The Bible and Finance: The Story of the Rich Young Man

rich young rulerThe Biblical story of the rich young man is one of the more misunderstood and misinterpreted stories of the Gospels. It appears in the Gospel of Matthew 19:16â“30, the Gospel of Mark 10:17â“31 and the Gospel of Luke 18:18â“30. It leaves a lot of Christian confused about whether or not their wealth is a sign of their sinfulness or a blessing from God.

For the sake of clarity, I will use the story taken from Matthew’s Gospel.

In the story, a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him (16) Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?â

After reminding him that only God knows what is good, Jesus commands him to follow the commandments and lists off several. The rich young man states that he has kept all of them since he was a little child.

Jesus then says that he lacks one thing. He gives the rich young man a command.

(21) If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.â

The young man then leaves sadly, because of his (22) “because he had great wealth.”

Jesus then says one of the more oft quoted verses, and most misunderstood, in the Bible.

(24) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.â

People throughout history have used this verse to make the case for Christian poverty, i.e. the notion that Christians cannot walk faithfully with God if they have any wealth. This idea was the foundation for Christian monasticism and was also heavily advocated by Russian literary genius Leo Tolstoy in his classic novel, Anna Karenina.

Indeed, the story seems to imply that rich people cannot go to Heaven. This belief, however, falls flat after some general observations in other areas of the Bible and in the story.

There are innumerable examples of godly men in Scripture who have owned wealth. The first patriarch, was a very wealthy man, and God never criticized him for it or required him to sell off his livestock. Joseph became the second greatest man in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Jacob and Isaac both owned large flocks, which in ancient times was a source and indication of wealth.


Possessions does not disqualify a holy life

Job was, by all estimations, the richest man who ever lived, and was rewarded for his integrity with even greater wealth.

The man who buried Jesus’ body, Joseph of Arimathea, was rich enough to afford to own a brand new tomb to place him in.

It would be erroneous to claim that the mere possession of wealth disqualifies someone from salvation because nowhere in Scripture does it name poverty as a godly qualify. There is no specific amount a Christian is “supposed to own.” Romans 1:17 does not say “The righteous will live in poverty.” Rather, it says, “The righteous will live by faith.”

Christianity teaches that nothing, including wealth, can come first before God or should become an idol. The story, therefore, is not a condemnation of wealth, but of the worship of wealth as an idol. You don’t have to be rich in order to idolize wealth.

When you look closer at the story, it is obvious that the young man who approaches Jesus is clearly there because he knows that his wealth will not save him. In the other Gospels, he is described as a “certain ruler.” Mark’s Gospel even states that the man “ran up to him (Jesus) and fell on his knees before him,” implying that the prospect of damnation had been tormenting him for some time.


Be ready to surrender all

Additionally, the commandments Jesus lists are all ones which deal with morality, not spirituality; honor thy father and mother, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery.

Jesus intentionally avoids the first two commandments, which deal with man’s relationship with God.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall make for yourself no graven images.

Jesus words must also be read correctly. He didn’t say “you have too much wealth so you need to get rid of it, because only poor people can be saved.” He said that the young man “lacked” one thing, and it had nothing to do with money, per se. He lacked faith and total devotion to God.

His command that the young man sell all of possessions to the poor was done to demonstrate how Christians must be willing to surrender everything at any point if God calls them to (I emphasize the “if” because not everyone necessarily is called to do so). In Matthew 8, Jesus makes the exact same ultimatum with another man, except it deals with death and burial. The man wants to bury his father, but Jesus tells him to “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Up until that point, the rich young man had relied on a very worldly attitude; if I do something, I can save myself. He asks “What good thing must I do…” as though all that is needed is for him to perform a deed to receive eternal life.

What Jesus did here was put him to the same test God put to Abraham when he commanded him to sacrifice Isaac; to surrender his wealth would have forced the young man to trust and obey God totally.

By placing his devotion to him ahead of what they held most dear to his heart, Abraham passed his test and was spared the horrible prospect of killing his own son.

The young man failed, because he was not willing to give up his money in order to follow Jesus, and therefore gain eternal life. This is what made Jesus so distraught as he sees the man leave; how can someone prefer money to eternal life?

Who knows? Jesus might have rescinded the command had the young man immediately obeyed, much like the angel who held back Abraham’s hand from slaying Isaac.

The story, however, does not end there. Jesus’ disciples ask “how then can be saved.”

Jesus answers, (26) With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.â

He then goes on to give the heart of the message; notice nowhere in it does he mention money.

(29) “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

This is the message of the Gospel; those who follow Jesus might not have to give up everything, but they must be willing to if necessary.

Thus, the story isn’t necessarily about finances, wealth or poverty, but about our priorities.