Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Rich Man

Here is an account from St Mark's Gospel:

The Rich Man

10:17 Now as Jesus was starting out on his way, someone ran up to him, fell on his knees, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 10:19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 10:20 The man said to him, “Teacher, I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws since my youth.” 10:21 As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 10:22 But at this statement, the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 10:24 The disciples were astonished at these words. But again Jesus said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 10:26 They were even more astonished and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 10:27 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but not for God; all things are possible for God.”

10:28 Peter began to speak to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you!” 10:29 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel 10:30 who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much – homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life. 10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

What are the salient points of this account of St Mark's? We'll attempt a brief reply.

What must one do to inherit eternal life, i.e., salvation? This is a question that, I would believe, is nigh-universally asked at some level by all men at all times. There is nothing about the rich man's question to criticize, at least at this point of the account.

[As a side note, Jesus in v18 seems to attempt to bring the man to a deduction about His true nature --- i.e. He is more than a good teacher; he is in fact Yahweh incarnate.]

Has the man followed the commandments taken from the decalogue? Yes --- the man has wholeheartedly obeyed all of those laws from his earliest days of cognizance. There seems to be no reason whatsoever to have any a priori suspicion of the man's honesty, and it seems completely natural to give him the benefit of the doubt. He is a model of moral excellence --- at least as far as the commandments given are concerned.

This should be enough, at least to a mind uninformed by Christian revelation. One cannot blame the rich man for feeling a sense of achievement in meeting [at least in his mind] the requirements of Yahweh's law. He has, so far, apparently done all that has been asked by God.

And yet, despite the rich man's moral excellence, he lacks one thing, says Jesus. The completion and summation of his moral excellence will be achieved when he gives away his possessions and merely follows Jesus and places his complete trust in Him not only for his salvation [this was the man's original focus] but also, presumably, for the necessities of physical life itself.

Here is some PP commentary on this point:

(i) Jesus is speaking to the rich man --- his being rich is a vital part of the account --- and His specific command to give his possessions away is not some universal commandment to all Christians. In other words, giving one's items away may or may not be a good work in God's eyes, and it is pressing too much upon the text to make this a call by Jesus for communitarianism, socialism, or a rejection of those material goods by which we are blessed.

(2) The command to the rich man seems specially pointed at the rich man and the rich man alone. Jesus can see the man's earnestness, but, He also can see that, despite his earnestness, the man still is not in a moral position to place a claim on Yahweh so that Yahweh rewards him with eternal life. The rich man, despite keeping the commandments listed, has a weakness --- his inner love of his wealth and possessions. The text does not allow us to do anything but speculate on the nature or depth of this love. Perhaps the rich man, while earnestly keeping Yahweh's law, still harbored a love for his wealth that was deeper than that of the person who reserved their supreme love for Yahweh.

If, instead of the rich man being the protagonist [antagonist?], it were somebody else asking Jesus the question of what one must do to be saved, there would be something different. I have my predilections, you have yours, and that man down there has his. I am not wealthy, and have not had the chance to fall in love with wealth. But I have my own weaknesses, you have yours. Jesus would very well tell each of us a different thing along the lines of But you lack one thing. Go and do X, and then follow Me. The X will differ from person to person, and, for many of us, there might exist a multiplicity --- perhaps a large multiplicity! --- of X's that we too would feel we could not perform.

(3) The rich man went away sad. The only thing about which we can be dogmatic is that, at that time, he could not, so speaking, pull the trigger. Nothing is said about what happened in his future. Perhaps he took Jesus' admonition to heart, perhaps he didn't.

Those of us who have the full revelation of the NT [unlike the rich man] know that, without any doubt, our justification comes through faith in the person and work of Christ --- the God who justifies the ungodly --- and not through a life and series of actions designed to put God in the position where He is obligated to justify us.

