Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Rich Young Ruler was Right

Rethinking the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler

Jesus, a Jewish quasi-rabbi of the first century, spoke against materialism. He often would speak against "the rich," who stored up their possessions where moth and rust could destroy. Being wealthy, therefore, was seen as a bad thing, or if not outright bad, then it was seen as being highly risky for being in a proper relationship to God.

For example, in one story from the Bible,[1] a young man came to Jesus and, after some initial quibbling about who gets the standard of 'good' correctly attributed to whom, the young man attests that he was not a liar, nor defrauder; and, that he was generally a moral person all around. No protests arose from Jesus or others when he said this. But Jesus then tells him take up with him, and to sell off all his belongings, give the proceeds to the poor, and there would, as a consequence, be a heavenly reward. The young guy was wealthy, and therefore saddened, apparently thinking the risk of investment was not worth the odds of payoff. Was he rational to decline Jesus offer? I think so.

There's a couple of items to this story from antiquity which I find worth considering. First, compare this case to a hypothetical one where the rich young guy was found dying of a disease. His doctor tells him a cure is available, but it would cost him his net worth. Would he have sold it all? Well, if he checked it out, saw that it worked on others, and talked with people who had the same problem, got the same advice, and realized the benefit; then, almost certainly he would have--at least If modern indications of bankruptcy as tied to dire medical bills is any indication.[2] So, the young guy would seemingly make the most rational decision on a risk calculation.

Now, consider his decline of Jesus' offer. One might counter-argue that the young guy secretly knew it was the wrong decision. But that goes against the medical argument above. If it was known that the investment, or risk of investment, was worth the payoff, it's not a wrong decision. It appears that Jesus was asking the young guy to turn his brain off. (Not an unusual tactic for preachers.) But there is another angle here too: one can image the young guy dying after many years, and subsequently going to heaven. God says, "You'd have had a much more impacting life it you'd taken up Jesus' offer. That would have been a pure exercise of freewill, a virtue. Still, you did the rational thing by following the evidence available to you. And that was an exercise of reason, also a virtue. Enter in, then, my good and faithful servant."

Second, it seems a trivially easy argument to make that one should not be caught up in worldly wealth in the first century. There is no upward mobility, only the most rudimentary understanding of commerce and money management, and very unpredictable circumstances for commodity control (weather, war, etc.). It makes no sense to worry about material goods when there is so little chance that one's worry or circumstances could increase the opportunity for such goods. By analogy, it would be like telling a modern North American not to worry about being in a plane crash, but instead to plan one's trip using a plane as is convenient. Well, of course! After all, it would be patently irrational to worry about crash insurance when there's so little chance that one's circumstances would produce such a catastrophe (1 in 25 million). Likewise for a first century Palestinian to worry about materialistic advance, seeing how little chance there is for it.

Third, maybe this is why Jesus thinks it so difficult for a rich person to get into heaven: Unfortunately, the rational evidence indicates that the risk of investment of resources is NOT a rational one given the expected return. Even if it's TRUE that selling all one has to the poor and following a religious life of poverty is best, one cannot make such a decision unless there's some evidence to that effect. What's worse, anyone who is reading this is virtually assured of being counted "rich" by standards of comparison with the rest of the world:
"At the point at which people have their own home, enough food to eat, clothing to wear, running water, a sanitary sewage system, and a television, a computer, and the ability to ride in an airplane, they are in the top 20 percent of the world's inhabitants."[3]
But in a country like mine (United States) there is upward mobility by means of education, wealth management, and stable environments for business enterprise. Also, as an empirical matter, rich people tend to do far better, as do their children. Poorer children live under stress, and this has been shown to affect them and their offspring:
Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children. [....] It is now well established that poor adults live stressful lives, and not just for the obvious reason that poverty brings uncertainty about the future. The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one. [...It has been ] shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things.[4]
In the end, the young guy was wealthy, and saddened, apparently thinking the risk of investment was not worth the odds of payoff. Not to him, and not to his children, or his children's children. Was he rational to decline Jesus offer? As far as evidence goes, it would seem so.


[image] "Rich Young Ruler" Stained Glass Window in First Reformed United Church of Christ. (Accessed 4/12/2009)

[1] Mark 10:17-31 New Testament

[2] "For the years 2003 and 2004, just over 50 percent of all personal bankruptcies were the result of medical debt by those with health insurance. A significant percentage of those listing medical debt as the reason for their bankruptcy are 65 and older. Other groups disproportionately bankrupted by medical debt include single women raising children on low wages or who have been abandoned by their husbands who refuse to pay child support." From "Bankruptcy and Medical Debt" BCS Alliance (Accessed 4/12/2009) The stats for 2008 were no different, with half of those filing having experience a serious health problem. See "Bankruptcy Statistics 1980-2008" (Accessed 4/12/2009)

[3] J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God Save the Planet Zondervan 2007. -- A bad book in most respects, with terrible logic, no documentation, and a literalistic appeal to the values of a pre-scientific, pre-techological people as a way of setting the ideals of 21st century global environmental management. See also this graph, which shows a similar distribution of income

[4] "I am just a poor boy though my story's seldom told." The Economist April 2, 2009.


