Week of April 28, 2019
The Point:: Choose Jesus or worldly wealth, because you can’t live for both.
The Rich Young Ruler: Matthew 19:16-26.
 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”  But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” [ESV]
“The Peril of Riches [19:16-26].  Matthew cannot be said to have exerted himself to give us information about the man who came to Him, confining himself to the single word one. Since the Greek word is masculine, we can say that the person who came was male, but that is all. Mark tells us that he came running and that he knelt before Jesus, from which we may perhaps deduce that he was both eager and devout, while Luke has the information that he was a ruler. Matthew tells us that he came up to Jesus and addressed Him as Teacher. Sometimes a good deal is made of the fact that Mark and Luke both have Good teacher while Matthew omits the adjective. But we should bear in mind that the man goes on to ask the teacher what good deed he should do to gain eternal life. It is no ordinary teacher who could answer that question, so perhaps Matthew’s omission is not as significant as some suggest. The man then inquired how he could have eternal life. His what good deed must I do shows that he was firmly of the opinion that the way into life with God is the path of doing good in some form. His problem apparently was that, although he had paid strict attention to the commands of God, he still felt that he was coming short in some way. He apparently thought that there must be something he could do to make good the deficiency of which he was so conscious. He may have been unsure of what good is essentially, what the nature of the good that God demands is. Or he may have been convinced that the way into the eternal life he sought was through some outstandingly meritorious action, and he was not conscious of having performed any such action, or at least any that would merit the reward of life eternal. By this he clearly meant life in the age to come, life in the final kingdom that God would set up. He was clearly very different from the childlike people that Jesus has been commending. He was sure that entrance to eternal life was within his grasp if he only knew how to go about it. This young man stands in stunning contrast to those to whom, according to Jesus, the kingdom belongs.  The man was on the wrong track, and Matthew’s introductory And may be meant to set Jesus’ answer in opposition to the question. Jesus countered with a question inquiring why the man asked Him about the good deed, and He went on to say, There is only one who is good. The man has inquired about the good deed he should do in order to obtain eternal life, so Jesus takes up his term and asks why he speaks of the good deed. This does not mean that Jesus agrees that people are saved by meritorious deeds. At this point He is simply concerned with the man’s terminology and what it meant. Jesus was bringing home to the inquirer the fact that he was not using his words carefully enough; the Master was now making him think about what he was saying. There are practically no examples in Jewish writings of a teacher being addressed as Good; the man was engaging in thoughtless flattery, and he had not considered the implications of the term he was using. Now Jesus reminds him that there is only one who is really good and invites him to reflect on what he has just said. This does not mean that Jesus was denying that He was divine; He was not discussing that question, and if He had meant that He was not “good” He would surely have said that He was a sinner. He did not. He simply asked the man to reflect on the implications of good. Then He moved on to the man’s spiritual need and began with the commandments. God has made Himself known, and the commandments He has given show people the way to life. [18-19] The man asks, Which ones? Jesus specifies, referring to the commandments to abstain from murder, adultery, theft, and false witness, to which he adds that for honoring parents (placing this commandment outside its proper order fastens attention on it and gives it emphasis), and one from outside the Ten Commandments, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It is noteworthy that all the commandments Jesus cites have to do with the way we treat other people; He stresses the importance of the ethical. The young man was probably thinking in terms of some highly “spiritual” process and would have been disappointed in such prosaic expressions of the religious duty.  For the first time Matthew refers to the questioner as the young man. Since the term covers a range of ages, we can say no more than that he had not reached mature years. We discover something of his spiritual lack when he says that he has kept all these commandments. He follows this facile assumption with the further question, What do I still lack? Despite his misconception about his standing as a keeper of commandments, he was clearly conscious that something was missing. Without being able to put it all into words, he knew that his spiritual makeup was defective, and he was looking to Jesus to show him how to put it right.  It would seem that the young man was somewhat disappointed. He had come to Jesus looking for a brilliant new insight into the ways of God, a challenge that would stir the blood, some great deed to be done, after which his claim on eternal life would be certain. Instead all that had happened was that he had been referred to the commandments, old stuff that he had been keeping for years. But now Jesus makes him face up to his real situation. First he puts the supposition, If you would be perfect, where the thought is that of wholeheartedness in God’s service. The young man had a felt need; Jesus points him to wholeness, completeness. The young man has shown that he is not content with a conventional goodness, so common in nominally religious people. He wanted something more than that. So Jesus says, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. This is a demanding enough challenge for anyone seeking to do more than what is conventional. The poor in a first-century city were poor indeed, and often lacked what we would call the necessities of life. For a wealthy person to sell everything and give to the poor was