Read the passage here.
I imagine that most folks are familiar with our passage today. There are several questions and themes associated with this passage. The most obvious has to do with the nature of wealth. But it also has to do with the nature of salvation. In the terms that we’ve been using, it has to do with being part of God’s kingdom – and that as opposed to the kingdoms of this world.
Here, Jesus faced with a particular situations, says that being part of the Kingdom of God depends on God’s work, it depends on God’s grace, not on the works of human beings.
To explore this further, I want to first take a look at the three main characters in this story: That is, Jesus, the rich young man, and the disciples.
Now firstly Jesus. We’ve looked at Jesus a lot – indeed, he is obviously the center if not the whole substance of Matthew’s gospel – so we’re not going to spend a lot of time here (I know that sounds counter-intuitive). But what I want to point out once again that throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presenting a picture of the kingdom that is often in conflict with the generally accepted understandings.
Think about all of the confrontations with the religious leaders where Jesus tells us that belonging in the Kingdom doesn’t depend on, or isn’t determined by, the things that folks had always been led to believe. Think about how Jesus welcomed those into his company, into the kingdom, that those in positions of power and influence would automatically assume did not belong. Think about the values of the Kingdom that Jesus emphasizes – remember back to the sermon on the mount. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the hungry in spirit… In short, though we today are typically fairly familiar with these ideas, Jesus’ notion of kingdom and his understanding of kingdom people were quite revolutionary.
Secondly, let’s think a little bit about the rich young man. It might be easy to write this person off as a stereotypical rich person – someone who only cares about himself, his power and position, and obviously his wealth. But, starting from v. 16, this person is introduced to us as one who is seeking eternal life (now there’s something to be said about what he means by “eternal life” here, but we won’t get into that now). Further, what we see is that, when Jesus instructs the man to follow the commandments, he is capable of responding that he has, indeed kept them (v. 20).
I don’t think there’s any reason (in the text) to assume that he isn’t sincere. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to assume that he’s insincere in his desire to seek eternal life or that he’s insincere in his declaration that he’s kept the commandments.
However, what we see (vv. 21-22) is that when Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give to the poor, he goes away sad. It seems evident that he was sad at the prospect of losing all of his wealth.
So there are a couple of things worth mentioning at this point. Firstly, based on what we’ve seen, it seems fair to say that this rich man is a devout Jew. We can’t say he’s an exemplary Jew, but it does seem that he has a sincere interest in being a good Jew.
Secondly, I want to point out that Jesus likewise speaks about wealth in Matthew 6. There, he says:
Mt. 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.Matthew 6:19-24
Now it’s a fine distinction, but (paying attention especially to verse 24) Jesus doesn’t say that money or wealth is bad or evil. He says that money cannot be one’s master. Storing up earthly treasures cannot be your goal. To this, we should also note 1 Timothy 6:9-10 where Paul says:
9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.1 Timothy 6:9-10
So I think we can fairly safely assume that money or wealth is not bad, but seeking it, making it your master, centering one’s life around it, can be bad. And this, because one’s life should be centered around God alone – which oftentimes, can mean giving up things like this.
Now this should be fairly sensible to most of us – it’s unlikely that this is new information. But the thing about the rich young man may be that there may be an extent to which he believes or assumes that his very wealth is indicative of his special or favoured status before God. This would have (probably) been a shared understanding in Judaism at the time (i.e. if you are good/faithful, you will be blessed by God). This kind of notion can be found throughout the OT, in passages such as Deuteronomy 28:
28 If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
4 The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
5 Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.
6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
7 The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.
8 The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.
9 The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him.Deuteronomy 28:1-9
So there is likely an understanding that, if you are faithful, God will bless you. Which led to the erroneous belief that, if you are blessed (have a lot), it must mean you are faithful.
Now we won’t get into this further, but it seems that the disciples – the third character(s) in our passage – may have shared this kind of understanding. Jesus says:
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, 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.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:23-26
They were likely astonished because they shared the assumption that the man’s great wealth indicated that he was already in good standing with God. So – inserting my own understanding – the disciples may have been saying something like, “if this obviously faithful and blessed person can’t be saved, then who can?”
Now assuming this to be true, the paradigm under which the rich man and the disciples are operating is a kind of transactionalism: the belief that if you perform a certain kind of action or actions, God will give you a certain kind of reward. Now this doesn’t have to be an overt action, per se. It might be a general sense of “being a good person.” This understanding is fairly prevalent in western society – “I am a good person so I deserve to go to heaven.”
Jesus’ response, saying that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom than a camel to go through the eye of a needle (an actual camel through an actual needle), indicates that this is simply not how it works. In effect, I believe, he says that you can’t rely on the ways of the world to find your way to the kingdom.
But the prevalence of this kind of worldview, this kind of understanding of God and salvation may be seem in Peter’s question – once again, Peter possibly serving as a kind of representative for the disciples:
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”Matthew 19:27
Peter’s response could essentially be taken as, “if the rich man has to give up everything, we who have already done so to follow you (Jesus) must surely receive a reward?”
Jesus’ reply to Peter (and the disciples) has to be considered carefully. Jesus says:
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wifeor children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.Matthew 19:28-30
It has to be considered carefully because it might look an awful lot like another transaction. Because Jesus seems to quite clearly say that, at the end (the renewal of all things), those who have followed Jesus (and here he singles out the disciples) will in fact receive a reward – a hundred times as much as what they’ve left behind.
But what I want to suggest is that what Jesus is pointing to is something that we’ve talked about before. Those who give up houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and riches and wealth, are precisely those who are seeking after a different thing. Those who follow Jesus are seeking after a different thing than what the world has to offer. Giving up the things of the world can be seen as giving up the ways of the world. Instead, one chooses the way of Jesus. One can’t serve both God and Mammon – we have to make a choice.
So for those who are genuinely following Jesus, it’s not as if they are living in a new way in order to gain a reward. I’d suggest that the new way, the new life, is in fact the reward.
At this point, I want to try to tie these various threads together. On the one hand, we have the example of the rich man who, due to his apparent faithfulness, probably assumed that he was in pretty good standing with God (and for all we know, he may have been). But he wants to know, from Jesus, what thing he has to do to put him over the top, so to speak. Jesus’ response is to give up all the things that he’s earned, all of the things that seem to point to his favoured status – he has to give up his faith in the way the world works. Choosing Jesus, choosing the kingdom, fundamentally means following a new way of making sense of life. In essence, Jesus says, if you want to serve God, seek God, seek the kingdom, you have to seek the Kingdom first and only.
But we all know how difficult this actually is. Because as much as we try to live by faith, we can’t help but try to live by effort, by works. It’s for this reason that we rely on grace. No amount of work, no amount of effort, after all, can overcome the sinfulness of our hearts, the brokenness of our selves. What Jesus points to, however, is not what we can do, but what He has done. Because with human beings, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.