The story of the Rich Young Man (Matt. 19:16-26) is a common source for questions from my students - particularly now that I work in a private school that, by the nature of the industry, tends to attract families on the higher end of the socio-economic ladder.
The story begins with a young man from a well-to-do background approaching Jesus and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a stock answer - namely, that the man should “obey the commandments” (v.17). I think this answer - which is equivalent to saying, “Have you tried being a Pharisee?” is best interpreted as a test - we know from the rest of the this Gospel and the New Testament that Jesus does not, in fact, teach that doing good works will get you into heaven. Instead, it is more likely that Jesus wanted to see how the man would respond - to get him to show his hand, if you will.
As the conversation continues, the man looks even more promising. He claims to have followed the commandments, but still wondered, “What do I still lack?” Despite having tried the Pharisees’ road to righteousness, the man still knew that something was missing, and that Jesus had the answer.
Then Jesus gives the answer that brings my students running to my door with questions and keeps plenty of wealthy church donors awake at night: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
What is going on here? Is Jesus saying that only those who sell their possessions go to heaven? Can you not follow Him and have a 401k? Is Jesus some kind of… communist?! (dramatic gasp)
In short, no. Jesus is not making a general commandment for everyone to sell all their possessions. We know that He had other followers - Joseph of Arimathea, Mary, Martha - who were likely wealthy, and He did not give them this ultimatum.
Why did He give this command to this man? I suspect that Jesus’ problem was not that the man had wealth, but that his wealth had him. Jesus saw to the heart of the matter and realized that this young man had an idol. His wealth was the thing he truly cherished; the thing he would not give up even if it cost him his soul. So Jesus presented him with the choice - serve Me, or keep clutching your wealth, but you cannot have both.
To be clear, these are the same terms He offers to us all. Jesus says that if we want to enter the Kingdom of God, we have to bend the knee to the True King, and Him only. Every other pretender to the throne must be banished. No idols or secret sins - anything that we would serve before Him must be “cut off and thrown away.” There is only room on the throne for one.
What will the King demand of you? I’m not sure; that is a matter you’ll have to discuss with Him. But I can give you a hint: whatever you most fear He’d pick, the thing you don’t think you could give up even for Him - that’s where your false idol lies
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