There is a story in the gospels that we often skip over without delving deep into what it says. I’m talking about the rich young man in Matthew 19. The interaction is below:
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.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:16-29)
If you ever read this in Sunday-School, you might have been too polite to point out the jarring fact about Jesus’s response to this question about what must be done to inherit eternal life: JESUS GIVES THE WRONG ANSWER!!!!
The Reason Jesus’s Answer is “Wrong”
For example, in John 3, when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, he says this:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)
If you got back to that passage about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness in Numbers 21, the people didn’t “do” anything with that serpent that Moses put on a pole. Instead, they just looked at it, and they were healed. Likewise, the Apostle Paul encounters a similar question:
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31)
So why on Earth does Jesus tell this rich young man that if he wants to inherit eternal life, he should:
- Keep the commandments, including:
- Do not murder
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false witness
- Do not commit adultery
- Honor your father and mother
- Love your neighbor as yourself
- Second, take a further and more extreme action
- Sell all his possessions
- Distribute these possessions to the poor
- Follow Jesus
The first part of this answer seems to resemble — but have significant differences from — the Ten Commandments. What about “I am the Lord your God”? What about “Do not worship graven images?” What about the sabbath day? What about taking the Lord’s name in vain? What about “Thou shalt not covet”?
The second part seems to call for a radical action that goes far beyond what general Christian teaching says. What about what the apostles say about getting eternal life? What about what even Jesus himself says in other places?
How do we explain this?
Explaining Jesus’s Answer
First, however, let’s note the inherent flaw in the young man’s question:
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
He’s asking about good deeds. Our general Christian teaching already tells us that the question is wrong. Jesus is answering his question according to the terms of his question. Very clever, Jesus!
But the follow up question is “Why doesn’t Jesus correct his bad question?” We’ll return to that soon.
The Strange Presence of the Ten Commandments
A key for me in understanding this passage is noticing the list of things that Jesus tells him to do. Jesus gives him a list of commandments, and believe it or not, I think the rich young man is TELLING THE TRUTH when he says he has kept all these from his youth:
- Do not murder? Well that’s easy, especially when you’ve never been put in a bad situation where murder might cross your mind.
- Do not steal? Well, that’s easy, especially when you’re rich and have no reason to steal.
- Do not give false testimony? The commandment about giving false testimony is more about committing perjury than it is about general lying (you can see Jesus turn that commandment up to 11 in the Sermon on the Mount with “Let your yes be yes and your no be no). Therefore, that’s easy, especially when you’ve never been tempted to lie to save your skin in a courtroom.
- Do not commit adultery? Well, that’s easy, especially when your wife is hot. (And let’s remember, he’s a RICH and YOUNG man.)
- Honor your father and mother? Well, that’s easy, especially when your mother and father have set you up for all kinds of success in life. (Remember: rich and YOUNG)
- Love your neighbor as yourself? Well, that’s easy, especially when your neighbors are they type of neighbors that rich and young people generally have, even today. It’s easy to love someone with a big yard and a pool who likes to throw block parties.
But look at the second part of Jesus’s answer: This is where it’s important to remember the other five commandments that Jesus left off. This is also where we must remember the commandment that is greater than “love your neighbor as yourself.” These commandments are:
- “I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.”
- “Do not make any graven image, nor shall you bow down to them or serve them.”
- “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.”
- “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
- “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
- “Do not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, or anything else that is your neighbor’s.”
For this particular rich young man, ALL of these commandments are encapsulated by the command “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.”
- Jesus is his Lord and God. This man should follow Jesus. Yes, he is coming to Jesus to ask a question, but he is not ready to have no other gods before Jesus. He calls Jesus “teacher” and not “Lord.”
- This man serves graven images. As we see in other parts of scripture, there is someone’s image on the coins at the time, and it is not Jesus. This man is a servant to his own wealth, even though he thinks his wealth is a possession of his that he controls.
- This man needs to love the “Lord his God” (who is standing right in front of him) with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. But his wealth is his strength (after all, he is young and rich, not wise and strong). In order to love God and serve him, he must rid himself of the other master he has that holds him back from loving the Christ.”
