The Rich Young Ruler

By Rev. David A Moffat

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21 & 22)

Matthew chapter 19 records Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man (it’s also found in Mark chapter 10 and Luke chapter 18). It seems that he was a member of the crowd who simply turned up to hear Jesus speak on that day. We are not told that he asked his question in trickery, as was so often said of the Scribes and Pharisees, so we can only assume that he was genuinely interested in the answer. But Jesus’ words challenged and saddened him.

When we try to apply Jesus’ teaching in a literal way, we may well find it difficult – how do you define “rich”? Certainly, there are many people in the modern world whom we would describe as rich, but do we number ourselves among them? If we compare our modern lifestyle with the society of Jesus’ time, the great majority of us live in a way which even the rich of Jesus’ day would envy. That is certainly true of Western nations. Are we to become poorer than the poor of Jesus’ time? Is that even possible nowadays?

Jesus continues: ” it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (verse 24) The disciples question (v. 25: “Who, then, can be saved?”) intrigues me. The simple, literal implication would be that salvation comes from being poor. But note what the disciples have already given up themselves (verse 27), and here they are despairing of their own salvation, it would seem. It all suggests a deeper meaning. So, what do these riches represent? We find the answer by looking elsewhere in the gospel. In John chapter 8 we find Jesus teaching in the temple treasury, and speaking of Himself as the “Light of the world.” (John 8:12) In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus launches a direct criticism of the religious leaders – indeed in verse 14 of that chapter the Pharisees are said to “love money”. What is this currency that they love above all else? It is knowledge from the Word. In the case of the Pharisees, the fact that it is derived from the Word is if no particular importance, it is the status it gives them which holds so much appeal.

This sheds new light on the present chapter. This rich young man represents one whose delight is in knowledges from the Word, and also an external observance of the law (verses 17-20). But Jesus tells him it’s not enough! He must sell all he owns and give to the poor, and in so doing, he will have treasure in heaven. How can we sell our knowledges of the Word? There are other parables which speak of buying and selling – the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price come to mind most readily (Matthew 13:44-46). These parables speak not so much of an exchange of goods as a change in priorities. If we are to sell our hard earned knowledges of the Word and religious teaching, it is to put them in a lower priority. But what should take its place? Love, or to use the old fashioned term, charity. As Jesus said, “…give to the poor.”

This is difficult news for us to hear. After all, those of us who go to church regularly have probably worked pretty hard to acquire these teachings from the Word. We can look back and pat ourselves on the back – “Look how far I’ve come!” And we can look around us at everyone else and pat ourselves on the back some more – “Look how much better I am than all those others who can’t be bothered!” Have you spotted the problem yet? Knowledge and teaching is fine, but it points to something greater than itself – it points to the love from which those teachings were derived. The acquisition of knowledge is an orderly step in the process of regeneration, but it is so easy to get stuck there, thinking that we’ve arrived. This is a spiritual danger we must all overcome.

When we reach this challenge we might feel as though our learning has been for nothing, but the reality is so much bigger than that. If we do put charity in first place, Jesus promises, “treasure in heaven.” More riches! But these are of a fundamentally different kind. It is not that we discard or dismiss all learning, but we begin to acquire riches of learning that we never suspected were there before – that learning is filled with insights, implications and subtleties of meaning previously unavailable to us. Swedenborg tells us that it is the presence of charity and innocence which allows this influx from the Lord to take place (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 3436.2; see also Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 4214 and De Verbo, paragraph 28). We can know all about the Word, but unless we actively practise charity and repentance we will never truly understand it.

But beware! There is a difference between the doctrine and practice of charity. This is illustrated graphically in another of Jesus’ parables:

“A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’

“He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said to Him, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32)

If there is anything you could say Swedenborg harps on about, it is his unrelenting opposition to the doctrine of faith alone. But that doctrine of itself is not the danger to our salvation so much as the life to which it leads. As a result, it is possible for those who adhere to that doctrine in word only to obey and carry out the will of God. These are represented by the first son. The New Church teaches the doctrine of charity. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that proclaiming our allegiance to that doctrine is the same as living by it. If we declare that doctrine with our lips but fail to allow it into our heart and our lives, we are represented by the second son. Being right does not get us into heaven. If we live in such a state, how can we claim to be any better than those other churches who obey the Lord’s Word, by living lives of love and kindness?

