Monday, September 12, 2011

Matthew 19:16–30

Matthew 19:16–30 (ESV): The Rich Young Man


In this passage a man approaches Jesus to ask him what “good deed” he must do to have eternal life. Jesus answers with a list of commandments the man must follow:

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.” (verses 17–19 (ESV))
But the man isn’t phased by this list of commandments; he tells Jesus that he has kept all of these commands, and asks Jesus what he still lacks. Jesus’ response is pretty familiar to most of us:

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. (verses 21–22 (ESV))
At this point Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that a rich person can only enter the kingdom of heaven with difficulty. Which is an understatement, because he then then pushes the point even further by saying, “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” (verse 24 (ESV)). This astonishes the disciples, who wonder who, then, can possibly be saved, if it’s so difficult for a rich person to be saved. He tells them that with man this is impossible, but that all things are possible with God.

Peter then reminds Jesus that the disciples have left everything to follow him, and asks him, “What then will we have?” (verse 27 (ESV)). To me this sounds like Peter trying to curry Jesus’ favour, but Jesus’ response is very heartening:

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.” (verses 28–30 (ESV))


The first interesting thing I note about this passage is that the man’s question to Jesus is what “good deed” he must perform in order to have eternal life. Knowing what I know now, if I were reading this passage for the first time I’d expect Jesus to say to him something like, “There is nothing you can do—God demands perfection, and you can’t attain it as a human. Instead, you should simply trust me!” But Jesus seems to go along with the man for a minute, listing out some commandments for the man to follow. Of course Jesus knows what the man’s response is going to be, and this exchange is as much for our benefit as it is for his; he wants the man (and us) to realize that no matter how good, how perfect, we think we are there are still areas of our lives that simply do not live up to God’s standards. In the man’s case it’s his wealth, which he doesn’t feel he can give up—even in exchange for eternal life—while in our cases it might be something different. (Although, in North America, wealth is often going to be a pretty good bet.)

In a sense, though, Jesus does start out with something akin to what I was thinking: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” True enough! There is only one who is good—God Himself. Why is the young man thinking about what he has to do, when he should be thinking about whom he should trust? But don’t we all do that? If it weren’t for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, none of us would get past that notion, and none of us would be saved. Thanks be to God!

Interestingly enough, I once had a Jehovah’s Witness try to use this verse about who is “good” as proof that Jesus isn’t God. (Just in case you’re not familiar, one of the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that Jesus is an angel, not God.) When Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” this man was taking that as proof that Jesus is saying that only God is good, whereas he (Jesus) is not good—just like the rest of us. From a Christian standpoint, if this were the case—if Jesus weren’t “good,” the way that God is good—then His death would not have been enough to pay for our sins because He’d have his own sin to pay for, and the human situation would be hopeless; we wouldn’t be able to have a relationship with God because He is too holy, and our sin wouldn’t allow us to be near Him. Jesus had to be sinlessly perfect in order to be an acceptable substitute for us. Perhaps Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was “sinlessly perfect,” but not “good”—but then I’d have trouble understanding what is meant by the word “good” in this case, as it would have to be something better than sinlessly perfect.

Christians see this verse as a mini presentation of the Gospel: “Why do you ask about what is good?”—if you’re concentrating on what you have to do, then you’re missing the point of the Gospel; “there is only one who is good”—and therefore you need to trust Him in order to be saved.

When the man tells Jesus that he has kept all of these commands, we could probably argue him on the point. Does he really, truly, love his neighbour as he loves himself, for example? To the level that God requires? Probably not, but that’s not Jesus’ point. I think he’s purposely giving the man a list that the man will think he does keep, because the point is what the man asks next: What does he still lack? Even though he sees himself as keeping the commandments, he knows that something is still missing. He knows that there is something deeper that’s not right; he doesn’t know what it is, but he can sense that his relationship with God isn’t yet perfect. As I say, Jesus could have quibbled with the man about whether he really keeps those commandments as well as he thinks he does, but Jesus was more interested in getting to the heart of the matter: Okay, this man feels he’s obeying the commandments, but does he actually have a heart for God, a relationship with God? Does he really value God above anything else? No, the man doesn’t keep the commandments perfectly (even if he thinks he does), nobody does, and that’s why we need to trust in Jesus. The man’s problem is that he values his wealth more than he values God; he’s not going to get into a deeper relationship with God if there is a danger that God is going to require him to give up that wealth!

