When we talk about the story of the rich young man, we must be careful to avoid a great temptation, and that temptation is to make Jesus's response to this man into a new commandment for the rest of us. In fact, many have already succumbed to this temptation and have written this word in stone:
You must sell all you have and give the money to the poor.
But the Scriptures are very clear here that this is not Jesus's word to the entire assembled body; it wasn't even His word to everyone present in the encounter with the rich young man. The Bible, which is so careful about its second-person plurals (creating a ya'll in its theology) uses the second-person singular here (just you, just the rich young man). It's Jesus's word to one man, not to all men.
That's important for a couple of reasons. First, it's important because to attempt to make this into Christ's word for all of us is to twist the Scriptures and lose the heart of the message. Second, it's important because it loses the heart of the message. What's beautiful about this encounter is the way that Jesus responds personally, intimately, and meaningfully to the man in front of Him.
It's not about what He said, but rather, about why He said it.
And He said it because this was the place where the young man's theology was failing him. This was the place where a little depth could be easily added. This was the paradigm that He was given to speak into; it was a word that the young man would quickly and easily understand because it was rooted in what the young man already knew and believed, the way that he already defined his own faith.
Jesus was saying to this young man of the law that it was not enough to keep the law, but he must fulfill the law. The letter of the law was not a solid theology; it was the spirit of the law that mattered. For this young man, his wealth was what kept him from the spirit of the law, so for this young man, what was important was to let go of his wealth so that he could know the full richness of Love.
That may not be the case for you or I. It may not be that our wealth is keeping us from the spirit of the law, from the full richness of Love. In fact, I guarantee you that my wealth isn't an issue because, well, I'm not wealthy. I haven't even figured out how I'm not destitute already. Wealthy...is far, far off my radar right now.
But there are other things, just as there are things for you. There are things in our lives that keep us from the fulfillment of the law, even if we are obedient to the letter of it. Entitlement is a big one. It pulls against the tension of forgiveness. Most of us know we are called to forgive our brothers and sisters when they have done wrong against us, and so we say that we forgive them, but something inside of us holds onto the bitterness, onto the hate, onto the entitlement to revenge or repayment or restitution. We still want something out of it. We say that we have forgiven because we know we have to forgive, and we have followed the letter of the law.
The spirit of the law, however, remains far away from us.
It's so tempting to say that Jesus here made a new command for all of us, that we should all sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. It sounds nice. It sounds "Christian." But it's not at all what Jesus said.
What Jesus actually said is that we all need to examine what it is that keeps us from fulfilling the very law that we are following, whatever that is, and that we need to turn that on its head and commit it to His purposes, offer it to His hands, put it on His altar. That's a lot harder. It doesn't sound as nice. All of a sudden, it sounds...personal.
And it's supposed to.