to do something about meeting a very real need. The result of this, Jesus says, would be that the young man would have treasure where it really counts, in heaven. This does not mean that getting into heaven is a matter of rewards for meritorious acts. It means rather that the young man of this story was quite unaware of his failure to keep the commandment to have no other God but the one true God. He had made a god of his wealth, and when faced with the challenge he could not forsake that god. If his attitude to the true God had been such that he could have dispensed with his riches, then he would have had treasure in heaven, whether he gave them all away or not. But the challenge to get rid of them all showed that he did not have the right attitude to God. God demands undivided loyalty from those who would be His. Come, follow me Jesus went on. This is the challenge He had previously made to the fishermen as they were at their nets [4:19] and to Matthew as he sat at his place of work [9:9]. They did not have the riches of this young man, it would seem, but they left what they had and followed Jesus. They were prepared to sacrifice everything; that is the path of the service of God.  But this young man could not rise to such a challenge. He had looked for something demanding, prepared to do some great deed. But when he was faced with a really great deed, getting rid of all his wealth, the only thing he could do was go away grieving. Matthew explains that the reason for his sorrow was that he had great possessions. His wealth stood between him and the service of God.  And will have some adversative force, indicating that Jesus stands over against the man who has gone away. Doubtless the conversation had left them wondering about wealth. What did it all mean? It was widely accepted that wealth was a wonderful blessing; it was a sign that God approved of a person and prospered that person’s business affairs. But now Jesus had told this man to get rid of his wealth. Were their ideas all wrong? Jesus proceeds to tell them that a wealthy person will enter the kingdom only with difficulty. This does not mean that he will not enter at all. But it certainly means that wealth, so far from being an unmixed blessing, poses a problem for all but the flippant. It is all too easy for most of us to be so wrapped up in what we own that we find it difficult to face the prospect of doing without it. In the abstract we approve of the challenge; we recognize that people we regard as rich all too easily come to rely on their wealth. But seeing that that applies to us, too, is another matter, and that is the difficulty the young man encountered. Whatever our wealth, great or small, it can tempt us to self-sufficiency, and Jesus is saying that this is a special temptation to the wealthy. He does not say that wealth excludes people from the kingdom (e.g., He welcomed Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10), but He does say that it makes it hard for them.  Matthew uses again reasonably often (17 times), but this is one of only two places where He has it with I tell you; it has a meaning like “furthermore” and builds on the preceding statement, while giving the new words a certain emphasis. That it would be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom was a devastating thought, and Jesus now underlines it with a humorous reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. Jesus is simply using humor to drive home His point. Where the people of His day saw riches as a manifest sign of the blessing of God, He saw wealth as a hindrance to spiritual progress. The rich man has strong temptations to concentrate on his riches, to the detriment of his spiritual welfare. In this Gospel the kingdom of God occurs rarely; we should understand it as equivalent to the kingdom of heaven, which is Matthew’s preferred expression.  The disciples shared the common attitude and found Jesus’ words difficult to accept. Matthew uses a very strong expression to bring out the extent of their astonishment. They were not merely mildly surprised: this view of riches cut clean across the ideas that the disciples had accepted without question all their lives. Was it not obvious from the very fact of their wealth that the rich were the objects of God’s approval? Their riches were surely the sign of His blessing? While there were occasional holy men who were accepted as holy despite their poverty (like John the Baptist), this was not carried over into life as a whole. The occasional exception did not invalidate the rule, and that the blessing of God meant earthly prosperity was the accepted rule. So the disciples burst out in an incredulous question, Who then can be saved? If those on whom the blessing of God so manifestly rested were to have such difficulty in entering the kingdom, what would be the plight of lesser mortals? It was all very puzzling; despair appeared to be in order.  Jesus looked at them, which means more than a casual glance. He looked hard at them all as they were experiencing such difficulty in coming to grips with His meaning. He recognized their problem and assured them of two things: the first was the sheer impossibility of any human activity bringing about the salvation of a rich man (or, for that matter, any man); the second, the truth that God is not limited as people are. It is, of course, true that a poor man is just as unable to bring about his salvation as a rich man, but that is not in question at this point. Jesus is dealing with the fact that in the opinion of most people of His day, the disciples included, the rich were so obviously blessed by God that they must have His approval and therefore were obviously the ones who would be signally blessed in the kingdom. It is this truism that had to be demolished. When salvation is viewed as Jesus saw it (and as He has outlined it in His teaching in chapter 18), then it is clear that it depends on the action of God, not the achievement of the creature. And, of course, it is harder for a rich man to become like a little child [18:3-4] than for a poor man, who has so much less evidence of his ability to cope. But what is of overwhelming importance is that the power of God is not limited; He can bring about the salvation of anybody.” [Morris, pp. 487-495].
