the enigma of the rich young ruler

In a chapel sermon at College once I heard it suggested that Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler strikes a decisive blow against the New Perspective.

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It may just be me but something feels slightly off in claiming that a passage in the Gospels might prove decisive for our reading of Paul (not that it’s impossible of course but it kind of doesn’t sit right).

Nevertheless, assuming that it gives us a genuine insight into at least one eddy within the broad stream of Second Temple Judaism, then the rich young ruler’s opening question — ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ — does raise a question mark about E. P. Sanders’ reconstruction of Christianity’s Jewish background.

That’s part one of the enigma. The second part, however, comes with Jesus’ answer. Get this: When the rich young man asks Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life, Jesus doesn’t wheel out the ‘do/done’ or the ‘bridge to life’ illustration. In fact, in the terms we’d comfortably reach for, he doesn’t mention grace at all!

Rather, He asks the guy about how his obedience to the law is going (quite well as it turns out). Then He really lays down the gauntlet — and exposes the dark reality of this guy’s heart: ‘One thing you lack. Sell everything and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.’

What’s with that? Any ideas?

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14 comments

  1. Jesus then says 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 (v25). The listeners asked “Then who can be saved” (v26). Jesus replied “With men it is impossible, but not with God” (v27).

    So Jesus points out how impossible the “do” is. The listeners recognise this, and question it, and Jesus points out what is impossible for man (“do”) is possible for God.

    Interesting, the chapter ends with a blind man being healed by his faith. Something else that is impossible with man, but possible with God. (v52)

    I think grace and faith, and “do and done” are more enmeshed in this passage than you give it credit for.

    Mike

  2. Mike, you wrote `I think grace and faith, and “do and done” are more enmeshed in this passage than you give it credit for.’ I’m not sure if that’s directed at Chris or at me.

    For my part, my point was that we won’t understand this encounter unless we take for granted some particularity in the situation. Doubtless what’s said here can be integrated into some suitably comprehensive view of God’s grace and human activity, supposing that we have one. But surely we should not be rushing to read the passage in such terms, as opposed to (say) listening to it. I took part of Chris’ point to be that the passage is not easily assimilated: that it’s still astringent even when the primacy of God’s grace is considered.

    Because Jesus tells this man to give everything he has, and then follow him. This is not given elsewhere as a general command, but it is given here, to this man. My point was that we won’t get far with the passage, and it’s power, unless we grapple with this. Surely this is a fair remark?

  3. Sorry Bruce – was aimed at Chris. Wasn’t in any way intended to comment or critique your remarks.

    Just commenting that the context of the passage, in where it is placed in Mark, and it’s surrounding stories does help us understand the passage.

    I’m not arguing that we should squeeze the passage into a comprehensive view of God’s grace and human activity, just that we should read it in context. And in context, I think it does concern grace and faith.

    Mike

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Mike. Clearly grace and faith are relevant to the passage, but I don’t think Chris was denying that. And there is a lot that once could say about grace and faith, not all of it easily categorised as part of a polemic against human activity or achievement.

    As to context, I was reading this incident in Luke, whose arrangement emphasises (relative to the other Synoptics) the connection with the preceding story, and the point that anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a child will not enter it. I take it that this is supposed to cast some light on the rich man’s case, and plainly it does concern grace, but it seems to be an attitudinal point rather than one about impossibility.

    You mentioned Mark: what strikes me about the context there is the inclusion of the last/first and first/last statement as summary, which ties this story to the request of James and John which follows (in Mark; not in Luke). That story is explicitly paired with the blind man who receives his sight, by the repeated “What do you want me to do for you?”. Here Jesus’ sovereign power is taken for granted; his response turns on the nature of the request given. Again, clearly relevant, but I think the emphasis here is different to the impossible-with-man/possible-with-God point you want to take from v52. I mean, it is impossible with man and possible with God, but I think that’s your point rather than Mark’s.

    Matthew’s account is the one where Jesus most explicitly tells the rich man to follow the commandments, so if the passage were a polemic — if it really were a deconstruction of the idea of law-keeping — we might expect the polemic to be especially strong here. But no. What’s stronger is the command to give away his possesions: “if you want to be perfect” rather than “one thing you lack”; and the follow-up is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, again stressing last/first first/last.

    Doubtless it is impossible to win God’s favour by achievement in the law, or achievement generally, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus or the Evangelists are saying in these passages; it may not even be what the rich man is asking — he is asking Jesus after all, rather than just anyone, which I assume matters. But whatever is going on here, I repeat that we need to come to terms with the fact that Jesus instructs this guy to give away everything and follow: an account that doesn’t give this due prominence will fail. And what I took from Chris’ post was that, while he may not have a key to the passage, a polemic against law isn’t the key. I think that’s correct.

  5. Bruce – bear in mind I have not said that the passage is primarily a polemic against law keeping. Nor am I disagreeing that we need to come terms with Jesus’ instruction to this guy. Nor that “possible/impossible” is the primary emphasis of the passage. I’m not even saying that grace is the only thing that is on view in these passages.

    However, I would say the context pushes us to see that grace plays a role in the passage – and it sounds like you agree with me? The contexts of all the passages you mention push us towards God’s grace as the means of entering God’s Kingdom. In fact, to read this passage without grace being an important component would be to not read the passage in context.