Labels: , , , ,


At 12:41 PM, Blogger Jailer said...

Got your link to my blog and have posted my thoughts at this link:

The key extract is below:

This is a very strangely constructed argument. If your premise is that Jesus challenged the Rich Young Ruler to decide between having a "more impacting life" and one which is less so, then perhaps there can be some discussion about cost-benefit and God's rewarding his "virtue". The tradeoff would be between earthly treasure and inner fulfillment with no impact on his eternal destiny.

But of course Jesus didn't couch this (or any other) discussion that way. Rather, he talked about "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" This is an entirely different kettle of fish, in which the cost-benefit analysis is between earthly wealth and eternal security (heaven and hell).

Now, if you don't believe Jesus was who he claimed to be (the Son of God, one with the Father, etc.), then you can feel free to dismiss this claim. Moreover, if that's true, you should essentially dismiss everything Jesus said, since he would have to have been a raving lunatic or a very clever liar. To quote CS Lewis:

"You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

In short, if you don't believe Jesus has the authority to be "the way, the truth, and the life" as he claimed, then call him a fraud and be done with him. It would be wrong, but at least it would be intellectually consistent.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

Jailer, thanks for the developed response, such posts are rare. I felt that you would have insight on such matters, since I'd happily read a couple of other things you posted on your blog, and since I really was trying to think along the lines of some of the issues you brought up on your Feb. 6th post, "Our Lord and the Rich Young Ruler." (Admittedly, mine was not a direct analysis of that post.)

I'm well aware that many Christians interpret this passage as one about salvation, so I'm not confused as you conjectured; but, I think another move might be available, one based on the claim that Jesus didn't come to save the righteous. How might we make sense of this?

Well, if this guy really was righteous (i.e., in fact, actually an ethical man, as opposed to merely pretending), then Jesus was offering him something above and beyond God's typical blessing of ethical people.

For example, in Psalms it's written,"Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth." So it seems to me that God does not punish such people by sending them to Hell; still, there are relative losses for those who cannot and do not chose above and beyond what a rational approach to ethics would allow.

In contrast, I take it, you would hold it's much more cut-n-dried, that ethical people are still on the Highway to Hell, as one popular rock group phrases it. I'm just not so pessimistic about the love of God for humankind, but I well know this is controversial among Christians.

By the way, since I'm a Christian Philosopher, I hope you'll grant me the ability to experiment with ideas in ways that lay believers, preachers, and theologians just don't (and perhaps shouldn't) get to.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Jailer said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Jailer said...

Hi Brint,

I suppose the first question I'd have for you is what (in your mind) is a "Christian Philosopher"? I have my own ideas: perhaps my favorite would be RC Sproul, who in my opinion carries a high view of Scripture paired with an appreciation (I should say "mastery") of the historical development of philosophy.

My problem with your philosophy is that it violates a basic rule that would make it "Christian"--it fails to pass the "plain reading of the text" test. Jesus in this case was clearly implying that the Rich Young Ruler's use of the word "good" (you might say "ethical") was inapt, insofar as God alone is truly good. Indeed, the Scripture is abundantly clear on this count:

"What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
"Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit."
"The poison of vipers is on their lips."
"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."
(Rom 3:9-18)

The plain message of Scripture is that Jesus' came to save sinners, not to annoint the ethical. In fact, the most "ethical" of the day, the Pharisees, were those whom Jesus referred to as a "brood of vipers" and "whitewashed tombs".

Respectfully yours,

At 12:38 PM, Blogger ~ Marty Alan Michelson, Ph.D. said...

The title states the rich young ruler is right, but argues that he is rationale. Right = Rationale or Rational = Right? Is this a logical argument or ethical one or both?

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

That he is evidentially "justified" would be the best way to say it, whether "right" (=correct) or not.

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for your blog thoughts. I always enjoy reading your posts. I will be first to say that I am not very adept at logical argument or philosophical dialogue. So it is with trepidation that I offer my comments.

Logically, your thoughts on the Rich Young Ruler make a lot of sense. However, from my limited perspective I don’t see Jesus, his ways, his life and/or his message giving much credence to thinking and behavior that the “world” would oftentimes consider as “right,” “rational,” “justified,” or “correct.”