When Jesus tells his disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven they are astonished at his teaching; I wonder if we lose sight of how astonishing this teaching really was. After 2,000+ years we’re used to the idea, having had this message from Jesus preached countless times over the millennia. At the time—I think even more so than today—it would have been accepted teaching that people who were rich were so because God had blessed them. Therefore, since He had blessed them so much, it would be natural to assume that they would already be in His good books, and on the inside track for heaven. In fact, it’s probably pretty safe to say that there wouldn’t be much distinction between “blessing” and “reward” (I don’t know that even modern-day Christians would all be able to explain the difference), so people might very well have assumed that rich people were probably very good, and that their riches were a reward from God for their having pleased Him. But then Jesus floors his disciples by telling them that it’s actually harder for a rich person to get into heaven, not easier. And the reason? Well, it’s the same reason this rich young man went away sad: wealth often has an unhealthy hold on us, especially when we already have it and don’t want to give it up. There are definitely those who are not wealthy who are obsessed with becoming wealthy, but as a rule those who have it are much more obsessed with not wanting to lose it. It’s why you’ll find that, as a rule, wealthy churches have less giving than poor churches; as a rule, wealthy people are less generous with their money than poor people; as a rule, wealthy people are less likely to support social assistance programs (preferring instead that people would “pull themselves up by their boot straps”). I know these are all generalizations (that’s why I keep saying “as a rule”), and there will always be exceptions, but I think the exceptions are just that: exceptions.

But it’s not just fear of losing what you have; it’s also where your priorities lay. Which is more important to you—which has a more prominent place in your heart—God, or your possessions? If you’re rich, you will have to be on your guard that your wealth doesn’t get in the way of your relationship with God, and it will make it more difficult for you to have a relationship with Him than if you weren’t rich.

Which brings us to the famous “camel through the eye of a needle” verse:

“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.” (verse 24 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
There is a sort of… I guess “legend,” about this verse, which started around the year 1000 A.D. when some preacher (I have no idea what his name was) gave a sermon, and said that when Jesus said “the eye of a needle,” he was actually referring to a gate in the Jerusalem city wall, called the Needle Gate, which was apparently fairly short, so in order to get a camel through it the camel would have to duck down very low. So according to this legend Jesus wasn’t literally saying that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven, he was saying that it’s harder for a camel to go through “the Needle Gate” than for a rich person to get into heaven. He (the preacher) then pushed the metaphor a bit further, talking about how we can’t come to God until we get on our knees in humility before Him, similar to how the camel would have to duck down to go through the gate.

As I say, this story is very popular so you may have heard it before, but it’s hogwash. There was no “Needle Gate” in the Jerusalem city wall, and Jesus was really, literally, saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into heaven. There are a couple of reasons why this story doesn’t even make sense:
  • In order for this story to be true, we have to assume that the people who built the wall were so stupid that they didn’t even know to build a gate that was tall enough for a camel to go through. We love thinking that we’re smart and people in ancient times were stupid, but this is just too dumb for words. It’s like someone today building an overpass over a highway and making it tall enough for cars to drive under but not trucks.
  • If Jesus were simply talking about some gate that camels had to kneel down to go through—if his point was that you have to be humble and kneel to come before God—the disciples’ reaction would make no sense. Look at their reaction in the text:

    “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?” (verses 24–25 (ESV))
    That reaction makes sense, to me; Jesus is telling them something that’s essentially impossible, and their reaction matches it. Now imagine that this story about the Needle Gate was correct, and try to match the disciples’ reaction to it:

    “Again I tell you, in order to be saved you have to get on your knees. Like how a camel has to sort of duck to get through this gate.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
    Does that reaction make any sense?
Essentially this story tries to minimize Jesus’ point. “It’s difficult for a rich person to enter heaven, but not that difficult.” But Jesus is saying that it’s nearly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven.