    Now – since you bring it up, what do you think the passage is saying? How should one come to terms with the command to the rich man?

    Mike

    1. Wow. At it again, fellas?

      I like this Bruce: I took part of Chris’ point to be that the passage is not easily assimilated: that it’s still astringent even when the primacy of God’s grace is considered.

      I find the whole question of how to read an incident in context that’s located in different contexts in each of the Synoptics really stimulating. I’m loving what you’re both turning up!

  6. Chris: My pleasure. I had not thought about these passages for ages and it’s been good to come back to them.

    Mike: In fairness, I’m responding to a thread between Chris (original post) and you (11:21am) on “do/done”. And the bottom line is that while I think grace and faith are indeed relevant here, the “do/done” way of approaching grace and faith is a real stretch; and while impossibility statements are present, I do think you’ve oversold them.

    The caveat in Chris’ original statement is key: in the terms we’d comfortably reach for, Jesus doesn’t mention grace; and yet, we agree, grace is relevant to the passage.
    The issue is that (I’ve argued; also, Chris seems to think) some conventional ways of talking about God’s grace are an imposition on these passages, rather than natural. That’s not necessarily a NP point, but it does tell against some anti-NP polemic: which is where the post started, of course.

    You asked “Now – since you bring it up, what do you think the passage is saying?”, but I thought I’d addressed that. The passage is saying that for this particular guy, Jesus discerned that it was necessary for him to give away his money: that this is what he lacked; that his obedience to God was incomplete without it. The rich man cannot face this, which then leads into the more general remarks — but the pointy bit is still the particular command. I think this is quite unmysterious, but (as I said) not easily assimilated.

    It’s appropriate we’re talking about this because it’s relevant to our earlier discussion in March: this is what I was (unsystematically) calling prophetic speech. It doesn’t pretend to be universal or generally applicable but it does claim to be the truth regarding this man. Any application of this part of the passage would then have to be prophetic in some sense, so it resists general application and it resists summary (or at least, the kind of summary we’re used to). Right?

  7. and while impossibility statements are present, I do think you’ve oversold them.

    Bruce – I feel your responding to a caricature of what you think I think. Not what I have actually said.

    If you read my original post, I point to the “possible/impossible” statements in verse 27, and say the blind man thing is “interesting”. My conclusion was:

    I think grace and faith, and “do and done” are more enmeshed in this passage than you give it credit for

    Hardly overselling them. In fact, since you say faith and grace are relevant, I don’t see what your actually disagreeing with.

    Mike

  8. Thanks for your help with this guys.

    Bruce: I feel like the prophetic particularity of this word of Jesus really is significant and needs to be wrestled with.

    When you say ‘Any application of this part of the passage would then have to be prophetic in some sense, so it resists general application and it resists summary (or at least, the kind of summary we’re used to). Right?’ I think I want to say ‘No general, abstract, timeless extraction of the “principle” or “core truth” of the passage; but a kind of translation — the work of which the Evangelists seem to have already begun for us by placing this event in the (different) narrative contexts of their Gospels. Does that make sense?

    Mike: ‘I don’t see what your (sic) actually disagreeing with’ — I think you mean ‘what we are actually disagreeing about’.

    I think it’s fair to say that we’ve each made a contribution to where we’re now at, if not in what we’ve explicitly said then in the tone we’ve used/been heard to use.

    That being said, I’ll try not to paint things in such a black and white way in future — I really am not deliberately trying to bait you. And I appreciate your help talking things through…

  9. Mike: ‘I don’t see what your (sic) actually disagreeing with’ — I think you mean ‘what we are actually disagreeing about’.

    Well – not really. Except for the poor spelling. But I get you’re point 😉

    Mike

  10. Mike: Well, we’re clearly disagreeing about something: in summary, how closely the “do/done” distinction and grace-more-generally should be held together. Chris’ post, perhaps a bit mischievously, has wedged them far apart; your first reply was pretty plainly an objection to this with reference to this passage; I’m happy to take it case-by-case and in this case, as I say, I think that do/done is unilluminating and impossibility is secondary, even though (we agree) the whole thing is about grace.

    As for clauses marked with “interesting” or “interestingly”, I’m afraid I read them as assertions, because it seems to me that’s how they function.

    Chris: You suggested “a kind of translation — the work of which the Evangelists seem to have already begun for us by placing this event in the (different) narrative contexts of their Gospels. Does that make sense?”

    Yes it does. I’d suppose this is always (or at least usually) a feature of interpretation but the nature of this material makes it especially prominent.

  11. So Bruce – it sounds like your objection is over the do/done language, rather then my assertion that grace is there in the passage.

    Which opens up another interesting area of discussion – that is, what’s the relationship between grace and do/done. However, I am hesitant to enter into a prolonged discussion with you about it.

    Mike

  12. Hi again Mike,

    “it sounds like your objection is over the do/done language, rather then my assertion that grace is there in the passage”: Yes, that’s right.

    “However, I am hesitant to enter into a prolonged discussion with you about it.”: That’s fine. My primary interest in this passage is anyway the particularity and the prophetic element.

    Cheers;
    Bruce.

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