I Am the Rich Young Ruler

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, 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 shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

Mark presents him only as a man with many possessions. Matthew calls him a “young man,” and Luke describes him as a “ruler” who was “very rich.” The version that has come down to us through history is “the rich young ruler,” a composite taken from all three versions of the story. This amalgamation has not served it us well, as it gives us too many ways to resist identifying the man as ourselves. I am not young, and I am not a ruler. I can even stretch the definition of “very rich” so far out of context that it might not necessarily always include me. Not my needle; not my camel.

That will not do. I know perfectly well that I am rich. I have lived a life of wealth and privilege that nobody in Jesus’s original audience could even have comprehended. Most people alive today could not comprehend it either. I have always had a comfortable home, a reliable vehicle, and plenty of food. I was able to get as much education as I wanted. And I buy an obscene number of books and electronic devices.

And I have no intention of selling everything, quitting my job, and helping people for the rest of my life. I am not even planning to sell half of my possessions and work half time, helping people for the other half of the time—even though I could do this without seriously altering my lifestyle or my living standard. I am not strong enough to do this. I like my stuff. And the thought of giving it all up fills me with dread. What if I need it later? What if I lose my job? How am I going to retire? Will I die homeless and penniless and without any friends? Surely that is not what Jesus wants me to do. Every time I read this story in the Bible, I come away grieving, for I have many possessions.

I think that we often judge the rich young ruler too harshly. He just wanted a checklist on how to be righteous,” we say. “he didn’t understand that it is about loving people and not about following all the rules.” And we say this as if we would have done better if we had been there. And we imagine that we would do better now if we had the kind of money that guy had—an amount that we never specify but know with moral certainty must be more than we have right now. Just look at his clothes in the Carl Bloch painting. He is clearly in a different category than me. Would a painter that everybody likes so much lie?

I do not believe that Jesus intended to give any of us places to hide from his injunction—”sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He did not say sell your exrcess, or sell everything that you don’t need to live. And he didn’t really distinguish between rich and poor. He told the rich young ruler that the only commandment he still needed to obey was to sell everything, give it to the poor, and “come follow me.”

The last bit is really important. It is not enough to sell things or even to give to the poor. Jesus also asks for a humongous leap of faith, to consider the lilies of the field and trust that we can continue to exist, and in fact, experience more happiness and fulfillment without all of our stuff. His main point, as I read it, is similar to the main point of Buddhism or the Sufi variety of Islam: we have to get rid of our stuff because our stuff prevents us from progressing spiritually. It binds us to the economic system that gives it value and the political system that protects that value. It is impossible to imagine a better world, or even a different one, as long as we are tied through our possessions to a decidedly non-Godly social organization.

A famous scene in Dante’s Inferno helps us see how our possessions impede our spiritual progress. In the seventh canto, Dante and Virgil encounter the hoarders and the wasters—people whose obsessions seem antithetical to each other but who, in reality, are both tied firmly to material things. The hoarders save everything out of anxiety for the future, and the wasters spend everything in order to enjoy the present.

The people in both groups suffer the same fate. They are forced to roll huge boulders around in a circle for all of eternity, one group shouting, “why do you hoard” and the other shouting, “why do you waste.” Neither group understands that they are all being punished for the same sin of loving material things too much.

But here is the really interesting thing: nobody makes them do this. When I say that they are forced, I mean that they are compelled by their natures. There are no demons goading them along, nor is Satan standing behind them with a whip. At any time, they could all stop pushing the boulders, sit down, and spend all of eternity relaxing and conversing pleasantly with each other about other things. But they never will because they are tied to possessions, and the boulders are the only things in hell that they can possess. This is not the punishment for what they have done, but the consequence of who they have become.

This is what I mean when I say, as I have said almost every week this year, that heaven is constitutive, consequential, and sapiential and not regulative, transactional, and eschatological. The rich young ruler cannot inherit the Kingdom of God unless he is willing to give up all of his wealth because that is what the Kingdom of God means. It is a society that runs on different rules and a completely different logic than any society that exists today. Great wealth can’t exist in God’s Kingdom because nobody would even know what it means.

Both kinds of societies require a great deal of faith, in the New Testament sense of the word, which is more about trust than belief. It takes enormous faith in a system to recognize the instantly transferrable pieces of electronic information that we call “money” as something that conveys wealth. It only works because everybody expects it to work and believes that it will. The last time that people lost their faith in monetary policy, trillions of dollars vanished from the world in the blink of an eye. The Kingdom of God works on very similar principles, it will work when everybody believes that it can.

I lack the faith necessary to bring about the Kingdom of God. I cannot hide from this. And I have no way to mitigate the sorrow that I feel when I read the story of the rich young ruler and realize that I, too, must slink away in sadness because I have many possessions. I have no recourse to readings that let me off the hook—or even minimize the importance of the commandment that I am ̶in̶c̶a̶p̶a̶b̶l̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ unwilling to accept. I stand convicted and condemned for my lack of faith.

