Each of the synoptic Gospels preserves the memory of an occasion when a rich young man approaches Jesus for spiritual direction. The potential disciple apparently has a deep desire to live righteously. He asks, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
Jesus eventually says, “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou has, and give to the poor.” The rich young man is not told to destroy his possessions nor to simply give away all he has. Yet that is how most people remember this passage. That will come, to be sure, but first he is to sell all his possessions; to liquidate his ownings. To “liquidate” one’s property is to make it more fluid, that is, useable in a way it was not previously.
When one sells something, one engages in an exchange of values. If this man hopes to maximally help the poor to whom the proceeds of the sale will eventually be given, presumably he will seek to get a good price for his estate. The eventual benefit to those in need would be the result of his profit-making abilities, and this very act of enterprise or exchange would become the way in which he would prove himself faithful to the command of Jesus.
His wealth would be a tool—one that cannot be intrinsically evil, because Jesus commanded him to use it. The same is true not only about his wealth, but about his engagement in commercial exchange: The profit that he would realize from the sale would become the means to benefit others.
Of course, none of this ever transpired. The man gave up and went away sad “for he had great possessions.” Jesus sums up the encounter with a sober warning on the cost of discipleship: “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” Discipleship is indeed arduous, if taken seriously, because it will always require a sacrifice, a cross to be borne. And the crosses come in different shapes and sizes, depending on what is most important to each person.
Now comes the memorable metaphor: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The final line, on the other hand—the one that provides the key to understanding the whole encounter—is almost never remembered. Jesus’s own disciples are baffled: “Who then can be saved?”
“With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” Humanity, with all its abilities and achievements, cannot purchase an eternal relationship with God. The rich young man (and through him, each of us) is being taught a critical lesson: wealth cannot be the goal of our life.
The young man was called to employ his talents—that is, to engage in commerce—but with a higher goal than the bottom line. He, and we, are to see wealth not as an end but as a means to a greater end—discipleship. How can this passage be interpreted to say that commerce or the wealth that it produces, is somehow intrinsically evil when Jesus clearly commands it?
— Rev. Robert Sirico (The Economics of the Parables)
People are outfitted for life differently, are called differently. 1 Corinthians 12:11 says that God dishes out talents and abilities to each severally as He wills. Similarly, some people are better at making money than others. If someone is gifted in that way is that a bad thing?
The focus here is not the love of money or the desire for prosperity, but how the well-intentioned and godly-motivated individual can use their money-making talents to further God’s purposes. The rich young ruler was instructed to sell what he had and give to the poor … isn’t it a good thing if he sells it for a profit and can give more?
Is that different than the servants to whom the master gave 10 talents, or 5 talents, and the one who he gave 1 talent to? All three were the Lord’s servants, but the ones who received commendation were the ones that put the money the Lord gave them to work to make more.
Some say that Jesus wasn’t talking about money, per se, but if that were the case wouldn’t He have been clearer to give the servants bags of seeds, for example, and those that planted and worked their field receive the greater commendation—regardless of how large the field or the number of bags of seed? Where was the Lord ever “random” in what he said or the subject matter of his parables? We must not trust in riches, but see them as a means to a greater end—discipleship.