The Rich Ruler Considers the Value of Poverty

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world;

but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.   (1 Timothy 6:6-11)

In Luke 18:18-27, we are given a record of a conversation between a wealthy man who also had some political influence and Jesus Christ.  It is a rare Gospel lesson in that it does directly mention the man’s inner, emotional reaction to a teaching of Christ.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

In Luke’s version of this story, we are told that the rich man became very sorrowful when told to give away his wealth.  We are not told whether he ever acted upon what Jesus told him.  The man in Luke’s Gospel is not referenced again.  We can surmise based on the other Gospel versions of the narrative (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31) that the man walked away from Christ grieving.  Mark additionally notes that Jesus  actually loved the man for keeping the commandments and spoke to him out of love for him.  Be that as it may, the man still walks away from Christ.  Luke, however, does not have the man walk away from Christ.  Whatever the man’s inner grief was in thinking about giving up his wealth, we aren’t told what he actually did.   Did this rich man actually think about the value of poverty or the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth?  Luke does not tell us.  It is possible the man grieved but then did what Christ directed him to do.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann at one point in his writings considers the phrase from this Gospel lesson, “It is difficult for the rich…”

“It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty!–there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something–that is ugliness–but in being content with what there is.”   (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 50)

The rich ruler of the Gospel lesson was not sure he could be content with having nothing.  His contentment was based on his wealth.  His spiritual dilemma was that in being told to give away his possessions, he thought this was giving away his contentment and his self worth.  Without his wealth, he couldn’t see himself as having any value.

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