‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the rich man. Jesus replied: “Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Though the rich man was taken aback by what was demanded, modern readers are often puzzled by the reward. Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” and stop there? The promise of a reward compromises a condition of the moral act. Charitable deeds ought to be grounded in a concern for the other, not in self-interest.
The concern for selfless acts of charity has been at the heart of Christian theology from the very start. But somewhat surprisingly, this text would not have bothered ancient readers. Peter Brown, a professor of history at Princeton University, recently observed that the concept of a heavenly treasury “has caused exquisite embarrassment to modern scholars. In no modern dictionary of the Christian church does the word ‘treasure’ appear!” Brown adds that if we wish to appreciate how the early church understood the virtue of charity “it is important that we overcome a prudery no late Roman Christian would have shared.”
The question before us, then, is, “Why has the concept of a treasury in heaven gone from being the central point of the story to a stumbling block?”
One reason is that modern persons view charity in a “horizontal” fashion. In this view only two concerns matter, the motivations of the donor (altruism) and the effectiveness of the donation (social justice). But charity, in early Christian thought, also had a “vertical” axis. In order to recover this vertical dimension, it is useful to turn the Old Testament, where this concept has its origin.
The notion of a treasury in heaven originated from a close reading of Prv 10:2: “Treasures of wickedness provide no benefit; But righteousness delivers from death.”
Two things must be established right from the start. First, the Hebrew terms for wickedness and righteousness form a natural antinomy. Second, the Hebrew term for righteousness became the technical term for charity in Second Temple Judaism. As a result, the contrast between “treasuries of wickedness” and “charity” must turn on the way in which money is understood. The text does not specify why these earthly treasuries are wicked; but since their natural opposite is charity, it is safe to assume that they must be places where money is selfishly hoarded. In other words, the righteous seek opportunities to share wealth with others, while the wicked hoard it for themselves. With this in mind we could translate the proverb thus: “The goods you hoard provide no benefit; but the goods you share deliver you from death.”
The key detail in the second half of these poetic lines is the opposition between “provide no benefit” and “delivers from death.” Clearly the worry here is how to avoid some tragic event that might be encountered in the future. We should add that the Book of Proverbs knows nothing of a bodily resurrection. Accordingly, the phrase “delivers from death” refers to an experience of salvation from calamities in this world, like a terrible illness or the infirmity of old age. Indeed, the last example captures the sense of the proverb best and puts a fine point on the radical nature of its teaching. Here is a slightly modern paraphrase: “However confident you might be in your retirement account, it won’t provide you the security you might expect. The only thing that you can really rely on is the love you have shown to those who suffer.”
One more detail remains to be examined. As is frequent in Hebrew poetry, an idea that is expressed in the first line continues into the second line. As we have noted, hoarding and giving to others are natural antonyms. If the former defines one type of treasury, the second probably does as well. Now our proverb reads: “The goods you hoard in earthly treasuries provide no benefit; but heavenly treasuries funded by charity deliver from death.” The concept of a treasury in heaven has been born.
Note the counterintuitive nature of this proverb. One might have thought that one’s future would be secured by storing wealth. But our proverb contends that true wealth comes from charitable action. The teaching is through and through Christological: financial security requires a renunciation of the goods of this world.
The Rich Man
With these thoughts in mind, let us return to our Gospel and explore the context of the story of the rich man. Mk 10:17-31 is part of the “travel narrative.” It documents the final trip that Jesus makes from Galilee to Jerusalem and is framed by two stories about Jesus healing blind men. These scenes nicely set up what will be the central theme of the travel narrative: the spiritual blindness of the disciples as to who Jesus is.
The narrative begins with Jesus posing the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then informs the disciples about his passion. Peter rejects this teaching and is harshly rebuked. The scene closes with Jesus clarifying what the Gospel really means: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”
Jesus will repeat this prediction of the passion two more times. The second reads almost like the first (9:31-32), but even on a second hearing the disciples are no wiser. As if to put an exclamation point on the matter, the disciples begin to argue as to who was the greatest. The fact that the disciples are worrying about their own glory shows that they continue to make the same type of mistake Peter had made after the first prediction. The messianic office is not about power over others. The cruciform character of the Gospel is lost on them.
What we see in these three predictions of the passion is a terse summary of Jesus’ understanding of himself and the utter inability of the disciples to grasp the point. True, Peter has attached the right title to Jesus’ person—“you are the Messiah”—but both he and the others are ignorant of its cruciform content.
Let us turn back to the story of the rich man. We have already seen that the concept of a “treasury in heaven” is not a throwaway line. It is grounded in Prv 10:2 and echoes an important Christological theme: If you want to prepare for the exigencies of the future, do not accumulate earthly wealth; give it away.
