The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 has often been appropriated for the church in a moralistic way. It generally goes something like this:
We each have our own thing—something that has become, perhaps, an idol. The thing for this rich young man that blocked him from eternal life was his material wealth. This got in the way of truly loving his neighbor. What is that thing for you, which you need to give up?
Mine is coffee and Oreos (not at the same time). There, I said it.
That’s not a terrible application. It is certainly something worth reflecting upon. But I think there is more to this story than meets the eye—a deeper, more transformative thought, at which Jesus is getting.
There is a certain twistedness to this man’s heart. Jesus sees this and gently leads the man and crowd to see, as well; though, sadly, the rich man is unable to accept the truth about himself that is laid bare.
The surprising truth is revealed in Jesus’ simple statement, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Matthew’s use of “perfect” (teleios) is intended to recall his earlier use in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect (teleioi) as your heavenly Father is perfect (teleios).” “Perfect” may be a misleading translation for us today. A better translation may be something like “whole” or “complete.”
In the context of Matthew 5, to be complete, as the heavenly Father is complete, is to go beyond the traditional teaching, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” Instead, Jesus instructs that if one’s love is to be like God’s love, one must also “love (their) enemies, and pray for those who persecute (them).”
As in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the question asked is, “Who is my neighbor,” in Matthew 19, it seems that Jesus implies a similar question and thought. Thus, in response to the rich young man’s question regarding how to attain eternal life, Jesus refers to the “love your neighbor” tablet of the Law.
According to Leviticus 19, “neighbor” is defined as “the sons of your people”—in other words, kinsmen. Everybody else can, rightly, be disregarded. The implications of this in the Good Samaritan are clear. For this rich young man, it seems he has narrowed his list of neighbors down to those who are like him not only in tribe but also in status and societal importance. His response, then, makes perfect sense. In his narrow definition, of course he has fully loved his neighbor!
Then comes the twist. If this rich young man is to possess eternal life and be made complete, he must become poor by selling what he currently possesses and giving to the poor. The implications of Jesus’ instructions are shocking, as they turn a basic theological assumption of his day on its head.
Common thought among Jews in Jesus’ day is that, if one is wealthy, they must have done something right. God must have blessed them because of their righteousness. We see this line of thought in the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching: “Who then can be saved (if not this righteous, rich man blessed by God)” (v. 25)?
By default, the poor must have offended God in some way to put them at their economic status. They have clearly been cursed.
The shocking truth Jesus offers is that this rich man, while he appears to be blessed, is currently unable to possess what matters most. This is a man who has constructed his identity (including his theology) around his wealth, believing, like the rest of the crowd, that such a life is a blessing from God for his righteousness. Through his interaction with Jesus, we clearly see how his pursuit of wealth has formed him. As it turns out, he is unable to receive the life Jesus has come to offer. It is the one thing he cannot possess by way of his usual wheeling and dealing.
Ironically, the poor already possess what he cannot. Those whom he had neglected (or, even, oppressed) to make himself great are made first in the kingdom, better suited for the life Jesus has brought.
Jesus’ insight into this rich man’s distorted heart and life in the kingdom are cause for us to not only reflect upon the question of “who is my enemy vs. my neighbor” but also reconsider blessing.
There are those, it seems, who, though deprived of basic necessities for life on earth—food, water, clothing, safe shelter—have been richly blessed with true life and are, perhaps, more readily capable of receiving and welcoming life in the kingdom. They have nothing in their possession that they can control and nothing with which they can control another. Often, the direction of their own lives are out of their control, as well, as they are pressed under the weight of somebody else’s authoritative thumb. Like Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel, their lives have been shaped and richly blessed, as they navigate daily life in complete dependence upon the God who is truly in control and who, in Jesus, left the highest place to incarnate the lowest.
We may act shocked at the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” Perhaps, though, we are not too far from this thought in our own time and place. It has not been uncommon for me to hear prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday mornings “for the many blessings we have that others around the world do not” or “that we live in the most blessed nation on Earth” (implying that God has looked more favorably upon America than other nations).
Matthew 19, I think, may lead us to ask, “Is this really blessing?” When we consider the effect such vast wealth has had upon our pattern of thought, our way of life, and our way of interacting with others, (and our habits of spending and accumulating) we must ponder this question. Or perhaps some of what we possess was intended for blessing, but we have turned it into curse.
Regardless, Jesus’ interaction with this rich man is cause for us to reevaluate our confidence in the Father’s care and contemplate the meaning of “blessing.” I still need to reconsider my intake of Oreos—maybe I can do so over a cup of coffee! But more important is to reexamine my trust that God has provided what is necessary to sustain life.
Perhaps a more appropriate prayer is another I heard during one Sunday morning assembly:
“Father, you have given the daily bread necessary for sustaining life. If we do not have it, we do not need it.”
Indeed, “for God all things are possible,” even transforming my rich, distorted heart into something made beautifully new and fit for kingdom life. Such would be a blessing.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.