instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Retelling the tale

The rich young man of the synoptic Gospels is an intriguing figure. Matthew's and Luke's parallel accounts lack a couple of notable details Mark's Gospel includes: that the man ran up and knelt down before Jesus as He was setting out on a journey; and that, when he told Jesus he had observed the commandments from his youth, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him."

Some Church Fathers take the kneeling and the "good teacher" business as attempts at flattery, corrected by Jesus' answer, "Why do you call Me good?" I wonder, though, whether Jesus would look on someone who was trying to butter Him up, or even brag about his good works, and love him.

One way to understand this may be through comparing the young man with the Pharisees mentioned earlier in the chapter:

The Pharisees approached and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him.
He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?"
They replied, "Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her."
But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment..."
   As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'"
He replied and said to him, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking in one thing..."

Contrasted with the Pharisees, the young man comes off looking pretty good.

Let me propose this as a non-canonical interpretation, riffing off St. Bede's suggestion that it was a desire for a clear explanation of Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God belongs to the childlike that caused the young man to run to Jesus in such haste:

We have in the young man an upright Jew. He has, in fact, observed all the commandments from his youth, and so expects that he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.

But then he hears Jesus preach as one having authority and not like the scribes. He begins to have doubts about what he has learned from the scribes. Jesus amends the Mosaic Law; He says whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

What do Jesus' teachings mean for the young man? To this point, his conscience has found nothing to convict him of, but now he's not so sure he isn't missing something big, something essential.

His haste, his kneeling, show that he has determined to accept Jesus' spiritual direction. And Jesus, looking on him, sees that he is an upright man lacking only one thing, a thing the scribes would not have suggested.

The young man, then, in this telling, wasn't looking for praise or reassurance. He wanted Jesus to tell him what to do; he had faith enough in Him to believe Jesus would know.

But he did not, as he knelt in the road, have faith enough in Jesus to accept what Jesus would ask of him. Jesus went beyond the Law and made it personal: "Come, follow Me."

But the man was not looking to follow a Person, he was looking to follow a precept. He was ready to accept Jesus' word, but not to accept Jesus as the Word.

So first Jesus softens him up: "No one is good but God alone." This recalls his words to the mother of James and John, "You do not know what you are asking."

But when He lowers the boom, the man is caught unprepared. All the Gospel accounts explain it in terms of his many possessions, and of course Jesus goes on to talk of camels and needles. But perhaps in addition to, or alongside, or beneath, the lesson of wealth is a lesson of faith: If you believe Jesus is Who He is, then you will give up everything and follow Him. If not, not.