In fact, I see the opposite. When I think of Jesus, the terms foolish, abandon, radical, extravagant, and irrational, to name a few, come to mind. In light of these terms I think of the following instances in the Bible:

• The calling of the disciples and their response to follow Jesus.
• Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus. “What a waste! That nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.”
• Jesus and Nicodemus—“born again?” “the Wind?”
• Forgive enemies and those that persecute you? That just isn’t right.
• Jesus on the cross—God giving his only son upon the cross for what—the world? love?

Often, when I read and consider the story of the Rich Young Ruler, my mind goes to Jim Elliot, the missionary who died a martyr’s death in South America some fifty years ago. He is famous for his journal entry, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” In light of the story of the Rich (and right?) Young Ruler, Elliot’s comments are…foolishness. Yet, it seems to me that it is in this realm of “foolishness,” and irrationality that Jesus works and lives and calls his followers to live.
I think your thoughts and comments on the “rightness” of the Rich Young Ruler’s response to Jesus serve as a great contrast to the somewhat irrational calling of Christ to, “come follow me.”

Ryan Roberts

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Jailer said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Jailer said...

Nicely put, Ryan. I would add the following excerpts from the opening chapters of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

... but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles ...

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness" ...

As you can see, the Bible has much to say about "foolishness", and not all is bad! From a biblical perspective, wisdom is to be sought, but specifically God's infinite, eternal, holy wisdom, not our limited and worldly version.

At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of Self-Interest, I believe you made the point clear: the cost-benefit ratio was too much not in the favor of Rich Young Ruler. However, in your fifth paragraph, you make a small argument that it would not have mattered much for this 1st century "rich guy" to maintain his assets, since there was so little formalization of management, opportunities for growth, markets, etc. I disagree. Although granted, economics as we know them today did not come online until 1775 with the publication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations", a quick browse through a certain Indian Text from about that period (I think) (err...Kama Sutra-the section on conduct for men), one can estimate that there was some semblance of markets (i.e. trading, etc) and wealth management. Upward Mobility -really- is a modern concept, since wealth before 1945 (WWII) was focused on creating bigger companies, franchises, and families. A man's earnings usually went to his household, or a man's company: Very few people really engaged in the art of the socialite.

One might argue that Jesus' response to RYR was not based on an altruism, but also self-preservation. He told RYR to liquidate his assests and "come, follow me." This could be interpreted as "donate your wealth to my mission and serve in my staff". Jesus' demonizing materialism was most likely not due to his knowledge of some infinite reward beyond the grave, but rather as a vehicle to propagate his name. If in fact he had originated in the house of a carpenter (which, depending on his biological father's craft, would have been either have been rich or poor), then his only means of achievement would have been to take up the family business or seek some other means (remember that upward mobility thing). Perhaps Jesus was inept as a carpenter. Either way, Jesus' actions were driven by self-preservation(image if RYR HAD believed him! Jesus' enterprise would been that much wealthier!).


At 11:35 AM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

0. Maybe just a few lines are in order on my part, since some of the posts here by commentators are extended, so on that basis I believe they deserve consideration on my part. (I'm not into tit-for-tat arguments. I'd rather have smart people who disagree with me feel comfortable to do so.)

1. I'll start with w0lph. He disagrees with me on a historical point, saying that "a quick browse through a certain Indian Text from about that period (I think) (err...Kama Sutra-the section on conduct for men), one can estimate that there was some semblance of markets (i.e. trading, etc) and wealth management."

A couple of things here. First, I don't doubt there was some semblance of wealth management, nor some chance for materialistic advance. Yet there wasn't much such management, and there wasn't much such chance. Thus, in the face of such unlikelihood in that circumstance, when a poor, even if intriguing, ethical quasi-rabbi comes along and makes a call for a sacrifice of the RYR's net worth for a greater reward, there was NO compelling argument or evidence that such a sacrifice made sense. It would have been irrational, and thus not virtuous for the RYR to have done so.

Second, even if India showed strong chances of wealth increase, and wealth management in that era, I'm not convinced it was the case for 1st century Palestine. So I don't think what happens in India is a case for what's happening in Palestine. "What hath India to do with Israel?", to tweak the scriptural quote?

2. Now to move to another issue. "Jailer" and "robertsinkorea" attempt a block of my defense concerning rationally compelling argument or evidence on RYR's part.

2.1. For examples:

"I don’t see Jesus, his ways, his life and/or his message giving much credence to thinking and behavior that the 'world' would oftentimes consider as 'right,' 'rational,' 'justified,' or 'correct.' In fact, I see the opposite. When I think of Jesus, the terms 'foolish', 'abandon', 'radical', 'extravagant', and 'irrational', to name a few, come to mind."[robertsinkorea]

And this:

"From a biblical perspective, wisdom is to be sought, but specifically God's infinite, eternal, holy wisdom, not our limited and worldly version." [jailer]

2.2. I'll stipulate outright that both commentators take the Bible seriously as a guide to living a Christian life and as outlining what counts as right or virtuous human conduct. The problem is, like on many big-ticket life issues, the Bible gives uneven treatment on the matter of reason.

