The Trouble With the Rich Young Man

Heinrich Hofmann (1824–1911), “Christ and the Rich Young Man”
Heinrich Hofmann (1824–1911), “Christ and the Rich Young Man” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

The story of the Rich Young Man whom Jesus sends away sad, is arguably the most arresting example of the limits of mere moralism. The relevant details may be found in each of the three synoptic writers — Matthew, Mark and Luke — thus showing a similitude so striking that only the Holy Ghost could have arranged it. 

Take Mark 10:17, for instance, as representative of the other two. Here we are told that just as Jesus is about to leave Judea, where he has been blessing and teaching the crowds, “a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” That was the ice-breaker. Ten deceptively simple words, which Jesus appears to brush aside by asking a question of his own: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). Jesus goes on to remind him of a number of the commandments necessary to the moral life: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (10:19).

This is at once followed by the astounding admission that the young man has already been observing these things. All the commandments, in fact, from the earliest days of his youth have been the constant refrain of his life. At which point, the Evangelist reveals how Jesus, in looking upon him, “loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (10:20-21). 

What comes next, of course, is nothing less than the Great Refusal, resulting in the young man going away sad, owing to so many possessions of which he could not bring himself to part. 

Extraordinary, isn’t it? But hold on a moment. Has he really not done enough to satisfy the demands laid down by the law? What more must he do to warrant that approval from God that entitles him not to go away sad, but to be filled with joy and contentment for all the good he’s accomplished? Let us count the ways, as they say. To begin with, he’s shown the keenest possible interest in getting to heaven. What else would account for so exemplary an ethical performance? He’s not been the least bit inattentive, in other words, in keeping the books, burnishing the tablets, as it were, of the Mosaic Law. 

And, certainly, in calling Jesus Good Teacher, he has rightly seized upon the perfect source for knowing what needs to be done. Who else has cornered that particular market? So, what’s the problem here? Why should he be sad at all? 

Because, in his search for salvation, for that perfect realization of the good he longs to possess, keeping the commandments will not be enough. It will never be enough. Not unless it were to become an aspect of a much larger matter, which is one of relationship, of actually turning one’s life over to Another. And so it is not really about the Law, after all, as though one’s life were wedded to a series of precepts. But to the Law Giver, who, in the context of the story, bears a unique and unrepeatable name, to wit, Jesus the Christ, who has come among us in search of all the lost. That includes, by the way, the Rich Young Man, who as yet does not really know that he is lost. 

What the episode is telling us, and without any sort of subtlety to soften the blow, is that until the Rich Young Man finds himself drawn to the Good Teacher himself, indeed, falling headlong in love with Jesus Christ, his life makes no moral sense at all. Not only will he not be able to sustain those lofty ideals he has so admirably organized his life around; he will find himself more and more mired in a kind of moralism that equates doing good with being good. He will have lost the true grandeur of the moral life, which is the ongoing challenge of making a gift of oneself, even as we receive that far greater gift, which is the Person of Jesus Christ. 

The trouble with moralism, of course, is that it so easily turns into pharisaism, in which one is forever tempted to think oneself better than others when, in fact, we are all in the gutter, all of us equally and urgently in need of a Savior to stoop down and pull us out. Not to know that is sheer self-duplicity — a bald-faced lie — since it refuses to recognize the commonality of human corruption, that in Adam’s fall we sinned all. It is no less destructive of others, too, inasmuch as, by lacking that self-awareness, we tend to approach them with neither humility nor justice, seeing their shortcomings with little more than smugness and contempt.

In order for my life to become truly authentic, therefore, it must be seen in terms of vocation, of an answer to a call issued unmistakably to me. And that my whole life is to be that answer, which I give back to One who first gave himself for me. Unless I see my life as being galvanically charged with that awareness, that always and everywhere my life belongs to God, I really cannot go on. Who else qualifies to be the mainstay of my life if not the One who made himself small for my sake? Who, in the gift of his Incarnate Son, encamps about my life with an unimaginable intimacy and love. “With him,” as Father Julian Carron reminds us, “the Mystery entered history, becoming humanity’s companion, offering himself as an answer to the human need for happiness: whoever follows him will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

That last line, by the way, was the postscript to the conversation begun by the Rich Young Man. Too bad he didn’t stay to hear it. It might have spared him a great deal of sadness.