Before we get to today's verses, let me give a bit of introduction. A great deal of Christian hand-wringing happens over this next section of Scripture. People worry that if they have been financially successful, this means that they are not going to heaven. Indeed, even the disciples interpreted it this way initially, because the ancient Jews viewed those who were financially wealthy as extremely blessed by God. We have the same thoughts today, of course, though the Jews took it to another level: they saw all of the wealthy as blessed by God, whereas we would say that God blessed some to be wealthy and merely allowed others. The Jews took a more sovereign view of God than we tend to today: to the Jews, if you were rich (and very, very few people at their time were), then God clearly has blessed you.
Now, let's get right to the passage:
"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." --Matt 19:16-30, ESV
Often when this text is read, it is seen outside of its context within the chapter; as such, the rich young man is taken as an earnest seeker of heaven who simply cannot live up to Jesus' high standards. The reality is a bit different, though: this passage is sandwiched between attacks of influential Jews on Jesus' authority. I suggest that the story of the "rich young man" is not one which simply awkwardly rests in the midst of the "Jesus is challenged" chapters (Mt 19-23), but rather it is a part of the attacks.
So after the Pharisees failed to entrap Jesus, a wealthy, pious young man approached Him. The reaction of the disciples in astonishment implies that they felt that this man was the kind of person (either in general or as a specific, known individual) who would be expected to be in heaven. So this pillar of the community approaches Jesus and says, "Tell me what good deed I must do to have eternal life?"
Now think about what he is saying--this is as honest a "work-based salvation" attempt as any of us has. We all tend to ask ourselves, "What do I have to do to be saved? What do I have to do to make God happy with me?" (And, implicit within the question: "Once I do that I don't have to do anything else...").
So the man is asking what kind of things he has to achieve in order to be able to earn his way into heaven. Jesus tells him, "Keep the commandments." Ah, you have to love Jesus as a debator! Such a simple response--just keep the commandments. That's all. Of course, that is impossible as He well knows. So the rich young man tries to nail Jesus down to just a few of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament: "Which ones"?
Jesus then simplifies it to some of the key laws: don't kill people, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't commit perjury, honor your mother and father, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Hey, that's doesn't sound unobtainable, right? After all, I have not killed anyone; I have not committed adultery; I am not a thief; I have not committed perjury; and I give honor to my father and mother. I'm a generally nice guy and generous with my money (though admittedly my love of neighbor isn't nearly as high as I love myself.)
Of course, had the rich young man been a legitimate follower of Jesus, he would have known about Jesus' teachings on the Mosaic Law (Mt 5-7). There, Jesus had made the Law nearly unobtainable: He equates murder with anger; He equates adultery with lustful thoughts; He equates stealing with greed. So things are not nearly as easy as they seem on the surface.
But, regardless, the rich man does not know Jesus' teachings on these subjects, and takes the commandments at face value, as a common Jew. So the man, feeling pretty good about himself, says, "I have done all of this. What else?"
Now, this is where I want to remind you that we are in the midst of a series of attacks on Jesus. I read this statement, "What do I still lack?" as a self-important, prideful response. He believes that he has "trapped" Jesus. Because surely Jesus cannot deny that this pillar of the community, this rich and pious Jewish man, will not go to heaven. So he did this to challenge Jesus. I picture the rich young man coming to Jesus in front of a crowd, pompously pointing out his own social status, his own piety, his own standing in the community. And he is daring Jesus to show that he is not going to heaven.
I could be wrong, but I do not read this as an honest and sincere question. I read it as another challenge of Jesus' authority. He has already told the Pharisees that they were wrong; He has taken a stance against Hillel's followers on divorce; and now this man is trying to put Jesus in the awkward position of admitting that some great Jews are indeed going to heaven, even if they are not His followers.
If that was his motivation, then he didn't know Jesus very well.
As soon as he pompously claims to have lived the commandments perfectly (which is absurdly impossible), and dares Jesus to try to name something else that he is lacking, Jesus drops the hammer: "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."
Recall that this discussion is going on in a crowd--a crowd filled almost certainly with poor Jews. Jesus is not simply telling the man to be generous: He is telling the man, "If you think you are perfect, then sell what you have and give it to all of these starving people. Then follow Me and you'll live forever."
Jesus turns the table on the rich man. The man challenged Jesus to try and talk bad about him, knowing (or at least, believing) that he was well-thought of as blessed and pious among the community. But Jesus cuts right to the heart: if you are so good, then why are you rich while these people are poor? If you are so perfect, then why are you pompously standing here in your fine clothes, while the people around you starve?
The man left sorrowful about his many possessions--and no, he did not sell them and join Jesus.
Jesus' disciples were astonished. When they heard this teaching, they did not feel that anyone could get to heaven: after all, here was a man who God had blessed greatly, and who was a pious Jew. If he could not go to heaven, who could?
Now strangely, a lot of Christians stop reading here. Most Christians either ignore this passage altogether (being uncomfortable about the thought of rich people not going to heaven), or they say that this is proof that Jesus wants us to embrace a life of poverty and neo-monasticism.
That is a shame, because the next verse is kind of the entire point Jesus was trying to make: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
It would be hard for me to express how frustrated I get when Christians misuse this phrase. This phrase has generally been used, out of context, to mean "God will help me achieve whatever plan I have, even if it is ludicrous." This verse has been used so many times to justify so much foolishness. In reality, it shows only the foolishness of man in trying to achieve that which only God can provide us: trying to earn something which can only come through God.
A lot of people, mostly anti-Christians, love to try to divide the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul; they speak of Jesus' faith and Pauline faith. This passage shows how ridiculous this statement is, for Jesus explains the Gospel beautifully and fully in this passage. To wit:
1. A pious, rich young Jewish man asks Jesus what works he can do to achieve eternal life.
2. Jesus sets a standard which is impossible to achieve (no anger, no lust, no dishonesty, perfect generosity). Jesus specifically says, "If you wish to be perfect...", saying that only perfection will gain one eternal life.
3. The man knows he cannot achieve this and leaves. Others in hearing dismay, pointing out that using this standard, no one can get to heaven.
4. Jesus then states that they are right! They cannot work their way to heaven no matter what they do. He says that it is only God who can make it possible for someone to obtain eternal life.
Don't give me this "Pauline Christology" nonsense. Paul's Gospel might be told through a more theological mindset, but Jesus clearly teaches not only the end of ritual purity laws, but He also teaches that salvation comes not through our actions but through God's actions; not through our works-earned riches but through His gracious gift.
Is Jesus' Christianity different than Paul's? Nope. Both agree: it is not through our works that we can be saved, but only through the work of God.