Commentary on Matthew 19:23-30
After hearing the sad story of the rich young man who could not accept his invitation to be a disciple, Jesus gives some comments on the effects of wealth. It is next to impossible for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God, says Jesus. It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. (It is said that Jesus was referring to a narrow entrance in the city wall of Jerusalem called the ‘eye of the needle’. In either case, Jesus is indicating something which is extremely difficult, in fact, next to impossible.)
Some of us may feel slightly uncomfortable about this. Even if we are not rich ourselves, we might like to see our children get rich some day or we admire people who have, by their hard work, become wealthy. What is wrong with having a lot of money which one has earned by the one’s own sweat and labour?
What does the Gospel mean by being rich? To be rich here means to have a large surplus of money and possessions while around one are people who do not have what they need to live a life of dignity. How can I continue to hold on to “my” possessions when such a situation prevails? How can I claim to belong to the kingdom, the reign of God, which is a kingdom of love and justice? “I was hungry and thirsty and sick and in prison” and you did not give me to eat or drink, you did not visit me or show any compassion. Instead, you piled up all that money in the bank or on the stock exchange or you splurged it on BMWs and fancy restaurants and expensive clothes.
To be rich in the Gospel means refusing to share what you have with those who have not. As long as you behave like that, you cannot be eligible for the Kingdom. It really is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. There is a radical incompatibility.
The disciples were quite amazed at Jesus’ words. They were thinking along lines traditional to their culture and their religion. Wealth was a sign of God’s blessings; poverty and sickness a sign of his punishment. But Jesus is turning their traditions on their head.
It was something the young man could not understand either. He was under the impression that his wealth was a grace, a sign of God’s favour. The idea of giving alms was to be highly commended but to share his wealth with the poor and create a more just playing field was something for which he felt no obligation and which made no sense.
Then Peter, the optimist, begins to see the bright side. “What about us? We have left everything and followed you.” Jesus gives a twofold reply.
As the leaders of the new community and people who have generously put their whole security in Jesus, his disciples will be especially rewarded. And indeed everyone who leaves family and goods for Jesus’ sake will be rewarded many times over with father, mother, brothers, sisters, goods. This is not just a pie-in-the-sky promise. It is one that can be realised and, in many parts of the world, is being realised. When everyone works for the good of the other, everyone benefits.
The wealth-is-good world believes that it is every man for himself. There is only a limited amount of the cake and it is up to each one to get as big a piece as he can. Too bad about the losers.
In the world of Jesus, everyone gets because everyone gives; because everyone gives, everyone receives. It is not a ‘gimme’ world; it is a reaching out to others world. And when everyone reaches out, everyone is benefiting. In such a world, I do not have to worry about a roof over my head, or about brothers and sisters, or property or security. It is the realisation of “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” It is where love and justice meet. For too many people in our world, there is neither love nor justice.
If the rich man had liberated himself from his wealth and shared it with the poor and become a follower of Jesus in the new community, he might never have been rich again but he would have had all his needs attended to.