Friday, July 30, 2004

The Rich Young Ruler: a non-canonical, historical perspective

One of the stories about Jesus most often pointed to by Social Gospel proponents is the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Mk. 10:17-27, Lk. 18:18-27, Matt. 19:16-26. In this scene, a wealthy young man asks Jesus how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor and then to "come, follow me." When the rich young ruler refuses, Jesus tells his disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Conservative Christians have tried to escape the obvious import of this story in several ways. One of the most popular is to claim that it wasn't the man's holding on to his wealth but rather his failure to follow Jesus that was condemnable. A second is to evade the 'eye of a needle' aphorism by pointing to Jesus' statement that "for God all things are possible." The contention must be that the latter statement undercuts completely Jesus' condemnation of wealth: the rich, like everybody else, can't earn or buy their way into the Kingdom, but they (again, like everyone else) can make it if they have God.

Once a non-canonical gospel's version is considered, the conservatives' interpretation of the story becomes unsupportable. The Gospel of the Nazareans was an early gospel, composed around the same time as the New Testament Gospels and written in Aramaic. It was popular among early Jewish Christians but fell into disfavor in part because few among the wider Christian community could read Aramaic. See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 137. This gospel contains the same story found in the canonical gospels:

"Another rich man said to Jesus, "Master, what good thing shall I do to live?" He said to him, "O man, fulfil the law and the prophets." He replied, I have done that." Jesus said to him, "Go sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow me." But the rich man began to scratch his head and it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, "How can you say, 'I have fulfilled the law and the prophets,' since it is written in the law: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' and lo! many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many goods, and nothing at all goes out of it to them?" And returning to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by him, he said, "Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."

The Nazarean version is significant for several reasons: (1) it makes clear that Jesus' displeasure with the rich man is due specifically to his failure to give up his possession and not just due to his failure to "follow me," (2) it recognizes the "sell all you have" command as a logical application of the fundamental commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and (3) it does not contain the 'all things are possible through God' qualification of the camel/eye of a needle aphorism.

Now that we're clear on what the story of the rich young ruler is all about (was there ever any serious doubt?), all we have left is to deal with people who are rich but don't know it.


At 8:18 PM, Blogger Jeff Griffin said...

Good points! I referenced your article in an essay:

At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus was wealthy, and so was everyone in his inner circle (his 12 Disciples and his wife Mary). To maintain his personal bodyguard, which was actually an army of 30,000 men (the one Josephus tells us about, the one that was poised to storm Jerusalem), he had to tax those who were in "his" Kingdom--the region that is in the bible called Bethany. This is why Jesus' critics and denouncers growled that he cavorted with "publicans" (tax collectors). So, if there was some "rich man" outside the "Kingdom of God" (which Jesus claimed his region was, contrasting it with the three other major Jewish sects of the day), then he had better pay Jesus the taxes--presumably making him no longer rich, or at least not AS rich, and thus in the man's own eyes "poor"--if he wanted to become a member of the elite. I.E. Jesus was saying of a rich man outside his circle, "I'm not impressed with your money. Your money does not make you one of my elite."

But, if you want to continue to be so stupid that you hate money, or at least are afraid of having a lot of it, then you can donate it all to me.

~ The Jersey Devil

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Jersey Devil's sardonic tone indicates, the love of money really is the root of all evil. It turns people into jerks, and JD's post is exhibit A. His (her?) god's honor has been assaulted, and he erupts with irrational gibberish in defense of that glittering, hollow idol.

Does treasure in Heaven experience inflation? Are they worried about their economy up there like we are down here? America's wealthy facade is collapsing right in front of us. It is openly acknowledged (Rich Dad, Poor Dad) that the secret to generating super-wealth is to exploit others. The greatest irony of all is that if you scratch the surface of a rich person, you find that they are probably as happy or sad as the poorest people. How much money does it take to be depressed? If the first billion dollars didn't make you happy, why are you making other people miserable (i.e. stealing old people's pensions) to get your second or third billion?

You can only reach the cookie jar when you're standing on someone's face, so the misery spreads itself in all directions. No matter how much people own, “enough” is always a little more than they have. That sounds to me like a description of futility—like a hamster running forever on its wheel, getting nowhere. Yet when someone suggests that we try it a different way, or think about it in a new light, or shift our priorities off from things and onto people, what is the response? Name-calling, derision, juvenile behavior, and all sorts of logical fallacies explode from every corner. Why are JD, and so many other people, so quick to defend such a hopeless, brittle, volatile, counterproductive system?
I think a popular Christian writer explained it nicely: C.S. Lewis said that pride doesn’t get any joy out of having, only from having more of something than someone else. In other words, the immature motivation that makes children argue over who gets to sit in what car seat is driving the engine of our economy, guiding the decisions of the captains of industry. Gee, THAT sounds secure. (Can I get of the merry-go-round before it self-destructs?)

Jesus was right—where your treasure is, there will your heart be also—and if your heart is set on things which moths, rust, and thieves can destroy, your happiness will also be easy to ruin.

--Provo Joe

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