A Rich Old Man

One of a series of interviews with Biblical personages

Excuse me, sir, but we have been told that you are the “rich young man” spoken of in our chronicles.

Young? You must have the wrong man.

It was many years ago, perhaps. You were still a student. You approached the Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, with a question. Here, read the account:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

“Which ones?” the man inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Matthew 19:16-22

Wow. Yes, that was me. That was many years ago. Haven’t thought about that day in quite a while.

Our chronicler reports that you left that encounter “sad.”

Yes. Ha ha. It’s probably the only instance in recorded history where a person is described as “sad because he had great wealth.” Your chronicler has it fundamentally correct. Indeed, I was saddened by that whole encounter.

I was a student then, in the school of the Pharisees. I had nearly completed my education. I always did very well in my studies. When I approached the Rabbi on that day, I was at the very peak of my mental powers. I was fully indoctrinated in the nuances of the Law, trained by the very best teachers in Israel.

What moved you to inquire of this particular Rabbi that day? Surely you had many other teachers of great wisdom.

At the time, I had this vague uneasiness. I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that I should have more – I don’t know, maybe “joy” is the word. Doesn’t matter now, of course. My professors turned out to be right, as usual: those feelings were just the overwrought emotions of an immature young man. I’ve come to terms with my faith. Faith is obedience. That’s all God wants or expects. But that young man, filled with silly, undisciplined notions, perversely wanted something more.

So you inquired?

I said, “Rabbi, what must I do to get eternal life?” You see, at the time I was indulging a fanciful notion of “eternal life,” and thought the Rabbi might have something new or interesting to offer.

But you were disappointed by his reply.

Disappointed? Yes, maybe. “Shocked” is more how I felt at the time. Maybe “exasperated.” Frankly, I expected a more subtle answer from the famous Nazarene rabbi. I wanted a new commandment, something fresh, something no one had heard before. The answer he gave me was no different from what I already had. He told me “Obey the commandments.” This was no help to me at the time. I was, and still am, as diligent an observer of the Torah as you’ll find in all Israel. So you can imagine my frustration with his answer. It was a slap in the face, I thought.

You told the Rabbi as much.

Yes, in a way I did. I said, with all due respect, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” Since the day of my bar mitzvah, the day I became responsible morally for my own actions, I have perfectly kept the Commandments. He actually had the audacity to start listing the Commandments for me. As if I was unaware of them. I had to interrupt him.

And that’s when you asked your second question?

Yes, I asked him, “What do I still lack?” Again, I think my head might have been a little fuzzy that day. I was just a youth; I had no understanding. I don’t know exactly what it was I expected. His first answer was empty and exasperating. I wanted something more All I know is that he gave me the second part of his answer, and I went away sad.

The part about selling all you have, and following him.

Yes. Sounds simple, yes? Simple for you, maybe, common laborers or fishermen or whatever other kinds of hoi polloi this Galilean seemed to attract. I remember talking to his disciples, those fishermen from Capernaum. They had sold all they had, they boasted, yet they probably still didn’t have enough to buy a loaf of bread! Yes, giving it all away is easy when you have so little. But I have quite a lot of wealth. I inherited some, and I worked for some. There’s nothing wrong with having wealth. Our ancestor Abraham was wealthy. Come to think of it, so were Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both followers of your Rabbi. Why weren’t they given this commandment? Doesn’t that strike you as unfair? Why should I be required to do something that others are not required to do? See, that’s why I love the Torah. Everyone is equally responsible to obey it. There are no special commandments for one person. It makes no distinctions. It’s so completely fair. I keep the Commandments, I get a reward. That’s how it works.

You never seriously considered actually going through with it?

What, you mean selling everything? No, I never seriously thought about it. Your books probably make me out to be some sort of selfish materialist, but I am a devout religious man! And I cannot accept any religion that lays unfair burdens on people, burdens that apply only to some and not to others.

After that talk with the Rabbi, I went straight back to school and completed my studies. I never gave it another thought.  I have never wavered from my religion. As far as I am concerned, the Nazarene had nothing to offer. I am content with my situation. I know that by keeping the Commandments, I am worthy of a place in the World To Come. So, you see, nothing he said would have changed that anyway.

Is it possible the Rabbi, rather than imposing an additional burden, was instead pushing you towards a realization?

He said, “Sell your possessions, give to the poor, follow me.” What would I possibly realize by doing that, other than a life of poverty?

Maybe there’s a lesson in it.

As I said, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve made my choice. I choose Moses. I choose the glorious Law of God, that alone makes a man righteous.

No regrets, then?

You mean, do I look back wistfully at that day and wonder how my life might have been different? No, I don’t. I can walk through this life with my head held high. I’m proud of what I’ve done.

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