The rich young man in context

by redguthrie

Matthew 19:
16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”

Jesus said, “ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Not long ago I was at a local church where a woman interpreted this passage as applying only to this specific rich young man. She said Jesus’ statement should be understood in its context. She elaborated that Jesus said this to the young man because He knew it would grieve the rich man’s heart to give up his wealth. She saw it as a specific statement meant to elicit a specific reaction from a specific person. Her interpretation was met with general murmurs of agreement.

While I agree with her that it’s important to understand Jesus’ words in context, I disagree with her interpretation. Firstly, such an interpretation ignores Jesus’ words that follow in verses 23 and 24:

23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

He does not say it is hard for this one rich man, but for “a rich man,” for any rich man to enter heaven. He universalizes this particular incident with one rich man to speak to all rich people.

Such an interpretation also ignores Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke 12:

16 Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. 17 And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ 18 So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ 21 “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

22 Then He said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. 23 Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? 25 And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? 26 If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith? 29 “And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. 30 For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. 31 But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. 32 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Here again Jesus speaks of a rich man in generic terms, making him a symbol of all wealthy persons. Here he tells not only the rich, but all His disciples to sell all they have and give to the poor.

To pretend that Jesus’ words to the rich young man applied only to that rich young man is not to put His words into context, but to intentionally ignore their context. But why would a faithful Christian go to such lengths to misinterpret the word of the Lord? To understand the appeal of such a false interpretation, it is important to view such an interpretation in it’s proper context. The interpreter was middle-class, white woman who worships at one of the oldest congregations in town. Those who vocally supported her were also middle class and white. These were people who, while perhaps not as wealthy as the Biblical young man, had much to lose should they follow Christ’s command in search of perfection. They were privileged people and to follow this particular command to the letter would likely grieve their hearts enormously. Understandably so, it is a harsh command that few follow.

But should such a command be brushed off so lightly as not applicable just because it grieves our hearts as greatly as it did the rich young man’s? Should we go away sorrowful from this unpalatable command? Matthew saw fit to record this incident in his gospel, something that seems unlikely if the early Church saw this statement as meaningless. To presume that this passage holds no applicability for Christians leaves open the door to suggest that other passages of the Bible can be dismissed with the same sort of exegetical gymnastics.

In it’s proper context the command to sell what one has to give to the poor fits perfectly with God’s teachings of economic justice, which pepper the Bible from Genesis onward. Christians ought to be poor both in spirit and in wealth. When we have excess, it is our duty to share with those who lack. As Christ, our Lord God, taught, “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back” and “You cannot serve God an mammon” (Luke 6:30, Matthew 6:24). When we are tempted by mammon, by wealth, by our middle-class comforts, we risk accepting facile interpretations that miss the depth of God’s word. We risk making a god in our image rather than living our lives as icons of Christ.

Now, of course, not all of us will give up every cent we have and trust in God alone to provide for us. Not all of us will seek perfection, but even for us, this passage still holds relevance. It reminds us that to serve God we must give up whatever we cherish more than the love of God and neighbor, even if it is not wealth, and that we must share our excess with those who lack, for the Lord taught:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).