Yes, Paul talks a lot about fools and foolishness, and especially so in his letters to the Corinthians. But he first got to Corinth after taking a very serious and political embarrassing intellectual spanking in Athens by its philosophers. In fact, he was unable to even found a church in that city, quite the exception to what he'd be able to do in other places.

Paul was a Jewish Rabbi, and the tools of careful reasoning were not available to him (he used imagery, and poetic analogy instead), and thus when he ran across people who could think carefully and well, the Epicureans and Stoics, his message (or those of his disciples, more likely) just didn't make sense.

Again, even if Paul was right, which Christians hold, he was not skilled enough to communicate his message. Hence, his hearers were also right not to be convinced by him. (Later, of course, more skilled Christian would win-over Athenian thinkers, i.e. many Stoics, over to Christianity.)

So Paul ends up disgruntled, and bails on evangelizing by means of reasoned consideration, since he's not skilled enough to do so. Yet Paul also makes the mistake of claiming philosophy (= human reasoning), not his own ineptitude, is where the flaw lies. (Preachers often like to blame others when their message gets rejected. It beats admitting ignorance or ineptitude--or both.) What he writes in Corinthians is "sour grapes," as we say today.

2.3. Where does the Bible give credence to reason? Among other places, it's in the "account" passages.

Example: The book of Job says, "I would give him an account of my every step." (Turns out he didn't need to, since it was all a bet with Satan and God, and not an ethical failure on his part.)

Example: The book of Matthew says, "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken." (Turns out God will require explanations, if there are any, for cognitive negligence, i.e. for irrational things we say and do without careful thinking first.)

Example: In the book of Luke, "What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer." (Turns out an inquiry for reasoning is demanded; and, to boot, a premise indicator is used--the word 'because' is utilized in a counter argument, a classic usage of rationality in constructing a logical argument.)

Many more examples could be adduced, but I merely make the point that the Bible is uneven on the matter.

2.4. Finally, every major Christian denomination has founded schools and seminaries for the training of its leaders and young people. These include full curriculum in usage of reason and rational methods in rightly assessing Christian texts, ideas, and morals.

Therefore, it would be obscurantist and even sinful (since cognitively careless) in the extreme to claim that a plain reading of the Bible is all that's required. The Bible is not an owner's manual written to the lowest common denominator of consumer, something easy to understand for anybody who can simply read. It's far deeper (and hence important) than that1

Ultimately, While many preachers and believers give lipservice to loving their Lord "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength," while they serve the outcast with their heart, and bear their spirit to God's spirit that they are his children; when it comes to the hard part of sharpening their minds--well, it's easier to keep that turned off. They instead should respect God: "what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?" [book of Job].

At 12:04 AM, Blogger Jonathan Platter said...

I wonder sometimes at the way we use "irrational." Perhaps it is helpful and even appropriate to talk about the elements of faith that do not explicitly engage the faculty of reason, but do we really consider that a lack of rationale in faith is to be praised?

If we are created in the image of God, our reason and intellect are surely by some means derived from God's. Thus, if we posit that we are most in accordance with God and the prerogative of Christ to act in a way that is lacking in reason, are we not saying that God as well lacks in reason? - and by saying that to be 'irrational' is to be closer to God? Does this also mean that God is lacking in mind?

It seems to be true that there are things that our rationale fails at, but not because such things are "irrational," but rather because we (and this can be an individualistic 'we' and/or a communal ‘we’) have not yet attained such a high rationale. Here I believe that maybe language like 'supra-rational' is more befitting of the things of God that we fail to understand. For God is rational, yet we cannot conceive God's reasoning.

For the rich guy, it seems odd that we would assume he has failed justification (or even salvation from Hell - though that does not seem to be the point of this passage) because he did not complete the act of selling his possessions and giving to the poor. Jesus' message was never about righteous activity (the Pharisee's fallacy) but about a righteous mentality. If the rich young ruler would have left and done what was asked simply to "inherit eternal life," he would perpetuate the Pharisee's fallacy and would have aimed at attaining eternal life by means of activity.

Jesus is calling him to something - this something may have been understood at the moment, or may not - but it was to a reorientation from the old covenant to the new; from the lifestyle of justification through the law to a justification by faith.

I would venture to say that the young ruler did not understand initially and left . . . the investment was not worth the pay-off. Christ was showing him the way, and that Way was not destroyed simply because the young guy could crunch numbers.

Was the young guy right? Yes. For, as long as the act of selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor was merely a means to his own eternal life, the investment was not worth the return.

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous bstudytools said...

I know this is an old post but I found it curious. I don't think wealth, whether the accumulation or lack thereof, is the point of what Jesus said to the rich young ruler.


Post a Comment

<< Home