PassageThis passage starts with Jesus about to leave on a journey, but before he can go a young man runs up and kneels before him, calling him “Good Teacher” and asking him what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the man why he calls Jesus good, since nobody is good except God alone.
Jesus then reminds the man about the Ten Commandments:
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” (verse 19 (ESV), Jesus speaking)But the man answers Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments since his youth. Jesus lovingly looks at the man (verse 21 (ESV)), and tells him that there is one thing he still lacks: he should go and sell all he has and give the proceeds away to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus.
Unfortunately the man is very rich and this “requirement” from Jesus seems to be too much for him, so instead of following Jesus’ suggestion (or command?) he goes away sorrowful. This isn’t entirely unexpected for Jesus, who turns to his disciples and tells them that it will be difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
It seems, however, that this is unexpected to the disciples, who are amazed at Jesus’ words. So Jesus reemphasizes what he has said:
And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” (verses 24–25 (ESV))If the disciples were “amazed” before, now they are “exceedingly astonished.” If this is the case, they ask Jesus, then who can be saved?!? Jesus tells them that this is impossible for men but not for God, since all things are possible with God.
Peter speaks up, and reminds Jesus that the disciples have left everything to follow him. Jesus promises Peter his reward for this:
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 29–31 (ESV))More on the last sentence, especially, below.
ThoughtsDoes it seem like the prologue to this story, where the young man calls Jesus “Good Teacher” and Jesus tells him that nobody is good “except God alone,” is unrelated to the rest of the story? If so, you might not be getting the full point of Jesus’ message. Jesus isn’t just messing with this guy’s head in telling him that only God is good; it’s central to his point: Do you want to inherit eternal life? With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God. It’s what Jesus came to do, and it’s only by trusting in Him that we are saved.
It’s very possible to read this passage and come away in judgement of the rich young man, and I don’t think that’s an invalid way to read it. After all, he comes to Jesus asking how he can inherit eternal life and Jesus tells him, but he decides not to listen to Jesus. But compare Jesus’ response to this young man with most of his responses to the religious teachers: Jesus doesn’t lambaste this man or call him a hypocrite, or even call him foolish. Verse 21 (ESV) says that Jesus, in answering the young man’s question, “loved him.” Jesus seems to have great empathy for this man. And to me, when I read this passage, this young man really does seem to be earnestly seeking the way to inherit eternal life. Even when he gets this answer, which was probably a shock to his system, his response is not to argue with Jesus, he goes away sorrowful. He seems to take Jesus at His word, and it depresses him because he doesn’t feel he’s able or willing to pay the “price.” If ever there is a passage which indicates that trusting in Jesus is more than just believing his words are true, this is it: the man seems to believe what Jesus is telling him, but he is obviously not saved, to his great sorrow.
Now… does what I wrote in the first paragraph disagree with what I wrote in the second? If the only way to get to God is through the work done by His Son, then why would Jesus require the rich young man to sell all he has before he can follow Jesus? Surely He’s not telling this man that he can “earn” his salvation, is He? No, He’s not. What Jesus is doing is calling out for the man his biggest problem: his wealth. Or maybe, to be more specific, I should say the hold this man’s wealth has on him. Jesus can see that this man’s “god” is his wealth; even though he’s been trying to follow the commandments, and seems to truly want to serve God, for him his wealth will always be the real god in his heart. God Almighty would, at best, take second place in this man’s heart, whereas we know that God will not take second place to anyone or anything. So Jesus isn’t telling this man that selling his possessions and giving to the poor is a quick-win to earn salvation, but it was important for this particular man because his wealth was getting in the way of his opportunity for salvation.
So this is all well and good for this particular man, but then Jesus tells his disciples something which absolutely shocks them: it’s more difficult for someone who’s rich to be saved than it is for other people. Personally, I think this is part of the reason Jesus feels for this man: of course the man is responsible for his own sin, everyone is, but Jesus knows that it’s even more difficult for this man to accept salvation than it is for others. You might say I’m reading too much into this, and I wouldn’t argue the point too hard, but I don’t think I’m off on this either.
