(This article is based on Matthew 19:16-30 and Mark 10:17-31.)
This morning, as I readied myself for church, one of those out-of-the-blue thoughts came to me. The voice inside my head said, “The rich young man who asked Jesus how he could ensure he would go to heaven was not simply rich with worldly possessions. He was rich in knowledge of the Laws of Moses.” I was then asked to ponder this encounter, told by Matthew and Mark, in terms of one whose greatest asset was his brain and the wealth of influence that gave him over others.
Now, in my mind, this unidentified young man of wealth was Nicodemus. I have reached this conclusion because of hints found in the Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus was identified as “a Pharisee” and “a ruler of the Jews.” Some translations say Nicodemus was a member of the assembly or the “ruling counsel.” This identification makes one assume that Nicodemus was a man of power; and with power comes material gains.
Of course, the element of youth is implied in John’s recollection of Nicodemus. While only Matthew identified the rich man who encountered Jesus as young, when he wrote, “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth,” the word “young” needs to be understood as meaning thirty-something. Just as Jesus was young by being in his early thirties when he began his ministry, he too was wealthy at an early age. That age allowed Jesus to have both a position of material wealth (have one’s needs easily met) and also have enough education to be considered intellectually rich – thus a teacher.
Someone like Nicodemus being chosen by the other “elders” in the ruling counsel of Pharisees can imply he was “junior ruler,” which would be an indication of his youth. As one of younger age, he could (minimally) walk faster than the counsel members of greater age. After 6:00 PM, following the end of the Passover Festival (a Shabbat), when Jews were allowed to travel as far as Bethany (1.5 miles from Jerusalem), a young Pharisee would be capable of leaving the Temple area and following Jesus to Lazarus’ and Martha’s house. Once there, a young Pharisee would be able to encounter Jesus and ask him about joining with the other Pharisees, and then still get back home before sunset. That becomes an implication of Nicodemus being a young man.
Of course, the great wealth of Nicodemus was pointed out by John in the amount of expensive nard he took with him and Joseph of Arimathea, when Jesus’ body was prepared for entombment. Because of these two stories told by John, I see Nicodemus as a rich young man who had plenty of guilt to shoulder, because he was a rich man. While so few stories naming Nicodemus make it hard to nail down his true character, many see him as one of the Pharisees who saw Jesus as a holy man, one not justly condemned to death. However, I see this willingness to judge Nicodemus in a light of sympathizer, who can only silently and secretly support Jesus, as why that model fits precisely the story of the rich man who encountered Jesus about going to heaven.
Nicodemus can then be seen as silently and secretly referred to in the Gospels. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican [Tax Collector], the fictitious Pharisee could have been modeled from Jesus having seen Nicodemus praying at the Temple. When Luke wrote, “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get,’” this sounds like how the rich man told Jesus, “All these [rules] I have kept since I was a boy.”
What is missed (perhaps) in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is how the Pharisee got rich in exactly the same manner as the tax collector, as he was paid a portion of the Temple tax because he was a member of the ruling counsel. That form of tax collection was “kosher,” while a Jew collecting taxes from other Jews, for the Roman overlords (and getting rich by keeping part for one’s self), was how Pharisees identified one as a sinner. At the Pharisee’s “day job” he could have also gained wealth as a “lawyer” advising ordinary Jews in how to get back in good standing with the Temple priests and scribes (for a nominal fee). Both Pharisee and publican gained materially at the expense of the common Jews, thus both were sinners. However, Jesus deemed the one of the two who saw his acts as a sin as “justified before God.” As such, the rich man approached Jesus as one seeking justification.
Understanding the concept that wealth was not typically found by Jews because of some royal lineage, it was most often accumulated as ill-gotten gains. The Jews were, after all, returned to Judea after exile and disgrace. Thus, accumulated wealth had come to many Jews because of their selling the Laws of Moses, as devout Jews to Jews seeking favor from God. Because the man who encountered Jesus knew the Laws of Moses so well, he was also a rich man in the fact that he had memorized and pondered the Scriptures (rich in knowledge). Because he was a religious leader, to whom many ordinary Jews looked up to for guidance, God rewarded him with great material wealth. However, when he met Jesus and asked if he was on the right path to heaven, he was told he was headed in the right direction … but.
The exception is the path to heaven only begins with some wealth of interest and personal acts of devotion. Such acts set one apart from those who do little to learn about their religion. Still, amassing knowledge of spiritual matters is only the first step towards eternal life.
