devotionals

The Rich Man And Social Righteousness

I came across the story of the “rich young man” the other day (Mark 10:17-31). Sermons and commentaries on the story tend to focus on reassuring modern readers that Jesus’ command to “sell all” need not necessarily apply to them. But I wonder if this specific focus on the degree of generosity misses something about the overall picture. Now that I’ve learned to distinguish evangelicalism’s cultural focus on personal righteousness from the Bible’s integrated holistic view of both “personal” and “social” righteousness, I can’t help but view this story through that lens.

The “commandments” that Jesus rattled off – commandments he surely knew the rich man thought he had upheld – are all pretty much limited to personal righteousness. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal… As long as the rich man wasn’t personally hurting any of the less fortunate people around him, he considered his obligations to them – and to the Lord – fulfilled. His view of righteousness stopped short of any social concern for his neighbors.

But, of course, the law of Moses made no such distinction. The judgments and hopes of the prophets made no such distinction. The teaching and ministry of Jesus made no such distinction. The practice of the early church made no such distinction. So maybe it was almost like Jesus was saying, “Oh, you think you’ve been so perfect in personal righteousness, eh? Well, here’s what it would take for you to be perfect in social righteousness!”

When Jesus amazes the disciples by telling them “how difficult it will be” for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (v.23-24), my Bible has a cross-reference to Job 31:24.

If I have made gold my trust
Or called fine gold my confidence,
If I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant,
Or because my hand had found much…
This also would be an iniquity…

But in fact the entire chapter of Job 31 is a beautiful example of the Bible’s holistic view of righteousness!

It starts off on a personal note – Job’s declaration of his lust-prevention “covenant with my eyes” (which formed the basis of many youth-group sermons from my upbringing). He decries “falsehood” and “deceit” (v.5). He rejects adultery (v.9). Ah, but what’s this? He cares for the poor and the widow (v.16). He is a father to the fatherless (v.18). He clothes the naked and the needy (v.19). Or rather, in majestic and poetic violence, he declares with conviction that if he has not done any of those things, “then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.” (I don’t remember as many sermons about that section!)

Job gives us an archetypal picture of a righteous wealthy man – not one who literally sold 100% of his possessions – but one who was deeply concerned about the well-being of the needy and the inherent responsibility of his resources toward them. And what’s so beautiful about Jesus is that he is ever inviting the wealthy into his kingdom to do the same. It’s difficult, oh yes, but all things are possible with God! (Mark 10:27)

And there’s something else sadly ironic about that rich man… He seemed to be afraid of losing all his stuff, but if he had actually listened to Jesus, I’m not sure he could have ever run out of stuff to give! Another cross-reference from the passage takes me to Proverbs 11:28: Whoever trusts in his riches will fail, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. Yes, yes, we get it – but look a few verses earlier: One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Jesus seems to echo the same promise when he assures the disciples that all who have “left” things for the gospel will “receive a hundredfold now in this time… and in the age to come…” of brothers and sisters and mothers and houses and lands (ok, and persecutions, too – in case you were mistaking this for personal prosperity gospel) (Mark 10:29-30)

If the rich man had truly understood – not just the personal commandments, but the full picture of the Law and the Prophets – of God’s heart for humanity and the commands and the promises about generosity – he might not have been so sorrowful. If he had started to rid himself of his possessions, perhaps like the proverb said he would have somehow found a bountiful supply coming back to him faster than he could give it away. Or perhaps like Jesus said he would simply have found himself – in a paradigm often known by the desperate poor better than the lonely rich – within a deep community of Christ-followers all joyfully sharing what they had with one another, in which none have many of their own possessions and yet at the same time none are ever truly left without anything at all.

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