By Timothy Cole
Conventionally we call him the “rich young ruler.” St. Matthew tells us that he was young, St. Luke that he was a “ruler” — visibly a member of the class used to managing affairs — and Matthew, Luke, and Mark all agree that he was rich. But in Mark’s report of his meeting with Jesus there is something else about him: he leaves a striking impression of energy. He comes running up as Jesus walks along the road with his followers, and throws himself on his knees to ask his question. Rich, young, dramatic and not without contacts, altogether he was the sort of person who in any gathering expects to be the center of attention.
He certainly caught my attention. There is a moment, you know, in preparing to preach, when you sit down to look through the readings prescribed, and ask yourself: Will it be the Epistle or the Gospel? Or shall I start from the Old Testament reading? Or perhaps a special theme would be appropriate?
But this time the rich young ruler just came running up, and said, “Good preacher! What shall I tell you about myself?”
“I think I know you, don’t I?” I replied.
“You are that spoiled young man from a rich home, who hasn’t settled down to doing anything useful yet!”
“You don’t know me nearly as well as you think,” he replied. “And you won’t, until you have understood what Jesus taught me!”
He comes to Jesus in search of a project, something to fulfill his practical potential and make something of his life. He wants to “inherit eternal life.” We have to admit that there is a certain wisdom in this young man. He knows he was not put into the world to look around in wonder, to spend his money and to have enjoyable experiences,. He knows he was put here to serve God’s purposes. So, what purposes? he asks. Where do I begin?
And we can’t help feeling that it was a very good question, especially for someone with resources to do something out of the ordinary. The need to be doing is written into our nature. We are formed to be agents, and our life becomes weary on our hands if we are idle. But effort is easily wasted. So much of it is ineffective, and if it is effective, misdirected. God save us from the industry of those who will plunge into their projects, and not stop to ask, “What good thing must I do?
It is not the word do that interests Jesus, but the word good. “Good master!” he has called out with polished manners, and Jesus turns his word back to him: “Why do you call me good?” Or in St. Matthew, “What good thing must I do?” And Jesus answers, “Why do you ask me about the good?”
He will not let the young man brush past the question of the good, or hand it to Jesus to answer. He must face it for himself. “He has shown you, o man, what is good,” the prophet declared, and then tells us what we may do: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” That is the right order of discovery: to be shown the good, and then to know what the Lord requires. To do effectively, we must learn to value rightly.
Jesus’ probing question does not mean, of course, that Jesus is not good or has nothing to say about the good. For he has diagnosed the problem of the man who all his life has been surrounded by many goods, in the plural. He is no longer able to think of the good, in the singular. And so he cannot find the guiding thread that leads him through the labyrinthine storehouse of goods to the one good thing that he must do.
The rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself, “Soul, you have many goods!” (Luke 12:19), and then missed the moment to make good use of even one of them! There are many goods in this world, for God the Creator has given generously. But how shall we find the one step toward which they all point? Only by looking for the one source from which they all flow. “There is none good but God alone.”
Goods are so many possibilities that charm the imagination with all that they promise. But if we seek to turn them in action, they fight with one another. We want to listen to some favorite music, inform ourselves by reading the newspaper, enjoy the afternoon sun in the garden, which is looking lovely this year, and crown the day with a much-anticipated Skype call to the family.
But in the middle of the music we get up and go in search of the paper, and then throw it down because the sun is out already; but once in the garden the urgency of that telephone call preys on our minds and we rush in again to make sure we remember how to operate Skype. Many goods, and no fulfilment, for we lack the key to ordering them. To be focused on the one good, the good behind all other goods, there is the key we need to the one good we may do. “There is none good but God alone.”
Jesus points the young man to the commands, which define the moral space within which some good may be done. But orientation is not what he thinks he needs; he wants a vocation. Not simply a set of general demands, but a direction for his life, a task that will absorb his energies, a path for learning and development. He wanted, in other words, to be given himself. Which is perhaps why he has no name in the story, for he was looking for a new name. And at this point we are told, “Jesus loved him.” We may not be sure whether we love him. We may detect too much impatience, and perhaps too little self-knowledge in that confident claim, “All these have I kept from my youth.” But Jesus, who knew all there was to know about self-deception, was prepared to work with this assessment of himself. He loved him, because he was ready to go. And he invited him to “follow me,” offered him the name of a disciple.
And then came the crunch. “Sell all you have … and come.” He wanted to go further and set his hand to something good, but he had never realized it would mean leaving things behind. The commands require you to do without evil things; he was quite up for that. But a vocation requires you to do without good things. The commands define the good space negatively, protecting the goods that we meet in everyday life. A vocation defines it positively as an act of self-commitment to the one good that is given us to do. And all the goods we have ever learned to appreciate and enjoy must be divided into two piles: those which have a place with us on our pilgrimage, and those which have no place there.
And so we leave the young man, sorrowful at this discovery. Was Jesus over-demanding, do you think? No: the lesson Jesus taught him so directly when he was young, life would anyway have taught him bitterly when he was old. To do something is to give yourself, and to give yourself is to close down your options. We leave him suspended in that moment, because it is not just his story, but all our stories, and it is not finished yet. Of course he wanted desperately to follow Jesus. He wouldn’t have come to him otherwise, and he found himself appreciated and invited.
But the condition was, he must put an end all those possibilities that flattered his imagination, strip himself down to the one life he was given to live and the one good that crowned all other goods, to enter the kingdom of God. When the camel comes face to face with the eye of the needle — they usually say that was the name of a small wicket-gate, used when the great gates were closed — it must get on its knees and offload its baggage. The needle’s eye is for all of us.
But though we leave the rich young ruler there, in his sorrow and irresolution, that is not the last word on his story. For Jesus fixes his eyes upon the disciples and declares, with great emphasis, “What is impossible with men is not so with God! All things are possible with God.” There is none good but God alone. All things are possible with God. Can you hear the echo there? If God is the sole good, he is the all-sufficient power. And that echo, framing the story, makes it a hopeful story.
For none is powerful but God alone and none is good but God alone, and this is a story of how the one who is good exercises his power on us, calling us beyond enjoyment to act, beyond action to reflect on good, beyond reflection to give ourselves. May we be ready when he calls!
The Rev. Timothy A.R. Cole is rector of Christ Church Georgetown, Washington, D.C.