The Rich Young Man Conundrum (Mark 10:17-23)

Today’s guest post is by Rev. Jacob Chulsung Kim, PhD.


Libertarian-leaning Christians face resistance from other believers for many reasons, one of which is the problem of greed. Because libertarians support the free market, and the free market is believed to enable greed, it is often concluded that libertarianism is incompatible with the Christian life. One of the passages typically used to support this ‘anti-greed’ sentiment is Mark 10:17-23, the story of the rich young man. Though the passage is often understood as a polemic against greed, a more nuanced interpretation is possible, and this alternative interpretation presents believers with a far more interesting principle. It is more likely that the passage is a polemic against minimum standards in the life of faith, and at the same time an appeal for continual growth in faith.

In the passage, a rich young man approaches the Lord and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. After asking rhetorically if the man understood to whom he was speaking, the Lord asked him if he knew the Commandments. The apparent implication was that the young man must keep these laws in order to have eternal life. I imagine the young man was overjoyed upon hearing this question, for in his opinion he had kept these laws all his life. The Lord did not challenge his reply, and instead seemingly took it at face value.

Because Jesus loved the man, he told him that he lacked something. The young man was told to sell all his possessions and give to the poor; only then would he have treasure in heaven, that is, eternal life. As the story goes, the young man could not do it because he had much wealth. Selling all that he had would mean not only being left with few possessions, but also the loss of status, luxury, ease and material security which came with his wealth. After the man left, Jesus added that the wealthy will have a hard time entering the Kingdom, if it were at all possible.

On one level, the interpretation seems straightforward: because of the young man’s love for material possessions, he would not receive eternal life. Greed (or the love of material possessions) gets in the way of devotion to Christ. Christ said the young man lacked something, yet never really spelled it out what it was. The obvious answer is that he lacked faith, and this means that his wealth was actually less of an issue than one might suppose. The young man lacked a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, Lord and Savior. He saw entrance to Heaven as a matter of fulfilling a set of minimum requirements, and the Lord showed that this was an incorrect understanding. The Lord drew attention to the young man’s idolatry; he loved material things more than the Lord, and eternal life was just another item to add to his list of possessions. His love of material possessions exceeded his desire to have eternal life. The issue is lack of faith. A wealthy person who is completely devoted to Christ can have eternal life. Having tremendous wealth is not by itself an indication of a lack of faith, or even the presence of so-called ‘greed.’

How we define greed is notoriously subjective. In the contemporary United States, people often understand greed as ‘wanting more than you need.’ Yet good economics teaches us that different people have different needs, and their needs change over time. Arbitrary standards of need create a narrow inflexibility in an area where flexibility is intrinsically needed.

To illustrate, when I was a college student, I rented an apartment over the summer for $75 a month. It was run down, the pipes would suddenly fall apart, and the door was missing a corner the size of a man’s face. However, at the time, it was all I needed. If we accept the popular understanding of greed (along with its arbitrary and subjective standards) I would have stayed in that apartment long after graduation because it was all I ‘needed’ (though I might have fixed the door). I would have shown my future wife the apartment so that she could see where we would live happily for the rest of our lives, secure in our belief that love conquers all.

It is not hard to imagine what would have been her dissatisfaction with ‘all we needed.’ I might have called her a greedy woman in my subjectively-formed disappointment. The contemporary definitions of greed and need are problematic in a similar way; they do not take into consideration the dynamic variety of the unpredictable circumstances of life, much less its wants. Furthermore, if we insist on the contemporary definition of greed, then accepting a higher salary of any amount beyond one’s needs, or a gift that goes beyond an arbitrary definition of necessity, should also be seen as sinful.

Because everyone’s needs are different, it is impossible to determine when one has actually exceeded some standardized level of need. What we can know with certainty is that the so-called ‘greedy people’ have exceeded the wealth of those who apply that label to them. Literally anyone can be accused of greed by someone else; even my children –who without my support are poor – will call each other greedy if one takes more cookies than the other. Focusing only on people who are financially wealthy allows us to ignore the sinful greed of poor individuals, not to mention all the other expressions of greed. If a poor woman turns to slot machines or the lottery to try and make a quick fortune rather than buy food for her family, is that not greed? If a poor man steals from his neighbor to support his drug addiction, is that not greed?

