I was meditating on these verses this week:
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.”
Matthew 19:16-26 (ESV)
These are famous verses, and are sometimes cited as evidence that when Jesus called people to salvation, it was not a “free” proposition. Salvation costs everything.
But is this passage teaching that to be saved, we must sell all we possess, give to the poor, and follow Jesus? If so, not many are doing it. Is this a command for all of us? How do we apply this passage properly?
Context, as always, has to be King in proper Bible interpretation. The first thing to notice is the rich young man’s approach to Christ. He starts by addressing Jesus as a “Good teacher” (see Luke’s account), and asking him about what good deed will assure him of heaven’s entrance.
Jesus begins to work on this man’s concept of what “good” really means. He asks, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” In other words, he is not denying (as some claim) that He is in fact good (or God), but he wants the young man to understand the implication of what he is saying: You regard me as merely a “good man” since you have no understanding of my deity. But there is no such thing as a “good man.” Only God is good. Thus, Jesus begins to challenge him to think about what it would take for a mere man, a human being, to be “good.”
So, he continues, let’s talk about being good. “How have you done obeying the commandments?” Jesus asks him. Murder? Nope. Adultery? No. Honor your father and mother. Check. The man goes through his catalog of good deeds and assesses himself squeaky clean. I think at this point Jesus could have repeated some principles out of the Sermon on the Mount regarding true righteousness being a heart issue. (Ok, maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but how about lust? Or maybe not murder, but have you ever lost your temper?) Jesus could have taken him down that path, and I think perhaps our young friend would have realized maybe he wasn’t quite as well off as he supposed.
But, in keeping with his timeless method of meeting people right at the place where they are at, he takes a different tack. You see, Jesus, knew where this young man’s heart was weakest. He knew that his greatest idol was his possessions. With the woman at the well (John 4), Jesus said, “Let’s talk about your husband.” (Ouch.) With Nicodemus (John 3) it was his theological understanding. With Zaccheus it was his cheating of the poor. With the rich young ruler it is his trust in and love of money. Jesus always has the right message for each of us.
“If you would be perfect, go, sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Ouch. So that’s what perfection means! It means putting devotion to God above all else.
Just like the Sermon on the Mount is not the plan of salvation, so too this story illustrates this man’s need for salvation rather than the way of salvation. The disciples rightly ask, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’s reply: “With man salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” God can save; in fact, JESUS is the way of salvation; but, the first step in salvation is to bring us to the realization that none of us are good enough on our own to enter life. We can’t possibly earn it.
The point of this interaction was to bring this man to that realization. There is no “good deed” we can do to earn our salvation. None of us is righteous, not even one. Now that sounds a lot like something Paul said in Romans 3. And Paul also tells us in that same chapter:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24)
So, in summary, Jesus is not offering the plan of salvation to this man by telling him to sell all his possessions. He’s merely showing him the idolatry in his heart. Might Jesus ask any one of us out of devotion to him and love for him to sell all we have and give to the poor? Absolutely. But not as a way to earn salvation, rather as a step of discipleship after salvation is received. By Grace. Freely.
“Freely you have received. So, now, freely give to the poor. Have treasure in heaven. And follow Me!”