A Radical Call
"Go sell all you have and give it to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
and come follow me."
When the Lord Jesus asked the rich young man to sell everything he has and to come follow him, the young man became sad because he was a wealthy man. Oftentimes, when we listen to this story we tend to perceive the rich young man as somewhat too attached to his wealth. It is as though all that we can focus on is the young man's attachment to his wealth. It is true. However, reflecting deeper into the story we can find a rich source of lessons for our own Christian living especially for those who have been called to a "life of perfection."
However, there is more to the Gospel story about the rich young man than just the mere renunciation and distribution of wealth to the poor. Something far more valuable is at stake in this encounter with Jesus.
Before reflecting on the gospel story itself, it would be good to see beforehand the religious, social, economic and cultural background.
The call to renounce one's wealth for the sake of a greater purpose is not alien to the Jewish religious thought, for example, Rabbi Akiba (ca. 50 – 135 A.D. ?) who was a well-known and wise Jewish teacher advised his disciples to renounce wealth so that they can devout their lives entirely to the study and the following of the Torah.
The young man, who was described as rich in this story, claimed that he is a faithful observer of the Torah. When Jesus enumerated the commandments to the young man, the latter replied that he has followed them all. There might be a smack of self-righteousness here but at least the young man is honest to himself that he is indeed trying to follow the Torah just as all faithful Jews are expected.
For the Jews, a productive life is a blessed life. To live in prosperity is a blessing from the Lord. It is the belief of many Jews that God will bless the people who follow the Law (Torah) and will make them prosper in the land that He will give. Therefore, in the Jewish religious perspectives there is the idea that to the person who follows the Torah prosperity will follow. For the young man, his wealth is a manifestation of God's blessings of a righteous life by following the commandments of God. Thus, he does not see his wealth as hindrance to his entrance to eternal life.
For the rich young man what is at stake here is not only his wealth and social standing but his religious heritage. When Jesus asked the rich young man to go and sell his properties, the Lord is asking not only the renunciation of the young man's economic possession and social standing. The Lord is calling the man to a life radically different from what the young man is accustomed. It is not only a matter of selling his property and giving the money to the poor, it is also a change in the way of dealing with people, a new way of following the Law, a new way of attaining sanctity, a new way of worshiping God. The Lord is pointing out to a new reality that a holy life (a perfect life) is not dependent on one's material wealth or religious ancestry. This new reality offered by the Lord demanded a radical change in the lives of the persons concerned that it changes the reason for one's existence, in short a change of being. The thesis that the main theme of this Gospel story is more than just the question of wealth, can be gleaned from the questions posed by the rich young man and the answers that Jesus gave. In the narration of the story, the rich young man posed the question about eternal life to which Jesus gave the answer about keeping the commandments, the Torah. Yet the story goes beyond the Torah because when the rich young man asked what else is lacking, the Lord no longer speaks about the Torah but something else.
The second part of the command given to the young man offers us further clarification to this radical demand made by Jesus. "And come follow me." The emphasis here is on the pronoun "me." Jesus is putting himself in the place of the Torah and all that it stands for! In place of the land and the Abrahamic heritage, Jesus offers himself as the young man's heritage and portion in a covenant greater than all the covenants. The young man will have a new heritage greater than his heritage from Abraham sealed in a new and everlasting covenant. From now on, to attain eternal life is no longer confined to the following of the Torah but the following of Jesus.
Thus, the call of Jesus to follow him entailed a radical change in the nature of one's relationships and way of living. It is a call that demands change to the very roots of one's existence. It is to renounce one's sources of security, to leave behind the dignity of one's ancestry, to reconfigure relationships and progeny. It is to place Christ as the sole center and security of one's life. In this perspective, we find the fuller meaning of what the Lord is saying about leaving behind one's parents and siblings, leaving the dead to the dead and not looking back once you have placed your hands on the plowshares. At the same time this new relationship with the Jesus brings about new relationships, a hundredfold of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. From then on Jesus is telling the rich young man that it is no longer the Torah, nor the family nor the institutions of the Sabbath and the Temple that occupies the central place in his life, it will be Jesus.
This brings us to the conclusion about the radical nature of being Christians, especially to those who are called to the religious and priestly life. More than anyone else, those who have professed publicly their life commitment to the Lord are called to a life radically changed by their response to God. More than just the following of the commandments of the Lord, they are called to give more, to do more and to relate more because their heritage and portion is the Lord. He is the only source of their security, the highest standard of their way of life, the model of their relating with others and the sole reason for their being.