A better definition of greed – which avoids the hypocritical double standard of calling out one group of people while ignoring the rest – is the state of lacking contentment with what one has. People can be greedy for knowledge, information, fellowship, leisure, efficiency, devotion, attention, books, action figures, baseball cards; the list is endless. Because everyone is plagued by some form of greed, it is easy to see that the expression merely reveals who is perceived to have more than another according to some arbitrary measure. Continued use of the word within the popular contemporary definition simply turns ‘greed’ into a pejorative rather than a meaningful comparison between righteous and sinful behavior.

My suggested definition of greed would resolve the faux problem of being ‘too successful’ in business or being ‘too good’ at one’s job; the whole idea of ‘too successful’ is yet another arbitrary and subjective determination. Also, a focus on how much wealth a person has ignores the important point of how they obtained it. Many people have accumulated wealth by creating value for others via goods or services they wanted to buy. Others inherited their wealth because their ancestors were successful in creating such value. Still others obtained their wealth by taking advantage of government regulation, using state violence to make people buy from them or crush their competitors. In other words, all ‘rich’ people are not alike. There are many who obtain their wealth by creating value and serving other people; there are others who obtain their wealth through force and fraud. This distinction is essential.

My reconstructed understanding of greed is also in line with the Christian belief that justification before God comes by faith, not by human effort. Salvation is not earned; it is a gift. The young man’s claim to have kept all of the Commandments from his youth is not as relevant as some might think. Wealth cannot be used as a qualifier for eternal life, but neither can it be used as a disqualifier. While wealth can be a source of temptation, it can sometimes be a byproduct of living a diligent life.

The young man’s quest is not unlike a question with which many in the Church often struggle: how does one know if one is saved? Is there a list of behaviors we can use as signs to indicate faith? If such a list existed, could it used as a set of qualifications, or a certification of salvation? This is what I call ‘the problem of the list.’ People love lists because they simplify things. Lists act as a kind of standardization through which people can judge quality or correct behavior; they are often are used as reference points (with no bearing) for evaluating people.

As long as lists are understood as a general reference and not absolutes, we can steer clear of bad incentives and moral hazards. Over time, however, the tendency is for lists to become a cheat sheet: a minimum standard of what constitutes a believer. The list becomes a set of behaviors to filter who should be permitted to all of the accompanying privileges of being part of the Church. One may even begin to hear an expression like ‘the culture of Christianity.’ At this point, lists may actually enable people to feign faith or encourage spiritual arrogance.

It is clear that the young man wanted a minimum standard with which he would have to comply in order to qualify for eternal life; he wanted a list. This line of thinking is that once the basic requirements were met, he would not have had to do any more; that is, he would not have to be more faithful, more devoted to God, or become more knowledgeable about Scripture. He would not be required to sacrifice more for faith and the glory of God because he had already achieved salvation. Just as minimum standards in our statist world often act as maximum standards, the young man was not concerned with continued growth in understanding the grace and love of God. The Lord taught the young man that there are no minimum standards in faith; there is only the attitude of faith to live life ever-more for the glory of God. There are no maximum standards of faith, either. Believers must continue to live and grow in the grace of God until the Lord calls them.

If there was a maximum of faith – theoretical or otherwise – what might that be? As a young boy, I was told stories of faith. My father had lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea as a Christian and in a Christian family. He was born during the occupation and was 16 when World War II ended. Though he endured many tests of faith, my father’s message was clear: one must be ready to give up one’s life for the cause of Jesus Christ. If one were able to put everything (including one’s life) on the line for faith, then giving up all of one’s possessions would not be such a difficult task. From this perspective, one may be able to construct a better set of priorities for everyday life.

The hardship of Christian religious persecution as seen in mid-20th century Korea is thus far not known in America, and I do not wish for it ever. Yet even in the absence of this type and level of persecution, we are free to live vibrant and ever-more faithful lives for the glory of God. Believers should commit to increasing their faith by learning more and appreciating more deeply the Word of God. As our knowledge increases, so also should our commitment to live as children of the light. This type of life is a hard-working one which seeks to glorify God by living as best as we possibly can, making the most of opportunities so as to testify to the grace and love of God through the quality and integrity of our work. For some, this kind of faith-life may result in material prosperity. In fact, material prosperity not sought might even be an unintended consequence of an honest life of faith in a free society. A believer who finds him or herself in that situation may boast even more of their faith in God.