Commentary on Matthew 19:16-22
We have here a story of a young man who did not have that simple trust of the child which Jesus spoke about in the immediately preceding passage. (Only Matthew describes him as ‘young’.)
He was apparently a good man, an unusually good man. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to have eternal life. However, he seemed to be operating out of the legalistic mind with the emphasis on external actions. For Jesus what we are is more important than what we do. The man also asked about ‘eternal life’. In Matthew (and in Mark and Luke) ‘eternal life’ is really synonymous with ‘entering the Kingdom of Heaven [God]‘ and ‘being saved’. It is to be totally taken up into God’s world and sharing God’s understanding of life.
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus asks him. “There is One alone who is good.” This seems to be a way of telling the man that goodness is not something merely external. The real source of goodness is inside, although, of course, it will flow out to the exterior. Is it also a way of asking the man who he really thinks Jesus is?
In any case, the man is told, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” As we have just said, to ‘enter into life’ is equivalent to entering the Kingdom. And Jesus mentions just four of the commandments, all touching on relationships with other people. And he adds, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The man is not satisfied. “I have kept all these. What more do I need to do?” Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect then he should sell off everything he has, give it to the poor and then become a disciple of Jesus.
Obviously, the man was not expecting this. He was very rich and, although he wanted to serve God, he was not prepared to separate himself from the security of his wealth. And he walked away from Jesus full of sadness. It is an example of Jesus’ words earlier on that we cannot at the same time serve God and wealth.
To be rich is not just to have a lot of money. It is to have a lot more money than others and especially to have more money than one needs in a world where there are people who do not have enough for a life of dignity. And wealth is very relative: a person close to the poverty line in Europe could be seen as very rich in a remote African or Asian village.
So as long as the man had to cling to his money, he could not – as he claimed to be doing – be loving his neighbour as his own self. Clearly he was not yet ready for an unconditional following of Jesus. He was not able to follow the example of Peter and Andrew, James and John who left their boats, nets and family to go and put all their security with Jesus.
Before we think that this gospel does not particularly concern us because we do not see ourselves as numbered among the rich, we should listen to what Jesus is really saying.
He touched on the one thing that the man was not ready to give up – his money and all that it brought. But, if we are honest, we will admit that we all have some things we would be very slow to let go of. Things we would not like God to ask us to give up.
It might be a good exercise today for us to ask ourselves what would be the most difficult thing for us to give up if Jesus asked us to do so. It might be some thing we own like our house, or it might be a relationship, or our job, or our health. Whatever it is, it could be coming between us and our total following of Jesus. Do the things we own really own us?
Why not ask for the strength to be ready, if called on, to give it up? Only then do we know that we are truly free and truly followers of Jesus.
One final point. This story has been used in the past as an example of someone getting a special ‘vocation’. According to this view, all are expected to keep the commandments but only some are invited to follow a ‘counsel’, such as living a life of ‘poverty’, as members of religious institutes do. It would be quite wrong to see Jesus here suggesting two levels of living the Christian life. What is said here applies to every person who wants to follow Christ. All the baptised are called to the same level of service although there are different ways of doing this.