At the same time, works do play a role in our salvation in the sense that they vindicate the claim that we have saving faith and are evidence of our sanctification. We are rewarded according to our works, life, etc, even though our justification depends [if we take scripture at face value] on faith alone. The rich man's giving of his possessions away was not the action that would force God's hand, but it would give evidence of the true faith in the rich man, and it is this faith that would save the rich man, not his action.

Similarly for you and me, the X that we would have to do in addition to the commandments [which differs from person to person as we all have our shortcomings], would not, by itself, allow us to claim a justified status in God's eyes, but it would be an expression of our faith and trust in God --- one of the evidences of the Spirit-wrought faith [the only true faith] that justifies men.

(4) I've seen some Roman Catholics use this account to teach that our justification [in the Protestant sense of the word, not the Roman sense of the word] is by some amalgamation of faith and works. And this account, taken by itself, seems to support such a notion in a prima facie sense. After all, Jesus says to do something and then the rich man is saved.

However, those of us living in this particular time have full access to the NT revelation, which includes fuller statements on faith, works, justification, salvation, etc. We have Romans, Galatians, St James, etc, and not just this account. We contend that understanding this account against the full backdrop of the NT does nothing to support the claim that our works play a role in our justification. Of course, supporting this contention takes a very careful study of the NT, something outside the scope of a blog entry!

Let's leave the commentary here briefly and pick up the text back at v23.

The disciples seemingly are present for this interlude, and, despite being intimates of Jesus and being in the innermost circle of God's salvation plan, even they have their sensibilities shocked. This is very noteworthy, and I don't know how often I've seen this point emphasized. These are the very intimates of Jesus, not some people who happened to be present --- surely if they were shocked, so we too, must also be shocked by this account! We all have our X's that, if left to our devices, could never be done, conquered, performed, eradicated, etc --- like the disciples, we too would have to begin to feel very nervous regarding our standing before God!

Jesus doesn't help matters much either by repeating His statement on just how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! The comparison he uses [camel through a needle (or rope through a needle)] would seem by itself to imply that the rich man [if not also you and me] has no chance through his external obedience to enter the Kingdom of God. This is confirmed by v.27, where Jesus states that entrance into the Kingdom is impossible for mere humans.

Resuming PP commentary:

(5) What we have here is a fundamental dictum of the Christian religion. We cannot place God in an obligatory position. This bears countless repetition in a world where "being Christian" means [and only means] "being a good guy" or "putting out the luv to everybody." Everybody, from Chairman Mao on one end of the goodness spectrum to Mother Theresa on the other end of the goodness spectrum, fails to force God's hand. St Paul makes this contention in Rom 1-3, summing up his argument with the famous words that there is no one righteous, yea, not even one...no one desires to please God.

The human condition is so mired in sin that, despite outward appearances, we are all in a hopeless situation if left to our own merits.

The disciples at this time may or may not have viewed things in the Pauline fashion I described. But those reading this post live post-Paul, and so we must view things in this fashion if we view Paul as inspired.

(6) At the same time, we must heed St James' admonition between phony faith and genuine faith. A man is not justified by the superficial faith that James describes in chapter 2 of that epistle. The genuine faith that alone justifies [as Paul states it] is accompanied by sanctification and evidence [in God's eyes, possibly not obvious to other men] of the Holy Spirit's work.

(7) St Peter's reaction, v28, is understandable. I personally would say the same thing. The primate of the apostles merely puts out the natural human reaction of acting as if God owes us for doing things.

My speculation regarding human nature is this: except for the most saintly people, every good work done by a believer is marred because at some level the believer consciously or subconsciously adopts the posture of having pleased God in that God will now repay the favor. Conservative Protestants correctly teach justification by faith alone through grace alone, but who among us does not secretly feel proud of our assorted and diverse good works, as if God is now on the credit side of the ledger?


Anonymous The Christian Library said...

Where do you stand in the current Lutheran/Calvinist melee?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005 8:07:00 PM  

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