In Matthew, Jesus turns to his disciples after the rich man leaves and says, “again I tell you, 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” (Matthew 19:24). Few passages in the New Testament have been analyzed as thoroughly as this one, and most of the analysis focuses on ways that Jesus could not possibly have meant what he said. I strongly believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said, which leaves rich people like me with only one recourse, which is to stop being rich— not to qualify for heaven when I die, but to do everything in my power to create heaven where I live.


  1. Jeremy Spilsbury says:

    “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?“ I also feel a great deal of sadness and frustration as I recognize that I am very far from embodying this ideal.

  2. Oops, I slipped. I was determined not to read BCC this week because I knew the rich young man was coming and I knew I would feel condemned. But here I am.

    I think there is an important second lesson that we can miss while we wriggle and twist to find a way out of the primary lesson. Which is that the checklist the young man wanted is not available. Not on the menu. Not an option. There is no alternate safe haven where strict obedience to a finite list guarantees a place in heaven. As you say, Michael, no place to hide.

  3. There’s something about this event that goes beyond the problem of riches, IMO. I think what is really at bottom in this story is consecration–and that has to do with not holding back anything, including our time, talents, possessions, and everything we’ve been blessed with. And so, while the problem of riches is certainly a part of what we consecrate it isn’t all that’s required. Indeed, for some folks it doesn’t amount to much at all in the greater scheme of consecrating our very selves to the Lord.

    That said, I do find it interesting that riches is the “culprit” in this story. Because more than anything else it is riches that gets in the way of building a consecrated community–as per the Book of Mormon especially. And so the consecration of wealth takes on a sort archetypal character in representing the general meaning of consecration.

    That (and that) said, it is that “one thing” that holds most of us back. That for me is where the “sting” is located in the story. What is that one thing that I should stop doing or should start doing? And, yunno, the funny thing is–I’m not sure that we’ll ever be fully consecrate until the perfect day. Because, as soon as we make a little progress in the direction of consecration the Lord lovingly makes us aware of another thing or two that might be holding us back.

    And so it goes for most of us–a lifetime incremental refinement. And that brings me to my finale point which is: What else can we do when we’re imperfect except keep trying? The worst thing we can do is walk away defeated like the rich young man. At the end of the story the Savior says that with God all things are possible–and with his help we will one day thread that needle.

  4. You seem to believe the Savior intended his counsel for all people of means, not only those living in the first century but everyone since. But the text, in my opinion, does not support such a conclusion.

    Whenever Christ interacts with an individual, he is always cognizant of his unique circumstances. Jesus was addressing the spiritual needs of this one man, who we can surmise is single with no dependents. While Christ used this encounter to underscore how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom, Matthew, later in his gospel, identifies Joseph of Arimathea, a “rich man,” as a loyal disciple.

    Because we focus almost exclusively on the question of wealth, I believe we miss much of what Christ was trying to convey.

    First, we overlook the fact that Christ is not reneging on his original promise to the young man: “If you keep the commandments, you will have eternal life.” In other words, if you embrace the “checklist gospel” (go to church, be honest in your dealings with others, help the poor, etc.), eternal life is guaranteed.

    Second, we fail to consider why this young man was not content with the response to his first question. A lot of folks would have simply ticked off the final item on their checklist and walked away happy. But that’s the whole point of the story.

    Living forever simply was not enough for him. Stated differently, when he asked, “What do I still lack?” he wasn’t saying, “What have I overlooked?” Rather, he was saying, “Rabbi, though I have done my best to follow the commandments, why do I feel there is something missing in my life?” When Jesus revealed what it would take for him to find what he was looking for, he instantly grasped the truth of his words but was “grieved” because the price was too steep.

    There is no shortage of people who believe they know what we need to fill the void in our lives. And should we believe there is no void that needs filling, many will try to disabuse us of that notion. But I’ve never been a fan of this idea.

    I, too, believe Christ meant what he says. I just don’t believe he said what you think he did.

  5. Adam F. says:

    A few random thoughts.

    1) I think most (if not all) readers here would likely agree that we, as a people and a world, are too tied to material things – as the OP is saying is the case. I would even venture to assert that many readers would also agree that we could do much in building the Kingdom of God here and now by being more free with our substance in the vein of the OP’s suggestions (as he has so often in the past as well).
    2) I don’t know if I agree with the all-or-nothing attitude though. And I’ve thought a lot about it. It certainly is one way to read this and other examples from the scriptures. But if we argue in this blog about nuance (or thats-not-what-it-meant-back-then in so many other areas of uncertainty), why are we suddenly so willing to do so here with this story, except that it fits a preconceived notion or narrative that we have?
    3) When I read “come, follow me,” I feel the same voice that Jesus used when calling *specifically* his 12 disciples. And I guess that is just another way I can be told I’m twisting and contorting to make this not about me – because let’s face it, that will never be me being asked to be a special witness.

