By William H. Mueller
“[Jesus] was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not give false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these since my earliest days.’ Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him, and he said, ‘You need to do one thing more. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.” (Mark 10:17-22, emphasis added)
Early Friends believed in the path of spiritual perfection and were severely criticized for this by most Protestants of the day. Of course they knew it was no easy road, nor could one ever expect to know if he or she had arrived. In fact, arrival was not the point; the journey was the point — what George Fox referred to as our “carriage and life” that would “preach among all sorts of people, answering that of God in every one.” Perfection implied that Quakers must expect to grow in their spiritual life. A story found in Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23, usually titled “The Rich Young Man,” is a potent reminder thatgrowing in the spiritual life is a primary goal of every Christian.
The title, “The Rich Young Man,” may mislead us into thinking this is a story about the spiritual dangers of money. But only in the last verse do we learn the man is wealthy. The story, and the verses that immediately follow, are only about money inasmuch as money is the most common method for satisfying the unending and tragic human thirst for security. However, money is not the most insidious form of security. In our churches and secular ideologies, we find the same ever-present lust for security in the form of doctrine, creed and dogma that too often tempt us to sit tight and not take chances.
In the story of Jesus and the young man, Jesus is calling us to move our spiritual development into a deeper relationship with God. In this new stage of spiritual development Jesus calls us to find out who we really are (we are not defined merely by our possessions or beliefs), what our mission is and to leave all comfort behind and take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). It is a call to service in the relief of suffering humanity, never more poignantly portrayed in the gospels than in the final chapters of Matthew (25-28).
There is nothing in the fourth gospel that directly compares to the synoptic stories of the young man; Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples comes close (John 13:1-16). To review, here Jesus shows the disciples what true mastership is, to live life in humble service to others, to let go of the things that possess us — our ego-expectations of importance — and become servants of the living God. Jesus’ act scandalizes his disciple Peter who at first refuses to submit. Jesus’ reply to Peter is similar to his final message to the young man of the synoptic gospels (as we shall see); Jesus tells Peter, “If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.” (John 13:8)
In the synoptic story, the man seems to think he must “do a good deed” to possess eternal life (Matthew 19:16). Jesus disabuses him of this idea: Good only belongs to God, he says. People should never come to the conclusion they are permanently good just because of something they have done or believe. People can expect to struggle with good and bad all their lives.
Jesus says to the man, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17) Jesus is reminding him of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the bedrock of the Christian faith. The young man answers Jesus that he has followed these commandments all his life. But clearly following the commandments is not enough. There is something the man lacks, and it is something he knows or suspects Jesus has that attracts him.
In the gospel of Mark, something very touching happens next that is not recounted in Matthew or Luke. When Jesus heard the man’s answer, “Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him.” (Mark 10:21) Here we have a picture of Jesus’ love for the Law and the Prophets of his people, and his admiration and compassion for those who struggle to follow God’s commandments faithfully. Though Jesus approves of the young man’s zeal in this regard, he also knows it is not enough. Jesus says to him, You need to do one thing more, if you wish to be perfect (Mark 10:21; Matthew 19:21).
The young man must do one thing more. It is too easy to think that by merely knowing and respecting the Law, we are making our beliefs effective. The teachings of St. Paul will emphasize this difficulty. Similar to Mark’s “one thing more,” Paul the letter writer calls the Corinthian church “a letter from Christ, entrusted to our care, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God; not on stone tablets but on the tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) The “one thing more” is the writing of the Law on our hearts, where it can never be erased or broken. Jesus and Paul are describing a heartfelt, transformational relationship with the living God as the one thing more that will make our spiritual life truly enriching and effective.
Matthew takes it one step further and says, in effect, that the writing of God’s word on our hearts will make us perfect. This is the one thing more that the young man lacks and seeks from Jesus: enduring strength to renounce himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.
Matthew’s gospel community was not shy about proclaiming our perfectibility: “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) But Jesus knows all about the young man’s imperfections, just as he knew all about the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). The Samaritan woman is transformed when Jesus reveals to her what her life has actually been like. She becomes his disciple and a leader of her community.
How will the young man fare in this regard? Jesus puts the man to the test. Jesus knows the perfect stumbling stone for the man (Psalm 118:22; 1 Peter 2:7-8). Knowing he is well-to-do, Jesus tells him: “go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) The man is sad; like Cain, who was also tested by God, he becomes downcast at this news (Genesis 4:5). The man goes away when he hears the truth.
In fact, the spiritual life is more difficult than any of us can imagine. In our cleverness we build up our “wealth” — whatever that is to each of us — and it so feeds our self-image that we forget that we are made in the image of God, self-images notwithstanding (Genesis 1:27).
So what happens to the young man? We do not know, for the story ends there. But we can know, because his story is our story. What did you do when Jesus confronted you to do one thing more? What can you do now? Just as God encouraged Cain to master the evil urge (Genesis 4:7), we too can overcome our spiritual hesitations and become perfect.
William H. Mueller is a member of St. Lawrence Valley Friends Meeting in Potsdam, New York, an allowed meeting under the care of Ottawa Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. All biblical quotations in this article are from The New Jerusalem Bible.