Consider how Jesus asked Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” (John 3:10a) Nicodemus – a member of the ruling counsel and for all the laws he knew – was not “born of the Spirit.” Knowing some things is much like owning some things. Things make one “rich” – rich of knowledge and rich of possessions – but “rich” alone is selfish and does not serve God. To get to the place that God lives eternally, one needs to follow the advice Jesus gave the rich man.
The second step on the path to heaven requires going beyond wealth of knowledge, to the point of sharing that knowledge freely. This step, told by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, has been translated as being: “sell your possessions and give (the money) to the poor.” Some versions say “and give the money to the poor,” when neither Matthew nor Mark made mention of “money.” However, money aside, that selling of things is really not what Jesus said.
The Greek word translated as “sell” is “pōlēson.” Both Matthew and Mark wrote the same word; and while that word does mean “sell,” it also can be used to say “barter” or “exchange.” Following “pōlēson” is the word translated as “possessions,” which is “hyparchonta.” Only Matthew wrote this word, with the root infinitive meaning, “to begin, to be ready or at hand, to be.” Strong’s says the “short definition” states, “I am, exist, am in possession.” This means that “sell your possessions” can become a statement to “exchange your possessing self” or “barter of you what exists.”
Mark said (without using the word “hyparchonta”), “hosa echeis pōlēson,” which is translated commonly as “sell what you have,” where the root verb “echó” means “to have, hold, possess.” Still, this is not the only way that can be read, as this literally states, “as much as you have exchange.” When wealth is seen as the vast knowledge of Scripture the rich man possessed, Jesus was telling him the next step is to stop making himself rich in material things, based on Scriptural knowledge. He was told to let others know what he knew. This is then mirroring what Matthew said, when he used the word “hyparchonta.”
What is very easy to overlook is how Jesus addressed the rich man from a perspective of “love.” Mark wrote how Jesus “ēgapēsen auton,” how Jesus “loved him,” when he told the rich man, “Hen se hysterei” – “One thing is lacking” – which addressed the missing element that is step two. “Hen” is a form of the number “One,” such that “thing” is intuited; but the meaning is “alone, individually,” or pointing out how “one act” of devotion (learning) is “falling short” (“hysterei“) of the heavenly goal. To ensure eternal life, more is required.
When one sees that Jesus did not expect the young rich man to go auction off everything he owned, and then keep a record of how much money he got in return, so he could then go door-to-door handing out money in poor neighborhoods, one then sees how Jesus told the man the second step after knowing the Laws of Moses is to use that knowledge to change himself. That change is then stated to mean giving. Instead of keeping what you know to yourself, as if your big brain is your greatest possession – as if what I know equates into what I am worth (I am educated to be a lawyer, so I can live as a rich lawyer) – give so that others can find your same passion for learning Scripture, so they too will devote themselves to take the first step towards being born of the Spirit.
This then leads to whom one should give. The Greek word “ptōchois” is translated as “the poor,” but actually means, “of one who crouches and cowers.” From that, such a person is considered to be “beggarly or poor.” This means that the one who should be the recipient of one’s wealth of knowledge is not so much one poor of wealth and riches, but one “spiritually poor” and “humble devout person” (definitions of “ptōchois”). When this word is understood in these ways, this is how attempting to interpret Jesus’ instructions as materially based makes the story of the rich man hard to accomplish. That is why giving money to people in beggarly conditions will never be a permanent solution to their physical needs.
If a rich man were to give all of his material wealth and worldly riches to a thousand people, he would have just created one more materially poor person in the world – himself. Further, those poor who received their gift of free things would still be poor, or return to poverty soon after. If a rich man were to give all of his material wealth and worldly riches to just one person who was poor, the world would not have changed – one rich man and one poor man would still exist. There is no permanent solution to material poverty, short of making everyone in the world equally rich (an impossibility). Thus, the moral of the story of Jesus and the rich man makes more sense when one sees Jesus telling the young rich man to give spiritual riches to the spiritually poor.
When Jesus made the statement about it being easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than a rich man to get into heaven, he used the term “plousion.” That use certainly implies one of material wealth (“a rich man”). Because that statement astonished the disciples, prompting them to wonder how anyone could ever get to heaven then – without riches – they displayed a belief that God rewarded the devout with worldly riches. They thought it was a requirement to find wealth on earth, which would then be their assurance of piety and eternal life.
Jesus told them that wealth alone made it impossible to get to heaven. Only with God’s help did all things become possible. Peter then asked, “What about us?” He and the other eleven disciples had turned their backs on all manners of money-making, in order to attend to the needs of Jesus in his ministry. Jesus’ response to Peter was, in essence, “You are on step two now, but your assurance of eternal life will come when the third step is complete.” He further said, “You are in the process of walking behind me, but you need to follow me by becoming me.