“Theology in Application. This passage centers on one of the most emphasized themes in Scripture, the denial of the world’s riches and the use of one’s resources to help others. It revolves around the basic choice every person must make between self and God. The challenge to eschew possessions and live entirely for God is the basic question coming from the garden of Eden. Not Works Righteousness. Jesus is not teaching a works righteousness within which we find eternal life by keeping the commandments. There are two aspects to keep in mind concerning Jesus’ keep the commandments in verse 17. (1) He is drawing the rich young man into reflection on the reality of his life of piety, probably to get him to realize his sin. As Paul said, one cannot find salvation by observing the law [Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 3:2-3]; rather, the law makes us conscious of our sin and drives us to Christ. (2) Jesus is serious regarding the necessity of a life of obedience. This is a constant theme in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching – righteousness means living life according to the commandments of God. Rejection of “Idols”. To follow Jesus involves a total rejection of the idol of possessions. Jesus demands “perfection” , and that does not mean two kinds of Christians, the strong (who seek it) and the weak (who cannot seek it). All followers must come to grips with the antithesis between God and possessions. At the same time this does not mean that all must sell all their possessions. Clearly the problem with the young man was one of idolatry, but Jesus did not demand that Zacchaeus [Luke 19:1-10] sell everything. Wealth is not the problem; “love of money” [1 Tim. 6:9-10] is the problem. But virtually all of us rationalize away our fascination with the world’s goods. We say, “But I don’t love it; it isn’t an idol.” However, our actions prove that we are deceiving ourselves. Christ demands to be first in our life, and when God blesses us financially, he is giving us an opportunity to minister to others who are less fortunate. The Wealthy and Their Wealth. The wealthy cannot buy their way into the kingdom; in fact, that very attitude makes it nearly impossible for them to find God. People today (including all too many preachers) want to sidestep the severity of Jesus’ challenge to the wealthy. In many churches rich Christians control the church and its decisions through their giving. It is not piety but power that controls, and too few realize the barrier this places on their walk with God. Rewards. While we do not serve the Lord for the reward we will get, Jesus wants us to know that God will indeed reward us for our life of piety. We do not want to fall into Peter’s error of asking, “What’s in it for us?” That is a veneer of piety turned into self-interest. Yet at the same time Jesus wants us to know that God will vindicate us for our sacrifices and suffering. In fact, “reward” occurs seven times in 6:1-18 and is a central theme of the entire Sermon on the Mount. The key is our motivation and priorities – earthly or heavenly. Do we live for the glory of God or for self? Do we strive for the things of this world or the things of God? That will determine our true destiny.” [Osborne, loc. 19257-19299].
Questions for Discussion:
- This is a most interesting story concerning how Jesus deals with a seeker of eternal life. Examine the words of the two main characters: a young man and Jesus. What does the young man want? How does he think he can acquire it? How does Jesus respond? Why does Jesus respond in this way? How is verse 21 the key to the discussion? What can we learn from Jesus concerning how to deal with someone seeking eternal life?
- Jesus issues two commands to the young man: go, sell and come, follow. Why those two commands? Why does Jesus tell the young man to go, sell when He did not tell other wealthy people (Zacchaeus) that? What is Jesus teaching the young man (and us)? What does the young man’s inability to go, sell tell us about his true attitude towards God? Who is the young man’s god? In the end, his wealth stood between the young man and the kingdom of God. Is there anything standing between you and God?
- Jesus moves on from the young man to discuss wealth with the disciples. How did the disciples view wealth? What does Jesus teach the disciples concerning wealth? We live in such a materialistic culture, how does Jesus’ teaching here apply to us. How is verse 26 the main point of Jesus’ teaching in this passage?
- Jesus’ teaching confronts us with the following questions. Do we live for the glory of God or for self? Do we strive for the things of this world or the things of God? The answers to these questions will determine our true destiny.
Matthew, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.
Matthew, vol. 2, Daniel Doriani, REC, P & R Publishing.
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
Matthew, Grant Osborne, Zondervan (ebook).