But the disciples found this teaching difficult as well. After the rich man had left, Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples responded in astonishment, “Who can be saved?”
What is striking about this interchange is that it mirrors what is happening in the larger frame of the travel narrative. The story of the rich man is something of a “play within a larger play.” The dominant theme of the travel narrative is the counterintuitive nature of the Gospel and the inability of the disciples to grasp it. Peter thinks that being the Messiah of Israel is all about power: Jesus will destroy the Roman enemies and the kingdom of God will begin. The disciples have signed on to this mission because they wish to share in the spoils. Try as Jesus might to alert the disciples that future glory will demand the cross, he is not successful.
Similarly for the rich man. He comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. Jesus responds that such a reward requires giving up earthly wealth. The lesson inscribed in Prv 10:2 perfectly suits the context: eternal life will not come from human riches; only divine riches can bestow such a blessing. And the means of acquiring them is cruciform in nature: worldly wealth must be renounced.
A Moral Act?
Now we are prepared to address the question with which I began. Modern readers have found the story puzzling because of Jesus’ promise of a reward. What about the altruistic nature of the moral act? But this concern about altruism foregrounds the “horizontal” dimension of the charitable act. The shocking demand Jesus makes of the rich man, though, is meant to recall what Jesus has already revealed about his own vocation and that of his disciples: in order to gain their lives they must lose them.
If we can grant that the teaching of Jesus about the cross mirrors his teaching about wealth, then concerns about altruism that seem so natural for the latter should be transferable to the former. If we would prefer that Jesus say, “Give all you have to the poor” and stop there, then shouldn’t we also prefer, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering...and be killed” and stop there too, with no resurrection as a reward, and say too, “Those who lose their life...will lose it for good!”
Though this might follow logically, I think we would all agree something is amiss. Why this syllogism is wrong is worth thinking about. It is true that the cruciform life will be rewarded. But as every reader intuitively knows, the issue at stake is not the reward but the type of vocation Jesus is proposing. Peter thinks that the way to be the Messiah is to grab what is rightfully yours. But Jesus claims that he must offer his life to God out of love for others.
The issue here is not how I can achieve greatness but what kind of world God has made. Only when we have grasped what type of world we live in can we figure out a strategy for flourishing in it. The teaching is more metaphysical than moral.
And so we have the answer to the question: the reason Jesus promises a reward is not so much to motivate the potential donor (though an element of that remains) but to make a statement about the nature of the world God has created. What kind of stuff is it made of and how might I profit from the way in which it has been constructed?
All analogies limp, but let me try one more. My wife was once in charge of a swimming class for adults that included a number of individuals who had almost drowned in their younger years. This naturally led to an extraordinary fear of the water. Now, anyone who has done a proper investigation of the physics of water knows that the human body is buoyant enough to float quite naturally on its surface. But in order to exploit this fact, you have to be relaxed and, in turn, must trust the capacity of water to hold your body afloat. The more you fear the water, the more you tense up. And the more you tense up, the more you thrash about. The result? It is nearly impossible to come up for air. Because the students my wife taught had been conditioned to fear the water, they could not trust its natural buoyant capacity. They could grasp the physics of the situation on land without any problem, but entering the water brought a whole host of demons to the fore. Knowing something and acting on that knowledge are often two quite different things.
We might say the same for the treasury in heaven. What stands behind this idea is a claim about the nature of the world. To the casual observer, the world, like the middle of Lake Michigan, can be a frightening and unstable place. There is a reason that the Romans revered the goddess Fortuna. But at the same time there is a deep desire to affirm that the world was made out of charity. That is why Jesus promises a “treasury in heaven.” In the long run, mercy trumps all its competitors. And with the gift of faith we can learn to see the world this way (see Mk 10:27).
Charity is not simply about making things better on earth. It has an evangelical content. The renunciation of wealth helps the poor, to be sure, but it also reveals something about the shape of the world God has made and how we might flourish in it.
Are the poor short-changed in this view? I do not think so. For the deeper question to be asked is, what funds our thirst for social justice in the first place? Helping the poor was not a virtue in Greco-Roman culture, nor is it esteemed by many libertarians—a philosophy that is alarmingly popular among the young. The sociologist Christian Smith has argued that the concern for the poor that is so prominent in the West had its origins in biblical religion. This raises an alarming possibility: absent the church’s metaphysical claims about wealth, will such concerns continue? Perhaps the story of the rich young man provides the necessary condition for the possibility of social justice.