    All that said, and going back to my #1, can we be more generous than we are? Absolutely. Should we be more generous than we are? Absolutely. Should we have more compassion on all around us in both financial and non-financial matters? Absolutely. And that there is the challenge we are all working on in this life – to let go of the natural instincts within us and choose (forgive the parlance) a higher and holier way.

  6. In a church where we literally covenant to provide all of our time, talent and effort into building up the kingdom of God (defined as the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), I don’t think it is a stretch to say we are theologically all the rich young ruler.

  7. I agree with everything you’ve said here, Michael. And I think the trick is, as you’ve done, to face it head on. We can’t wriggle out of what Jesus said. We can’t say that giving up all one has is okay in the first century, but it can’t be that we 21st century people are expected to do. It can’t be that generically he have to give up something, just not our wealth. Jesus said what Jesus said. And, like you, I’m not selling all that I have and giving to the poor. Rather than figure out how I can loophole my way out, I have to face it and own it and figure out what it means that I won’t follow this clear directive.

  8. Michael, thanks for this perspective. This line leaps out at me: “And we say this as if we would have done better if we had been there.” I have consciously be trying of late to avoid this attitude as I read the scriptures, though I confess my (very) old habit dies hard. It is easy for me to point of the motes in the eyes of scripture story subjects instead of reflecting on what I should be learning from them. Thanks for that reminder today.

  9. This feels like one of those contradictory commandments that seem unfair (multiply and replenish, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge; thou shalt not kill, but sacrifice Isaac, etc.). Stealing from Sam Brunson’s comment on an earlier post–I think there’s opportunity for growth from having “to live the contradiction of an impossible law in an imperfect world.” I can’t use that as an excuse to ignore the commandment to give everything away, but I can grow and develop into someone who won’t roll rocks around in an inferno if I grapple with the commandment, come to understand the impossibility of checklisting my way into heaven, and never get comfortable with what I have not yet been able to give up.

  10. Utah Man Am I says:

    I always have a hard time with how we deal with this story, specifically that we punish the young man for going away sad. Most recently, Elder Holland took on this account (Oct 2021), admonishing us to “succeed where that rich young man failed, that we will take up the cross of Christ, however demanding it may be, regardless of the issue and regardless of the cost.” But I think Elder Holland reads into the story a definitive ending that we’re not told–namely, determining from nothing in the text that the young man in fact did *not* do what Christ asked. For all we know, he actually *did* sell his possessions and follow Christ, even though (and notwithstanding that) it was difficult.

    Too often, I think, we insist that a true disciple of Christ would not mourn what they’re asked to sacrifice. Alma says there was a greater purpose for the martyrdom of the believers who were burned. But did that mean that Amulek didn’t get to mourn the death of his family? No. Abraham was willing to put Isaac on the Altar. But did that mean that he and Sarah should have been happy and excited for the loss of their son (had the ram not appeared in the thicket)? I should hope not.

    Even Christ hesitated at having to drink the bitter cup. And the heavens shook and God mourned the death of Christ.

    Let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that we murmur and complain like Sariah or “hang around as if waiting for a receipt” after placing our offering on the altar (Maxwell, Apr 1997). But we also shouldn’t condemn people who do make the sacrifices asked of them just because it is hard for them to do so and because they are sad for the loss of what was sacrificed.

  11. It’s an unfinished story. What if this young man went away sad, but then two days later did everything Jesus said? What if selling all his stuff took a few years because there was so much of it and he did an awesome job of housing the unhoused and feeding the hungry in the mean time? Why do we assume the story is complete?

  12. The thing i find myself wondering about is who else is dependent on this man’s wealth? If he sells everything and gives it away, what happens to his wife, kids, mother, servants, etc. Not trying to make an excuse for him (or rationalize away today doing as Jesus asks) but that wrestle seems integral to the man’s response and sadness.

    I can’t imagine the damage it would do to my family if I left them suddenly homeless and impoverished. To have someone just walk away from you by choice…

    Of course in plenty of scriptures, family/dependants are expendable.

  13. I am condemned by this story, no question, and I don’t dispute Michael’s brilliant reading. But, and I think some of the comments here (shout out to ReTx) and on other threads in this excellent series have pointed this out, Jesus doesn’t seem to be leaving much room for families.

    Somehow, I don’t think Jesus will be impressed when I say to Him, “But, Lord, that money wasn’t for me, it was for my family!” And yet there is no way, none, I’m going to stop contributing to our kids’ college funds. I can’t treat all God’s children like my own, nice as it sounds. My resources (not just money) are finite, and my kids are not sparrows or flowers. Also, frankly, I’m less than impressed with God’s track record as a parent. Probably a me thing.

