He 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 must not kill; You must not commit adultery; You must not steal; You must not bring false witness; You must not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ And he said to him, ‘Master, I have kept all these from my earliest days’. Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, ‘There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything 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. Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever. ‘In that case’ they said to one another ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men’ he said ‘ it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’* Peter took this up. ‘What about us?’ he asked him. ‘We have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and in the world to come, eternal life.’
Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man illustrates the counter-cultural message of the Gospels i.e. true Christian discipleship demands a detachment from the comforts of materialism, it is a call to a lifestyle of service and self-sacrifice. Although living a very good life, one in accordance with the precepts of the Decalogue, the young man is a prisoner of his wealth, unable to detach himself from worldly things. To this end he is unable to follow Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus extends the invitation ‘come, follow me’. Unlike the disciples, who left everything and followed Jesus (Lk 5:11) the young man is too attached to his possessions to accept the invitation and embrace a life of austerity. Contrary to the prevailing view that regarded temporal possessions as a reward for virtuous living Jesus depicts wealth as a formidable obstacle to discipleship and ultimately to one entering God’s Kingdom.
To follow Jesus and to live in accordance with the Gospels can be challenging, even confronting. At times it requires us to radically change our way of life and our way of thinking. We should not be afraid however for Jesus promises us that our lives will be transformed and we will receive a ‘hundred-fold reward’. Those who accept the invitation to discipleship are transformed like Zaccheus (Lk 19) and drawn into ‘fullness of life’ whereas others, like the rich young man will remain afraid, sad and ultimately unfulfilled.
Pope John Paul II in the Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor observes:
“The question which the rich young man puts to Jesus of Nazareth is one which rises from the depths of his heart. It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life.” (n.8)
Just as Jesus of Nazareth challenged the rich young man with his answer, he also challenges us today, “take up your cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Director, Religious Education and Evangelisation