- This man is a young leader of the Jews. He is one of God’s chosen people. God has attached his name to the Jews. If this man does not recognize the one who brought his people out of Egypt, what does that mean? God provided for the Jews in the wilderness, brought them into the promised land, performed amazing miracles in their presence, and gave them the commandments so that they would prosper and not die. If he doesn’t follow the one who is in front of him, doesn’t this effectively mean for him that he has taken the Lord’s name in vain?
- The sabbath is a command to rest and be holy. Jesus tells those who follow him that his burden is light and his yoke is easy. To follow Jesus is to receive the rest that Christ offers, even as one offers service to God. This man’s wealth does not offer the rest that Christ does.
- This man may not covet his neighbor’s house, his wife, or anything else that is his neighbor’s, because he probably has a better house, a hotter wife, and many other things that are better than what his neighbors have. He may not covet the things, but I imagine he covets the status and respects he gets from his neighbors. I imagine he desires that more than the treasure in heaven and honor from God that would come if he obeyed Jesus, sold his possessions, and distributed them to the poor, receiving nothing in return. Therefore, the command to follow Jesus is a command to covet Jesus and not the things his friends and neighbors have.
The Eye of the Needle
What follows after Jesus’s command is a declaration that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Some have tried to make sense of this by saying that is a metaphor of some narrow gate or something. I disagree. Jesus is talking about one of these camels:
And one of these needles:
That metaphor is… “weird.” It seems quite impossible. And it is. But Jesus’s point is not to say that it is impossible. After all, he quite explicitly says:
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Instead, the point is to demonstrate exactly how much of a miracle it is for someone like you or me to stop following what we desire and stop serving what we serve. It expresses the miracle of what it means to follow and serve what is right and good: Jesus Christ, and the word he has given us.
Jesus is not saying to his disciples “You can do it!” He’s saying “My Spirit can do it. My Spirit will do it. And it’s quite possible that it starts today. After all, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Are Your Rich?
“Wait a minute!” you may say. “I’m not a rich young ruler! Why should this part of the Bible apply to me?” If I sold all I had and gave it to the poor, I’d end up giving a lot of it to myself! Well, that’s funny, and I won’t argue with the monetary part of it. But I will say this: You are rich.
If you’re reading this, then you are rich, whether you know it or not. You at least have internet access. You may even have the computer you are reading it on. No one in history, before a few decades ago, could have anything like what you have now, no matter how rich they were — this rich young man included. You may even have a computer that is so sophisticated that it is more technologically powerful than the thing that guided men to the moon, yet it fits in your pocket. Poetically speaking, you have something with the power to take you to the heavens right in front of you. (Just like this rich young man.)
You’re rich! You may not be all that rich compared to your neighbor, but neither was this guy. After all, he had no problem loving his neighbor. His neighbor was probably pretty rich and cool, too. You may have lots of genuine hardships, and I don’t want to eliminate the realities of those hardships. But I will say that most people I have encountered are rich and are serving things that are not Jesus Christ.
Imagine if Jesus told you to sell your iPhone, get rid of your computer, and live like a monk. What would you say? What would Jesus say back?
- “I can’t live like a monk! How will I eat?” You can live like a monk, and you’ll eat like a monk.
- “But I cant get rid of my computer! I use it for work!” The job of a monk is not like the job you have now. You can read a book or weed a garden instead.
- “But I can’t get rid of my iPhone! How will I stay connected to all my friends through social media?” Well, yes, I imagine you might have less contact with some friends, but you will not be short on friends. And anyway, it will be easier to keep up with your friends than it will be to keep up with all those Instagram ladies you lust after or all the products you cover on Pinterest through your iPhone.
Ouch. That escalated quickly. But that’s what Jesus did. That’s the point.
Do you really want treasure in heaven, or do you want to be like everyone else around you? It’s hard to figure out individually what it means selling or getting rid of, but if it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong.
After all, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man like you and me to enter the kingdom of God. But the Spirit of God is powerful, so if you’re willing, ask that it come to you, and get ready to feel “weird.”