all).
If we stay with the story, the Apostles aren’t much help: St. Peter immediately wonders aloud where all this self-renunciation is getting them: “Then Peter said to him [Jesus] in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?”
But it’s the line immediately preceding St. Peter’s question that gives me hope that the Rich Young Man did, indeed, went and sold all and wound up following Jesus:
“Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (emphasis added)
We know that the rich young man went away sad. But I hope that he came back happy and perfected his faith by following Jesus.