Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
There’s more to the New Testament story of the rich young man than the passage in Matthew 19:16-26 records. This additional information, when I recently learned it, explained many things to me and deepened my understanding of the episode.
In brief the story is: A rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After Jesus establishes that the young man has kept all the commandments, the man further inquires, “What do I still lack?”
“Go,” replies Jesus, “sell your possessions and give to the poor … [t]hen come, follow me.”
The young man could not give up his wealth, and Jesus adds to his disciples, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Here’s what I didn’t know until recently. What was great wealth founded on, in that time and place? Conquest and enslavement. It was common for one country to invade another, to steal their art treasures, land, and money. Prisoners, if not slaughtered outright, were brought back to the invaders’ turf as slaves.
The lot of the slave could range from white-collar work—copying manuscripts in a library—to crawling naked on hands and knees in an underground mine, under the lash of a brutal overseer. Some slaves had limited legal rights; most had none. However, no matter how well-treated a few slaves might have been, the system was inherently corrupt. A tiny minority enriched itself on the backs of many.
The Scripture account of the rich young man does not tell us whether he, personally, killed, stole, and enslaved others to gain his wealth. Maybe he was born into his father’s money and in that way was, at first, less guilty of directly mistreating others. However, if he wanted to keep his riches, he would have to continue to live on the labor of his father’s slaves, which would eventually become his.
Therefore, I believe that behind Jesus’s counsel, “Give up all you possess,” was the clear implication, so ingrained in that culture that nobody could miss it: “Depart forever from your means of getting and maintaining your money.”
In this context, the money is not inherently evil. Rather exploiting other people is the barrier to the Kingdom of Heaven.
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