Jesus and the Rich Young Man

Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:29

Faith in Mind
BBC Radio 4 Series

Broadcast - April 1, 2001

Jesus and the Rich Young Man

Dorothy Rowe

One statement by Jesus which is often quoted but in practice little followed is the advice he gave to the rich young man who had come to him to ask for the secret of eternal life. Jesus told him, ‘One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.’ The young man went sadly away. This story is told very briefly in St Marks Gospel, but, brief though it is, it is far more than a commentary on how we should deal with our wealth.

There is a tradition in psychotherapy that at some point in the course of therapy the therapist should present the client with two challenges. The first challenge occurs early in therapy and concerns how the client sees the therapist. The client comes into therapy hoping that the therapist has some magical power which will take away the client’s suffering but not change him. The therapist has to challenge this and show that the therapist has no magical power and that to give up his suffering the client must choose to change.

The second challenge comes later when a bond has developed between the therapist and the client, and the therapist judges that the client is now strong and confident enough to cope with the challenge. This challenge has the aim of enabling the client to reach the crucial understanding that, while he had always thought that the world and himself were something fixed and real, what he called the world and himself was actually his own construction. When we discover that our perceptions are what we have created out of our past experience, we then know that we are free to change them. We are no longer prisoners of time, place, other people and our own distress. We might not be able to change many of the conditions of our existence but we are free to change how we interpret those conditions.

In the Eastern tradition of Zen, a Zen master presents his young novices with a kind of riddle called a koan. The one most often quoted is, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ There is no single right solution to this koan, but in contemplating it you might gain the understanding that, if you define the word ‘clapping’ as the sound of two hands meeting sharply, this definition precludes the possibility of one hand clapping. However, if you define ‘clapping’ in other ways then many other solutions are possible. The difficulty lies not in reality but in your interpretation of reality. Understanding this is enlightenment.

In the story of the rich young man who wanted Jesus to give him the secret of eternal life Jesus presented the young man with these same two challenges. Whether the young man successfully met both those challenges is not clear from the story. We are told that he became sad and went away grieving. It is often assumed that he did this because he could not bear to give up his possessions, but it could equally be that his was the sadness we all feel when we give up the illusion that someone else will take responsibility for us, and we accept that we have to be responsible for ourselves.

One of the most comforting illusions we can hold is that of believing that there is someone, somewhere, who understands what life is about and who is solidly and reliably looking after us. When we’re small children we see our parents as fulfilling the role of our unfailing protector, but we soon discover that our parents are just fallible human beings. We might decide then to look for our protector in one of those religions which teach about a God who is the perfect, infallible parent. Alas, we then discover that God can be absent-mindedly neglectful of our welfare, or at least He moves in mysterious ways which we can’t comprehend.

The rich young man who wanted the secret of eternal life was still at the stage of expecting that there must be some parental figure looking after him. The fact that he was a good person, mindful of the commandments, shows that as a child he had had parents who protected and guided him. However, his parents were by now aged or dead, and he was having to assume the adult responsibilities of someone who has inherited wealth. As much as he might enjoy the power that came with wealth, he wished that there was still some parental figure who stood between him and an unpredictable world. When we believe in the possibility of such a parental figure we are likely to see replicas of such a figure in certain of the people we meet. The young man saw Jesus as one such figure. In youthful enthusiasm he ran towards him and knelt at his feet, saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’

Immediately Jesus challenged him. He said, ‘Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.’

No doubt the young man was shaken by this response. He would have been used to people being flattered by his attention and therefore responding to him warmly. Uncertain of his situation, the young man submitted meekly to Jesus’ questions about whether he had always obeyed the commandments.

We are then told that Jesus ‘beholding him loved him’. When I was a child this particular part of the story passed me by. However, when I ceased to be a member of the up-coming young generation and moved into the middle-aged and then the old generation the words ‘beholding him loved him’ shone forth for me. Part of my work as a psychologist has always been concerned with young psychology graduates who were entering the profession of clinical psychology. Few of them realised that I loved them for their youthful beauty, their energy, enthusiasm, and their belief that it was possible to cure all the sorrows of the world. I hoped that they would achieve more in improving the world than my generation had achieved, but I was sad that I would have to confront them with the reality of a psychiatric system which was indifferent to the suffering of the patients and of the patients themselves most of whom wanted their suffering to be magically eliminated without any effort needing to be made by them.

The young man, like these young psychologists, was full of youthful beauty, energy and enthusiasm, and confident that all suffering could be overcome. He already had discovered that there was much in life which was painful and uncertain. Like all young people he had believed that he would never die, but then he’d discovered the inescapability of death. Moreover, events had shown him that no amount of goodness prevents disaster. He wanted his suffering magically to disappear, and he saw the magic that was necessary as the secret of eternal life. This eternal life was very special. No one would want an eternal life which simply replicated the pain and misery of this life. He wanted an eternal life which abolished death and which gave him the unending happiness and security of being looked after by a perfect parental figure who took full responsibility for him.

Jesus’ love for the young man must have been tinged with sadness for he knew that the best he could do for the young man was to present the second challenge. And so he did. He said, ‘One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.’

The young man wanted everything. He wanted his possessions and he wanted eternal life. We all want everything, and we find it hard to accept that we can’t have everything. Many of us waste our lives trying to get everything and by failing to understand the kind of things which we can’t have.

The things we can’t have fall into two categories.

The first category of things we can’t have relates to those things we can’t have because of the nature of life. We can’t abolish death, nor defy the laws of gravity, nor be in two places at once, and time spent in one way can’t be spent again in another way.

The second category relates to those things we can’t have because of the way we have defined certain conditions. For instance, if you define your possessions as being an essential part of your identity without which you would be a nothing, or if you define your possessions as being a role and a duty which you have inherited in the same way as you inherited the colour of your eyes, then you have created by your definitions a prison for yourself from which there is no escape.

Many of us create great misery for ourselves because we confuse the two categories. We feel cheated because we shall grow old and die, and we waste time and effort in trying to assure ourselves this will never happen. At the same time we claim that the prisons we have created for ourselves out of our own definitions are a fact of nature and can’t be changed.

Jesus’ second challenge to the young man concerned how the young man defined his possessions. The usual reading of this story is that the young man made the error of confusing category two with category one. He saw his possessions and the duties and privileges that went with them as part of the nature of life which he was unable to change. He believed that he couldn’t survive as a person without his possessions. If this was what he believed he would indeed be sad because the prison of his possessions excluded him from the treasures of heaven.

However, Jesus’ second challenge might have enabled the young man to see that what kept him in his prison were the values which he himself had placed on his possessions. He might have seen that, if he failed to store up treasure in heaven because he hadn’t taken up the cross and followed Jesus, it wasn’t because of the nature of life nor was it the fault of some other person. It was a result of his own choices. In such a situation a Zen master would say that the young man had become enlightened.

Realising that we have to take responsibility for ourselves is always a sad business, for we have to accept that, although other people can give us help, we have to look after ourselves. However, in discovering this, we also discover that we are free to choose our own prisons, and in selecting our prisons carefully we can create the conditions necessary whereby we can be happy. I hope that this was the choice the young man made.