Re-reading the Rich Young Ruler

Steve Barnett’s prayer is that Jesus will gently and patiently lead us all out of slavery to “stuff” and deeper into the freedom and joy of the Kingdom of God.

A few years ago, the house next door to us was bought by a guy in his late 20s. He was some sort of tradie, but was in the process of reinventing himself as a hot-shot property developer. I’d always seen him driving around in the stereotypical ute, but one day he pulled up out the front in a gleaming, yellow Porsche Carrera.

“Where’d you steal that from?” I asked him.

“It’s my toy!” he proclaimed.

“Never seen you drive it before.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t park it around here. It’s garaged in Castle Hill, but I only take it out for a run a few times a year, and never at night. I’m too scared it’ll get stolen or scratched.”

At this point the conversation stopped: someone drove around the corner and my neighbour froze; he couldn’t relax until they were safely past his precious sports car.

It certainly didn’t seem to me that he was enjoying owning his “toy”. He’d worked his backside off, probably taken out a big loan to buy his dream car, and would have paid a small fortune each year just to insure it. Yet he was so paranoid about losing it that instead of happiness, it seemed to be causing him considerable angst.

It made me wonder about material possessions – you’ve really got to ask yourself, what’s possessing who!?

Re-reading the Rich Young Ruler

It also reminded me of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. No luxury sports cars in his day, but he was clearly an “A-lister”, and had certainly bought into the story that living the good life meant having lots of stuff.

His privileged status is reflected in the way he approaches the Teacher; unlike Zacchaeus, he just walks straight up to Jesus and tries to butter him up with a flattering intro. The answer to his enquiry about eternal life seems to be going much as he anticipated, until Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter with one of his trademark “upside down Kingdom” statements:

“The thing that you lack is all the stuff that you have. Get rid of it and you’ll be free to follow me”. The Rich Young Ruler may see it as a sign of God’s blessing, but Jesus points out that in seeking his meaning, purpose and security from material wealth he is actually cutting himself off from receiving those things from God. Jesus calls it for what it is – idolatry. Being more generous and being less possessed by our possessions are two sides of the same coin.

As economists point out, we live in an era of unparalleled prosperity; never before have so many people enjoyed the lavish lifestyle we have here in Australia. We have better food, better education, better communication, better health, bigger houses, nicer cars, greater choice, more entertainment and more travel opportunities than at any other time in human history. We’ve never had it so good!

And yet, at the same time, the vital signs of life – our social and emotional indicators – aren’t good. All this prosperity has been accompanied by relationship breakdown, record levels of prescription to anti-depressants and increased violence on our streets and in our homes. The most common cause of death in Australians under 45 isn’t cancer, or car accidents, but suicide. Yet listening to our political leaders, you’d think that all we need to do is fix the economy (and maybe protect our borders), and everything will be rosy.

I honestly don’t believe that Jesus ever asks us to give anything up – but he’s constantly calling us to leave stuff behind. Stuff that’s holding us back. Stuff that’s keeping us from the whimsical freedom of following him. 

I think Rabbi Jonathan Sacks hit the nail on the head when he wrote in The Great Partnership:

The consumer society, directed at making us happy, achieves the opposite. It encourages us to spend money we do not have, to buy things we do not need, for the sake of happiness that will not last. By constantly directing our attention to what we do not have, instead of making us thankful for what we do have, it becomes a highly effective system for the production and distribution of unhappiness.

What’s driving this blind rush to death by affluenza? Why do we cling desperately to this worship of stuff, despite overwhelming evidence that it’s just not working? I believe at the heart of it, we’re driven by fear.

A friend of mine works as a financial advisor two days per week, and in his spare time he’s a Baptist pastor. I once heard him preach a fantastic sermon on Christians and money, where he said “I’ve helped thousands of clients plan for their future, and I would only consider one or two of them to be greedy – the rest were scared. Scared that their kids will miss out on a quality education, or that they wouldn’t have enough to retire on." For example, the established wisdom is that a couple now needs a superannuation nest egg of $1-2 million to enjoy a fulfilling retirement.

Re-reading the Rich Young Ruler

Steve Barnett with his six year old Rhode Island Red Nuggets.

It seems to me that, just like the Rich Young Ruler, contemporary Australians are listening to the wrong story. And unfortunately the church seems to be little different when it comes to our attitude towards money.

And do we at TEAR fall into the same trap? What does language like “making sacrifices for the poor” reveal about the story we’re living by? As long as we couch regular giving in terms of "sacrifice" or “giving up” (in other words, “missing out”) aren’t we just like the Rich Young Ruler, still seeing the world the wrong way up? Is framing the conversation around greed therefore counter-productive, because it only serves to aggravate a symptom of the much deeper issue of our meaning, identity and security that are rooted in our fraught relationship with God? Are we giving the marketing machine the home ground advantage by inflaming the fears that actually drive hyper-consumerism?

A better approach might be to join the Old Testament prophets in painting a picture of a world characterised by Shalom – a world rich in personal wellbeing, emotional security, deep relationships and healthy community – a world with people at the centre and stuff at the margins. Better to point out the things we’re actually cutting ourselves off from by doggedly clinging to our individualistic, acquisitional lifestyles.

I honestly don’t believe that Jesus ever asks us to give anything up – but he’s constantly calling us to leave stuff behind. Stuff that’s holding us back. Stuff that’s keeping us from the whimsical freedom of following him. And my personal prayer is that Jesus will gently and patiently lead myself, my family, my community and my country out of slavery to “stuff” and towards deeper relationships, stronger community and more satisfying work; deeper into the freedom and joy of the Kingdom of God.

Steve Barnett is TEAR’s Assistant NSW Coordinator. He lives in western Sydney with wife Diana and progeny Alex, Jono and Gemma. He is part of Common Groundz Community Café in Lalor Park.


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