In seminary, we studied this passage about the rich man and Jesus, and I proposed a new interpretation. I suggested that the rich man “went away sad” not because (1) he was wealthy and (2) unwilling to give that wealth away, but rather that (1) he was wealthy and (2) he was going to HAVE to give it away. I suggested that the ultimate outcome of the young man was sorrowful salvation rather than the assumed sorrowful damnation. My teacher said that this didn’t fit the disbelief of the disciples or thousands of years of history. I still wonder.
Regardless of “the rest of the story”, it fascinates me how quickly we who are rich rationalize away this passage. “We just have to be WILLING to give away all we have, not actually do it,” we say. “Jesus was using hyperbole, exaggeration,” we say. “This was just a teachable moment for Jesus to tell us that money should be less important that He is,” we say. The poor have no problem with this passage, only the rich. And that may teach us more about our general rules for interpreting scripture than the parable itself does.
Each one of us draws a line through scripture, both Old and New Testaments, a line that delineates which passages are teachings we must follow and which we may ignore. On one side are timeless truths and commands of Jesus, and on the other are teachings bound to that time period, or culture, or interpretation. The great interpretive question we must ask ourselves is this: how do we determine which side each passage lies on? Passages like this one, which speak against our comfort are too easily dismissed as cultural or hyperbole. Passages saying that God blesses us with wealth are too easily accepted as timeless truths.
As we read the Old Testament texts this week, let me suggest that you look for this tendency in yourself. Which of the commands God gave Moses do you follow and which do you not follow? And more importantly, why?