“But wait,” someone might say, “isn’t it impossible for anyone to get into heaven? Isn’t that why Grace is required? So don’t rich people rely on the same Grace from God that the rest of us need to get into His presence? If something is already ‘impossible,’ then does it really matter in this situation if it’s somehow ‘more impossible’? And even Jesus himself says, in this passage, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Ah, well played! It is impossible for anyone to get into heaven on their own—the death of Jesus is required, and the Grace of God is required for us to accept the gift He bestows on us. However, let’s not forget that Jesus is saying something in this passage. (That might seem like an obvious sentence, but in this day and age I don’t think it is.) However hard or even impossible it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s even harder for a rich person to do so—and based on Jesus’ camel through the eye of a needle metaphor, it’s much harder. We try so hard to make it so that it’s not bad to be rich, or to yearn for riches, and we try so hard to minimize what this passage is actually saying, that we’re in danger of ending up with an interpretation where Jesus doesn’t actually say anything. “When Jesus says that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, he’s not actually saying that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Er… then what is he saying, when he says that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven?!?

I think the reason we react against this passage—the reason why the silly “needle gate” story is so attractive to us—is that we want to be rich. We all want to be rich. I don’t know if it’s even just a North American thing (although I suspect it’s worse here); this might be a universal thing. I know that, personally, when I first read this passage, my thoughts were something along the lines of, “Well, he said it’s really, really hard, but he didn’t say it can’t be done! So you can be rich and still get into the kingdom of heaven.” And it’s true, a rich person can enter the kingdom of heaven. But consider how wrongheaded that approach is: I really want to be rich, so I want to make sure that I can do so and still be a Christian. Perhaps the better way of looking at it would be: Why would I set my heart on anything that would make it more difficult to be a Christian?!? Why would I want anything that would make it harder to have a relationship with God? Why would I want anything that would make it difficult for me to even “get in” in the first place? (And remember, Jesus is saying that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven—he’s not just talking about our daily struggles, and saying that it will be harder for a saved rich person to live a life pleasing to God, he’s talking about how impossible it is for a rich person to even be saved in the first place.)

Many, many commentators will be quick to point out, when talking about a passage like this, that it doesn’t mean that being rich is sinful. That riches, in and of themselves, aren’t bad, it’s what you do with them—or what you let them do to you—that’s bad. Which is, technically, correct. We immediately start thinking of Old Testament examples of kings who were very wealthy, and how that wealth was blessed to them by God. But my question is this: so what? Okay, so being rich isn’t, in and of itself, sinful. What does that mean for us, practically speaking? Does it mean that we should then ignore everything Jesus warns us about being rich, and chase after it? This passage essentially boils down to Jesus telling us that it’s harder to become a Christian if you’re rich than if you’re not; is our reaction then to say that we’re going to strive after riches anyway, and take our chances? Does that seem rational? Or does it seem like we value something else above God—just like the man in this passage did? There is no being in the universe who knows better what it takes to accomplish salvation, and He is saying to us that it’s vastly more difficult to save a rich person than someone who is not rich; why would we ignore that, and chase after it anyway? Put another way: why is wealth so frigging enticing to us? Because to be clear, I’m not railing against wealth in and of itself, I’m railing against our deep, burning desire to be wealthy, or to hold on to wealth we already have. Why do we want it so badly that we try to explain away passages when Jesus warns us against it?

At the end of the passage Peter takes this to its logical conclusion: if it’s so dangerous to be wealthy, does that mean that God will reward those who give up riches? (He doesn’t use the word “reward,” but it seems to me that that’s essentially what he’s asking Jesus.) And Jesus does indicate to Peter that those who give up riches—along with family, land, etc.—will be rewarded in the next life. I think we have to be somewhat careful, though, not to fall into legalism either. We don’t want to start to think that we can start to earn God’s favour by giving up worldly possessions and living an ascetic life. We shouldn’t be chasing after wealth, but I don’t see an indication in the Scriptures that we should be living as monks either. Unless we have a reason to; if we decide to give it all up and become missionaries in a country or location where we won’t have any wealth of our own, maybe. The point is that we should not let our wealth—or our desire for wealth—own us. Whatever we have is not ours in the first place, it’s God’s, and we should be willing to do with it what He wants us to. That might mean giving some of it away to help others. It might mean giving it all away to help others. Giving it away to try to earn your way into His favour will not work because nothing we do can earn our way into His favour; if anything could, Jesus wouldn’t have been required to die on the cross. But if you are truly His child, if you are truly following Him, then if He tells you to give some or all of it up, for His purposes (whatever they may be), then you will do it willingly and joyfully, because you want to make Him happy more than you want to keep what you have.

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