Matthew wrote that response as, “Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That translation (NIV) has “en tē palingenesia,” meaning, “at the renewal of all things,” but it actually says, “in the regeneration.” That means the learning and giving of knowledge will pay off in Apostleship and the promise of eternal life, when one has been “reborn” as the Son of Man – i.e.: filled with the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew’s verse 29 (of Chapter 19), Jesus was clearly saying that being filled with the Holy Spirit was what got one to heaven; but the element of giving to the poor, in order to get the Holy Spirit, is still relatively misunderstood. What happened to the rich young man after he went away sad? Are Christians today expected to live lives of poverty, in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Modern Christian churches steer clear of making personal wealth an issue, as far as salvation, possessing the Holy Spirit, and being promised a ticket to heaven are concerned. After all, churches need donations to exist; and wealthy patrons are greatly in need. No church wants to bite the hands that feed.
This becomes a double-edged sword, where it is the love of money that is the root of all evil (not the possession of money) on one edge, and the necessity of money in a material world on the other. It becomes an issue of the misuse of money that is hurtful to one’s soul: to force one’s moral will onto others on the other. The issue that Jesus pointed out actually has nothing to do with money. It has to do with the individual’s service to God.
The rich man was wealthy because he served God, and God had rewarded him. It was the love of the individual’s devotion that moved Jesus to tell the rich man to go beyond measuring his grace in comparison to others who had more or less things. Jesus told the individual to exchange the rewards he had been given by giving likewise unto others. The rich man never gave God any of his coins or property, in order for him to receive coins and property from God; so the rich man was to give that which God favored – his devotion to learn. God gave him insights to share with others, so they would desire to know more about God also. The more people sought God, the more they all would be rewarded materially and spiritually, so they all could spread more spiritual desire.
The focus on this story as being only about material riches means men and women feel their ticket to heaven can be bought through monetary contributions. If I write a will that leaves everything to the church, I can live out my life comfortably until then. If I give 10% faithfully, then I can hoard the other 90% (less taxes) selfishly. Such attitudes means the wealthy can be reborn Nicodemuses – silent and secret donors, never made to feel the guilt of feeling secure with eternal life, while others beat their chests in agony, unable to afford those golden tickets.
Isn’t it better to be a reborn Jesus?
When Jesus said, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the focus is on the degree of difficulty in reaching a goal, not the impossibility. The “camel through the eye of the needle” meant a fully laden camel – laden with possessions and wares to sell – that had to be unloaded at a narrow gate in the wall of Jerusalem (called “the eye of the needle”). It can be done, but it requires labor and time. The same goal attainment is possible for rich men reaching the kingdom of God, but the work required is more than physical labor. It requires breaking down all mental blocks that keeps one from receiving the Holy Spirit.
A fully laden mind is what I call the Big Brain. It is loaded with everything one has ever learned, most of which is survival motivated. Our brains are trained to look for advantages for us, rather than share openly with complete strangers. Our brains teach us to see self first and others second.
If only knowledge was simply rolls of possessions and packaged wares that were strapped to our heads, which could be untied and unloaded when our Big Brains reached a small portal we needed to get through (like the one leading to the kingdom of God). That would make it easier to have a basic brain be filled with the Holy Spirit, so one could swiftly pass through the eye of the needle to heaven. Unfortunately, we keep packing on to what we know, so our heads swell so large that we feel we know God … and (worst of all) think God works for us.
The message of Forrest Gump was that one man’s simple mind had no desires to get rich. Forrest was too stupid to know how to get rich. Yet, for all that lack of knowledge, Forrest could not keep from getting rich in material ways. Everything he did turned to gold. Still, Forrest had a small brain; and no matter how much others put worth and value on his worldly possessions, he was still just a simple man … willing to help strangers by sharing his story. Money never led his actions. Forrest’s real wealth was his heart led him brain – he knew what love is. The Big Brain never bothered him, so that he became silently and secretly wealthy.
That was what the voice told me as I prepared to go to church this morning. “See how much sharing these insights with others is worth,” is what I heard, regardless of how little seeds of thought seem to pay in material measures. “Think about this and then write about it,” I was told. “Share this view so that others can benefit.”
The world would be a nice place if everyone was equally materially rich. Then, no one would have to worry about giving so that others could have. Likewise, the world would be a nice place if everyone was equally spiritually rich. Then no one would have to worry about making sure if one would get to heaven … as everyone would already be there.
Since we have not yet reached that utopia, I hear the voice inside my head. “Here I am,” once again giving it away.