But regardless of whether Jesus has extra pity on this man or not, the indisputable fact of this passage is that it is more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for someone who’s not rich. It’s impossible for anyone, but it’s even more impossible for someone who’s rich. Jesus doesn’t say why in this passage, but I feel that it’s because the hold of money on the rich ties them too closely to this world. Personally, I haven’t been “very” rich, but I have been quite well off, and I’ve been quite poor—not to the point of living on the street, but a step away from that—and I have to say that my spiritual life has done better when I’ve been poor than when I’ve been well off. It’s definitely true that poor people can lust after money, and that lust can impact their relationship with God, but rich people also lust after [more] money, while at the same time obsessing about the fact that they don’t want to lose what they’ve already obtained. That’s my own armchair psychology, not based in any studies that I know of, so take it with a grain of salt.
I previously wrote on this topic when it came up in Matthew 19:16–30—actually, I even wrote a part 2 to that post—so I won’t go off into another rant on the subject.
This passage does tell us one different detail than the Matthew 19 passage, though: in verse 28, when Peter tells Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything, look at how it is worded:
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” (verse 28 (ESV), emphasis added)This is then followed by Jesus’ reply. To me, when it says that Peter “began” to say this to Jesus it indicates that Jesus is actually cutting Peter off. It’s possible—and I’m just theorizing here, so don’t take this too strongly—but it’s possible that Peter is about to go down the same path that others are tempted to go down when reading this passage: “Jesus just told this man that he could enter the kingdom of heaven if he sells his stuff! And I left all of my stuff behind… so I’m in!” We know that that’s not how it works; they key message Jesus is giving his disciples is not, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor,” it’s, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” This particular man has a particular problem with wealth that would have impacted his relationship with God, and he needed to fix that, but selling his possessions would not have made him right with God. You might have your own sins to deal with, be it the same problem with money that this man had, or sex/pornography, or the mind-numbing effects of television and movies, or putting your marriage on a pedestal, or something quite unrelated, and you need to fix that too, but doing so still won’t make you right with God; you still have to accept Christ the same as everyone else. Fixing those spiritual problems will definitely help your relationship with God, but they aren’t the sum total of all that you need.
Even if Jesus is cutting Peter off, though, his answer to Peter (and the disciples around them) is not harsh. In fact he does reassure Peter and the others that they will be rewarded for all they’ve given up for the Gospel’s sake, both in this life and in the life to come. Interestingly, though, when you look at that passage, Jesus slips in something the disciples might not have wanted to hear:
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 29–31 (ESV), emphasis added)Wait, what’s this “with persecutions” thing? I loved those whole three verses except for those two little words. It’s great that God is going to reward me for leaving behind the things that hindered me, but why does He have to let me be persecuted, too? Well, the “why” is probably a topic for another post on another passage, but for now it suffices to say that the Christian is guaranteed persecution. Jesus mentions it a number of times. God has His own plans for how He will use those persecutions, but when they come we shouldn’t be surprised.
Finally, when Jesus is telling Peter and the disciples that they (and we) will be rewarded, he ends by saying that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Based on the context, this means that there is good news for those who feel they aren’t special, or who don’t have prominent roles in the Church: God doesn’t reward us according to the place of prominence to which we have risen; after all, He is the one who put us there in the first place. God rewards us according to our faith and our obedience. God made some to be preachers of multi-million-dollar mega-churches with shiny clothes and TV shows, and He made others to be preachers of small, neglected churches in poor neighbourhoods, and He made others who play music or sing in the church, and He made others still who clean the church and who teach Sunday School and who run the sound equipment and who change the broken lightbulbs and who do a million other tasks that nobody will ever know about. Even the person doing those tasks will have forgotten about doing it within hours. We revere some of those people more highly than others, we are sometimes even jealous of some of those people, but don’t expect to get to Heaven and see that God has rewarded people according to how we revered them. That person who had no official role in the church but did odd jobs to keep the building together may have a place of greater honour than the preacher of the mega-church. God sees the heart, and is able to judge people with much more accuracy than we ever could going by simple outward appearances.