Asceticism

The following is a paper I wrote for my world religions class:

1. Challenge: A common theme among many religions is asceticism. Dictionary.com defines asceticism as “the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like” or “rigorous self-denial; extreme abstinence; austerity”. Over the centuries there have been many in the Christian religion who have practiced various degrees of asceticism. Although there may be practical benefits associated with some of the principles of asceticism, the objection I am discussing as the challenge of this evaluation paper is whether the Christian Jesus was promoting asceticism in the Biblical story of the rich young ruler.

2. The Religion’s Response to the Challenge: The Biblical accounts of the rich young ruler occur in three of the four Synoptic gospels: Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18. In each of the accounts, a rich young ruler asks Jesus how to obtain eternal life. At first glance, it appears that Jesus responds by espousing the renunciation of material possessions and wealth as at least part of the equation for obtaining eternal life.

If that is true, a dichotomy presents itself for Christian interpreters and practitioners who claim that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the all-sufficient means by which humans obtain eternal life – apart from any work of their own.

Many commentators do the “no, but…” shuffle in addressing this question. At times appearing to talk out of both sides of their mouth. On the one hand, saying eternal life is obtained through the work of Jesus Christ alone, imparted as a gift of grace. On the other hand, using this story as proof that although the work of Jesus Christ is a gift, it is not automatically imparted to all and one must do something in order to obtain the gift.

There are several suggestions provided by various school of Christians for how to obtain God’s gift. In addition to the necessity of believing, many use the story of the rich young ruler as proof that obedience to Jesus, following Jesus, and/or not valuing anything above Jesus is required in order to obtain the gift of eternal life.

In that regard, many Christian speakers therefore use the story of the rich young ruler as proof that Jesus was promoting asceticism. They extrapolate similar implications from other Biblical Scriptures in order to further defend this claim:

-The story of the poor widow who was praised by Jesus after he watched her give all her money to the temple (Luke 21).
-The story of Jesus telling his disciples that whoever loses their life will gain it (Matthew 16).
-The story of Jesus saying humans cannot serve both God and riches (Matthew 6).

3. Final Evaluation:
I have personally concluded that the idea of Jesus promoting asceticism in the story of the rich young ruler is not adequately defended. In fact, I think Jesus is not at all concerned about money or material wealth in the story of the rich young ruler. Rather, taken in context as communicated in Luke 18, I think the story of the rich young ruler is the center point of a chiasm consisting of at least the parables preceding and following this story. In fact, assessed in that regard, it seems even more obvious that the author uses these parables in combination to specifically communicate that Jesus was not promoting either material wealth or poverty as an indication of spiritual significance or attainment.

In one of the parables preceding the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18, Jesus talks about how a uber-religious man and a tax collector both prayed to God. The supposedly pious uber-religious man reminded God of all his sacrifices and good deeds and how he was so much better than a lot of other people. In contrast, the most-likely very rich and also very corrupt tax collector acknowledged his shortcomings and cried out for mercy. Jesus makes the point that the very rich non-religious man was approved of by God and rewarded for his humility.

Likewise, in one of the parables after the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18, the author of the gospel talks about how a very poor blind man cried out to Jesus for mercy as he was passing through a city. There were people around the blind beggar who were probably wealthier in terms of not only physical abilities but also financial means. Those people rebuked the blind beggar for his outcry. However, Jesus stops everything He is doing and focuses the attention of the whole crowd on this blind beggar and asks to speak with him. The beggar is brought to him and Jesus rewards him for his faith and restores his sight.

The story of the rich young ruler is sandwiched between these two stories of both a rich and a poor man being rewarded. I think the point is not that Jesus is promoting asceticism but rather that the similarities between the rich and the poor man were that they both realized their need and that only God could solve their problem. They both approached God with empty pockets and open hands.

In contrast, the rich young ruler knows he lacks something, but has not reached the point of realizing he is incapable of solving his problem. Instead it is clear that he insists on relying on his own power as he asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

In addition, in contrast to the blind beggar who identified Jesus as the Son of David (a Messianic reference), the rich young ruler refers to Jesus only as a good teacher. In making His point, the center point of the author’s chiasm, Jesus asks the rich young ruler, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”

In my opinion, Jesus is getting to the heart of the problem by using a reference of sorts back to the original problem of Adam and Eve in garden of Eden: before they ever ate the forbidden fruit, they doubted the goodness of God and took matters into their own hands. After they realized they were in need of help, they attempted to hide themselves in the work of their own hands. By providing a living sacrifice to cover them, God tells them their attempts to solve the problem on their own will not suffice. Later on, their sons repeat the same story in a similar way. Cain brings God the work of his own hands and his works are rejected. While Abel offers an accepted living sacrifice.

Yet after all the centuries of the Jews preparing for the Messiah’s arrival by practicing the Passover as a picture of the ultimate true living sacrifice that will cover them eternally, Jesus knows that the rich young ruler is blind to understanding.

So, Jesus meets the rich young ruler where he is at mentally and honors his struggle by using his own logic. First He answers the rich young ruler by saying basically, “Ok, you think external works are what you really need? Well, then do the external works you already know about”. In contrast to the humility of the rich tax collector, the rich young ruler proclaims to have already performed adequately. Yet Jesus knows he never would have asked the original question if he was satisfied with his performance.

So Jesus then gets to the heart of the matter, quite literally. Again, using the rich young ruler’s own logic, Jesus basically says, “Ok, I’m going to show you how your misplaced faith is in the insufficient work of your own hands versus the goodness of God and the only sacrifice that will ever sufficiently cover you”. Jesus does this by telling the man: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Jesus is playing, for lack of a better term, Devil’s advocate, in the sense of showing the man the end of his logic and himself. Always with the intention of drawing him into complete understanding.

At this point of the story, the man walks away knowing he is not able to solve his own problem without realizing The Solution was right in front of him the whole time. Interestingly, many question whether this young man could have eventually repented (in the metanoia sense – a change of mind) and was either possibly Saul of Tarsus, Lazarus of Bethany, Joseph of Arimathea, or John Mark.

There are several other layers to this story, but I think the stated arguments above show there is more proof for the possibility that the point of the story of the rich young ruler is the exact opposite of Jesus promoting asceticism primarily as a means of salvation and then in general. I think this story is rather yet another story about the hearts of man and Jesus and echoes what is recorded in Isaiah 30, as stated in The Message Bible: “God, the Master, The Holy of Israel, has this solemn counsel: ‘Your salvation requires you to turn back to me and stop your silly efforts to save yourselves. Your strength will come from settling down in complete dependence on me – the very thing you’ve been unwilling to do.’”

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