I was recently studying Matthew 19:16-26 and I came away with a few fresh insights. This man (as do many believers today) thought that Christianity was about getting into heaven. He approached Jesus to ensure that he was good enough, had done enough, to secure eternal life. He coveted Jesus’ affirmation, but only to assuage his doubts. This self-centered interaction was therefore about discovering any fine print, for entering heaven, that he may have missed out on and confirming that following Christ would not disrupt his current lifestyle.
When the rich young man responds to Jesus saying that he had kept the commandments since his youth, it is important to note that Jesus does not deny his claim. Nevertheless, Jesus still tells him that more was desired and required of him. Jesus instructed the rich young man to “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor…Then come, follow me.” This statement indicates that knowing the commandments, and even religiously following them, is not what ultimately secures eternal life. This is imperative because our faith can become a checklist of do’s and don’ts; when this happens, we mistake legalism for the Gospel and misinterpret dutifulness as faithfulness.
In this passage, we see that the rich young man became so consumed by the letter of the law, that he missed the spirit of the law. In this interaction, Jesus elucidates this and tries to show him his need for a Savior. It is here, at this point, that Jesus begins to covertly interrogate this man’s love of neighbor. Jesus does not tell this man to destroy, or merely separate himself from, his possessions; Jesus instead instructs him to redistribute his wealth among the poor. In this command, Jesus calls for more than a change in the rich young man’s socioeconomic status, Jesus beckons him into communion with the least of these…a new way of seeing and relating to the poor. Jesus challenges the rich young man to see that he is inherently connected to the poor. Jesus wants him to understand himself as covenantally bound to them; as a member of their family within the newly inaugurated Kingdom of God. Jesus prompts this man to connect the excess in his life to the lack in his neighbors’ lives; to understand that he was ultimately blessed to be a blessing.
In asking this rich young man to envision and enact this new posture towards the poor, Jesus implores him to begin radically identifying with the least of these. Furthermore, Jesus calls him to start exploring ways to faithfully steward all that he had been entrusted with. Ultimately, Jesus was calling this rich young man to transcend social barriers and constructs that all too often regulate and dictate human interactions—especially between the have and the have nots—in order to authentically bear witness to the Kingdom. Jesus summons this rich young man to foster righteous relationships with the poor.
In the end, the cost of Jesus’ words constitutes this man’s grief; he walks away deciding that the cost of discipleship is too steep. He refuses to surrender his life to God, partially due to his wealth, but also because his identity is so entrenched within his status and power. He refuses to identify with the poor, to participate in socioeconomic justice, and to intentionally leverage his power for righteousness and furthering the Kingdom. In the end, the social, political, and financial costs are too great for him.
This man’s original question assumed that one can do something to inherit the Kingdom, but Jesus reveals that this is not true, and furthermore; Christ elucidates that the life believers are called to live is counter-cultural, sacrificial, and cruciform in nature.
[Image credit James C. Christensen]