Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler

When we read the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mt 19.16-26), the red lights really go off for the Lutheran when, in verse 20, the young man says, "All these [commandments] I have kept; what am I still lacking?" This is a boast that no Lutheran would dare to make. Moreover, it shows that the rich young ruler really doesn't understand either law or Gospel.

For years my approach to this passage centered on making sense of v. 20, then interpreting the rest of the passage around v. 20. The only problem, however, is that doing so doesn't seem to me to do justice to the passage. I think that post-Reformation sensitivities have led us askew here.

Not that anything absolutely critical hangs on it: I think the center of the passage is about idolatry; that's what Jesus is dealing with here, both respecting the rich young ruler, and the ability of God's power to break through that idolatry, as well as (re)focusing salvation specifically on the person of Christ.

To be sure, that doesn't mean that the passage doesn't present a puzzle to post-Reformation Christians: After all, Jesus says, "if you want to enter life, keep the commandments" and the rich young ruler does say, "all these I have kept."

But there is no reason at all to think that Jesus and the rich young ruler are not talking within the context of a shared faith. The Lutheran confessions are absolutely clear that good works are necessary for Christians. They issue out of faith and should not set in opposition to faith. So the rich young ruler asks Jesus what good works he needs to do. Jesus tells him to do all of them. Again, the rich young ruler's response doesn't need to indicate that he never broke these commands. The law itself, after all, provided a route for forgiveness, and the Bible speaks of obedient behavior in similar terms at several points, Lk 1.6, Phil 3.6, Mt 1.19.

Or perhaps I'm letting us off easy. Perhaps it's not post-Reformation sensitivities after all, perhaps it's the sensitivities of modern, affluent Americans that are being spared by refocusing the passage.

The first crescendo in the passage is Jesus' statement to "go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." This striking and challenging command is muted when the focus of the passage becomes a criticism of works righteousness rather than a criticism of the idolatry of riches. After all, modern Lutherans can all give a hearty "Amen" to the proposition that works do not save. I think the "Amens" would be a bit more reserved if we were asked to Amen Jesus' line about selling everything we have. At the very least, we would have a lot of additional questions about what following Christ entailed.


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