Most Christians and many others are familiar with the story of the Rich Young Ruler, which, by the way, takes data from the combined Gospels to know these things (rich, young, a ruler) about him. Here it is from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10.
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
The man was obviously religious. He was certainly concerned about the state of his soul and his standing before God, but his commitment also had its limits. This fellow, by his own assessment, is not guilty of anything scandalous at all. Jesus does not argue will that. Christ does, however, point out that there is that one thing, his possessions, that are standing in the way of this man and eternal life. His stuff had become his idol.
Based on this story alone, it would be going too far to say that wealth is a problem for everyone or that it is always a problem wherever it is found. It certainly can be, though, so it makes a good place for us to start in assessing ourselves. Even poor people can be covetous and overly tied to their belongings. For rich people the temptation is even worse.
Once we look at the areas of wealth and covetousness, we might actually determine that areas like these are not our biggest besetting sins. Maybe we are truly generous. Maybe riches are not, for us, an idol. Fine, but maybe something still is.
The thing that impresses me most about this encounter of a random inquirer and Jesus is Christ’s ability to see beyond his generally high level of obedience to the commandments of God. OK, so maybe he is no thief, murderer, adulterer or deceiver in any major way. But maybe there is something else. His riches, perhaps? There is no commandment against owning stuff, only commandments not to be covetous or greedy and to be generous in considering the poor, etc.
It’s not a simple rubric to use in giving ourselves a grade. I my give regularly, but do I give enough? I guess I want this thing or that, but is that covetousness or just a reasonable desire? How am I supposed to know? We may not know for sure, but in the case in question, Jesus did. He pointed out to the man that one thing and it happened to be his possessions.
Perhaps for us there is also that one thing. Maybe the right question to ask is, “If God asked me to give up anything, is there some request that would cause me to say no?” Or worded differently, “Is there something Jesus might ask me to sacrifice that would so dishearten me that I would go away sorrowful rather than throw the thing away?” If there is, we are in the same position as this man in the story.
Any relationship, possession or position that I might consider more important than Jesus is probably my real god, my dead, debilitating idol. As we know, God hates idols. Therefore, so should we.