To underline the devastating effect of placing truth in first place, Swedenborg points out that it is the death of charity which brings about the death of the church. In Revelation 2 we read:

To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, … Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent. (Revelation 2:1, 4, 5)

In researching our children’s class for a few weeks time when they are studying the heart and lungs, I came across this illuminating passage:

… by the faith that is going to perish in the last times nothing other than charity is meant. No other faith can possibly exist, except faith that is grounded in charity. The person who has no charity is incapable of possessing any faith at all, charity being the soil in which faith is implanted, its heart from which it derives its being and life. The ancients for this reason compared love and charity to the heart, and faith to the lungs, both of which lie inside the breast. That comparison is also a perfect simile; for to imagine a life of faith without charity is like imagining life from the lungs alone without the heart, which is an impossibility, as may become clear to anyone. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 1873.3)

Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:20) “Two” representing good and truth, love and wisdom, charity and faith, the “third”, representing the result of that union, what Swedenborg terms, “use”. You see, when I turn to the Word to find teaching about the primacy of charity, I really am spoilt for choice!

I’m sure I’ve said nothing new or startling so far. The theory is easy, but the practice is difficult! That’s because people do things we don’t like, and in order to truly love them we have to fight our own self interest.

Now, we don’t generally like to think of ourselves as selfish, but I’m sure you can relate to how easy it is to be loving for a day. If you have to spend a single day in the company of a stranger, it’s no real challenge to extend them your kindness. A second day, similarly, is no great problem. But as we develop a relationship, their habits begin to annoy you, and you learn all their faults. I think that’s where we get the saying, “Charity begins at home.” It is in truly knowing a person, “warts and all”, and loving them nevertheless that we find the true expression of that saying.

This is the problem we face in our churches. As you look around the room, I guess you can identify at least one fault for every person here. Some will annoy you more than others. My self interest points them out, because it helps me feel better about myself. I even make up faults if I can’t see any, and if I dislike someone’s actions towards me I actively misinterpret them. The church dies when charity dies. In a community such as ours it is easy to see how that happens in a very real way. No one in their right mind, sensing an atmosphere of animosity, judgmentalism and selfishness, would ever want to return, no matter how insightful the teaching from the pulpit might be.

But the church exists to challenge that natural self interest. The doctrine of charity urges us to look to the positive, rather than the failings of others: “[People who have faith that inheres in charity] notice the goods [in others], and if they do see evils and falsities they excuse them, and if possible endeavour with that person to correct them…” (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 1079). This, we are told, is what the angels do (Arcana Caelestia, paragraphs 1088.2 and 7122.2) How can we aspire to any less? Any difficulty we may have seeing the positive in another suggests a will bent on self love and justifies (but only in our own minds) our actions of hatred. Noticing that leaning in ourselves, it is beholden upon us to effect repentance, making every effort to express loving actions to that person.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the church grows and becomes alive when charity is present. A sphere of love is an attractive place to be. We are irresistibly drawn to it. In their book, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point this out. In the sixth chapter, entitled “Whispering to the Soul”, they suggest that our practice of love is perhaps the most powerful witness of our faith. They quote a description of the early church by Diognetus:

They dwell in their country, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country and every country of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in a lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews and foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. (p. 104)

M Scott Peck’s book The Different Drum is prefaced with a short story illustrative of the same message. Saddened by the impending closure of his religious order, an abbott consults his friend, a local rabbi, about the sorry state in which he and his fellow monks find themselves. “Treat each one as though he were the Messiah”, is his strange advice. Initially puzzled, the monks slowly come to recognise it’s value: whatever human failings may be seen in myself and others, I can love every one by looking for the presence of Christ in that person. The story ends with the visitors to the monastery who return again and again to experience the peace and love that they find within its walls, and soon the small community is a thriving, living expression of the Lord’s Church.

The bottom line is this: when charity dies, we’re all losers. It infects and corrupts our worship, it destroys our relationships and sours our experience of life. It is my sad experience that charity dies all too often and all too easily, whether it be through excessive criticism or negativity, giving someone the “cold shoulder”, or harbouring a grudge. But when charity takes the first place, in our teaching and in our lives, miracles happen.

After all, Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, …” not by what you teach, or by the laws you keep, or by how moral, upstanding or beyond reproach you believe yourself to be, but, “if you love one another.” (John 13:35).