    If Jesus wants us to build a society in which we don’t get to privilege relationships with our children, and I think He may, I’m not sure I belong in Zion.

  14. Love your thoughts Michael. Reading your post caused me to reflect on how I have always felt sadness for this young man. I imagine him hoping for recognition from Jesus for his desire to be like Him. I imagine how awful it would be to expect one thing, only to feel that there was more on the checklist. Thoughout my life, I have thought of my own sadness whenever the checklist seemed to grow and be re-explained and re-defined. I hope the young man did not go away to sit in his inadequacy or sense of failure. I like to imagine that he returned to follow Jesus anyway and trust that he would learn to how to give all.

  15. Geoff - Aus says:

    There is another way of looking at this problem. From this and the previous couple of these posts; it seems obvious Christ doesn’t find poverty acceptable.
    If there were no poor for the rich young man to give his money to?

    Are there countries where there is less poverty than America? Lots. Are there countries where there is no poverty? Yes.

    Is this a concious decision? Yes. What motivates people in the countries where poverty is less or even nil?

    That there is poverty in America is a concious choice. GDP per person is $70,000. Family of 4 $280,000. 30 million live on less $30,000 for family of 4.

    When you vote in America are you looking for policies/parties that will reduce the number of people living in poverty. Universal healthcare? Free education for those under a certain threshold? Free childcare? Support for mothers and children, Equality for women? A living wage or at lest minimum wage above poverty level. Tax cuts for rich.

    Would the attitude Christ was seeking be achieved more meaningfully by eradicating poverty in our own countries? Then we can move on to world poverty.

  16. Roger Hansen says:

    One elephant in the room is tithing. That’s 10 percent off the top. And very little of it’s used for helping the poor. It is used to support a struggling CES, temple construction and maintenance, church bureaucracy, lawyers and PR consultants, etc. Should one pay tithing or give the money to the poor?

    Another problem is Church charities. Rather than giving moneys to established charities, maybe they should be developing more in-house capabilities. Or supporting member NGOs. Encouraging members with their outreach activities.

  17. This makes me think of Jesus’ family, when he says in the New Testament that not even his brothers believed in him. Think, for example, of the eldest son of a family, brilliant who could easily excel in everything he dedicated himself to, an excellent carpenter, a possible priest of the most brilliant that could have existed, a spectacular businessman, a famous doctor. His family depends on his ability. His widowed mother, he prefers to dedicate himself to the “ministry”, without working a day for anyone, but to live on the “word of God”… Jesus asked him to follow in his footsteps… leave everything you have and follow me. It is very interesting.

  18. Funny how we never finish the story:

    23 ¶ Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

    25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?

    26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

    This is yet another example of why we need the Atonement. He’s trying to show us that its beyond our reach without Him.

  19. Excellent article and comments. I, too, am convicted by the words of the Savior. I agree with Lily above — we cannot do this without the Him. As Latter-day Saints, we are accused of thinking that our works will save us. In truth, all we can do is give ourselves over to God in whatever way that looks like for us, and He will save us. As he said at the beginning of the story, there is none good but God.

  20. Jim Fleetwood says:

    I am seldom satisfied with the way this very personal event is used to create generalized instruction. Your effort is great. My frustration with the general Sunday school presentation is; First, it is always presented as a condemnation of this disciple, when in fact Jesus showed love, or compassion for him. Why shouldn’t we read this record the same way. A loving interaction between a good disciple and the master? Second, the first interaction “Why do you call me good…” is read again as a harsh challenge of the person’s intent. I think it was a kind effort to lovingly determine the depth of this person’s understanding. The answer to this question might have been, “you are a good teacher”, or “you are a prophet” or “you are the son of God.” Each would have invited a different response from Jesus. I think based on the response from Jesus, the person must have been wholly committed to Jesus as the Christ. Finally, you must remember that the person was told to do two things 1. Go 2. Sell all you have. All we “know” is that the person was obedient to the first admonition and I think given all the above, the person did, in fact, follow through with the second admonition, with some trepidation, anxiety, if not outright fear. How many people have accepted any calling without feeling the same anxious fear and sometimes dread. Jesus’ following recognition about the difficulties of people with many physical possessions is the only generalized instruction you can make. It is difficult when a person relies heavily on their things to assure themselves of peace, comfort and confidence in life. It is not impossible but it is more difficult. I have always admired this person for his desire to do good. I have always been willing to assume that he faced his greatest challenge. He overcame his fear and sorrow to do what Jesus encouraged him to do. He gave up his reliance on his stuff to provide peace and hope and looked, instead, to service, compassion, charity and kindness, as a disciple of Christ to find that peace and confidence.

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