Bible study at the 2014 FEET conference
Jacques Buchhold, Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangelique, Vaux-sur-Seine, France
2. Out of love for Jesus (Mt 19.16-30)
19.16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"
17 "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." 18 "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honour your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbour as yourself.' " 20 "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" 21 Jesus answered, "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." 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell 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." 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" 26 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." 27 Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" 28 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (NIV)
The second passage of the Scriptures on which we will meditate is the dialogue between Jesus and the rich man in Matthew 19.16-30. This section is common to the three synoptic Gospels (// Mc 10.16-30; Lk 18.18-30), but there are noticeable differences between the three versions of this same event.
This story is well known. Who among us has never preached on this text? Therefore, as yesterday, I will not analyse every detail of the text but shall underscore some of its main points.
Two parallel texts
First we must notice that the passage of Bible study number 1 and this one have a parallel structure, which suggests that they “function” together and should be read one following the other. There is first, in each text, a question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (v.3), on the one hand, and "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" (v.16), on the other hand. Then comes Jesus’ reply, which is unexpected in both cases (v.4-16 and 17-19). The Pharisees and the rich man both express their dissatisfaction with Jesus’ reply: "Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" (v.7), "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" (v.20). Jesus then replies by presenting the conditions of perfection (v. 8-9 and 21-24), which increases the disciples’ perplexity (v.10 and 23-26) and leads Jesus to answer in describing the Kingdom’s prospects (v.11-12 and 27-30).
A disconcerting dialogue
It would be rare to meet a person, and even, according to Luke, an influential person (18.18), a Jewish “ruler” (archôn), who straightforwardly asks us: “What good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?” We would certainly have answered in different ways, according to our theology or our pastoral sense, but it seems to me that none of us would have answered as Jesus did: “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” In the dialogue with the Pharisees, Jesus’ answer was unexpected for the Pharisees; here, it is for us that it is unexpected. For the man who asked the question, the answer must have seemed quite obvious:
18 "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honour your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbour as yourself.' " 20 "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"
It seems to me that there is nothing in the man’s attitude which would allow us to suspect him of a lack of sincerity. His questions are sincere questions. He is not like the Pharisees who tried to put Jesus to a test. He gets involved in his questions and is not ashamed of recognising his sense of lack: “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" Mark’s Gospel will even specify that Jesus looked at him with love before presenting to him the requirements of the Kingdom (Mk 10.21).
It seems then that this man is judged too severely when he is said to be superficial or hypocritical. He is conscious of not having eternal life and he honestly desires to do what he has to do to acquire or inherit it (cf. Mc 10.17). True, his sincerity may be mixed with a touching and dramatic illusion about himself because he is looking for a good thing to do to get eternal life. He seems to think that he can earn God’s favour. But one should notice that this is not what Jesus is reproaching him for, at least not in this way.
On the contrary! Jesus answers the man’s question about what good deeds he must do to obtain eternal life in a disconcerting way, by reminding him of the fundamental commandments of the moral Law: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbour as yourself.'” And when the man declares having kept all these, Jesus adds a supplementary requirement which will enable the man to fulfil his wish for eternal life: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Indeed, there is nothing more necessary than living the holy life God wants us to live, for it is the condition for obtaining eternal life and entering into the kingdom of heaven! But this is not all that Jesus says.
From guru to Lord!
Jesus’ answer to the man’s question: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?” begins with a strange reproach: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” It is only after this that Jesus reminds him of the commandments of the Law. One should notice that the man reacts only to the second part of Jesus’ answer and does not reply to his reproach. “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Could it be that he did not really understand Jesus?
Jesus’ strange reproach seems to indicate that there is an error about the person. Jesus is not who the man thinks he is: a guru in matters of good and eternal life. For “there is only One who is good”, says Jesus. But how tempting it is to search among creatures for what only the Creator is! Mark and Luke discerned that this was at stake in the man’s question and in Jesus’ answer, because they restated them in this way: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone” (Mk 10.17-18; Lk 18.18-19). It seems to me that there is one detail of Matthew’s text which confirms this understanding. Contrary to what Jesus will say some time later to the scribe in Matthew 22.34-40, in his answer to the rich young man he does not associate the commandment to love one’s neighbour with the commandment “to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”. It is as if Jesus wanted to confront this man with his truncated reading of the Law. He was lacking a whole part of the biblical teaching, in fact, the essential part: love for God! “You wish to be perfect,” Jesus seems to imply, “and you fail to put your life in the hands of the only one who is perfect!”
It is in this light that we should interpret Jesus’ answer to the man’s second question: “All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?” True, as I have said, Jesus invites him to do, among other things, what the man has not done yet: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” This is no longer a commandment of the Torah; this new perfection requirement goes far beyond what the Law demands. It totally depends on becoming a disciple of Jesus. “Then come, follow me”, Jesus said. The “good thing” that the man should do – selling his possessions and giving them to the poor – should be a consequence of who Jesus himself is. To the one who was looking for a guru while forgetting God, Jesus gives himself as the Lord who knows how to supply what he is lacking. But in order to enter this relationship, he should renounce his overflow of goods: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Out of love for Jesus
In study number 1 we saw that the Pharisees were neutralising God’s commandments by replacing ethics of perfection with ethics of permission. This is why Jesus reminded them of the requirements of holiness and explained to his disciples how to live the requirements of the Kingdom: they had to become eunuchs. In the present passage, to the rich young man and to his disciples, Jesus gives the key of eternal life (v.16) or of the Kingdom of heaven: love for him: “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” (v.21); “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (v.29). Perfection is a matter of love and allegiance; it does not confine itself to strict obedience, but includes its motivations. Christian ethics is profoundly and viscerally theological and christological.
Jesus has already insisted on love for God and on the fundamental allegiance of the Christian life when he was speaking about wealth and possessions. We find this in Matthew’s Gospel as early as the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (6.19-21, 24).
Jesus does not say anything different in his teaching to his disciples in verses 23 and 24 of our passage: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell 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.” We should not try to lessen the force of the image of the camel and the eye of a needle. In Babylonia, elephants were the largest animals and Jewish rabbis used the metaphor of an “elephant going through the eye of a needle” in order to speak about something very difficult to do; in Palestine camels were the largest common animals. The richer you are, implies Jesus, the less you need God.
Renouncing for Jesus’ sake
But how should we understand the disciples’ perplexity? Because, as the text says, “when the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (v.25). Commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel underscore, with good reason, that prosperity was thought to be a sign of divine blessing and one could quote numerous passages of the Jewish Scriptures to justify such a point of view. Besides, we must notice that Jesus does not suspect the man of having become rich through reprehensible practices and he does not mention here the Mammon of injustice. Some verses further, Jesus adds to wealth a list of other realities which his disciples might be called to leave behind: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (v.29); some manuscripts mention also “wife”, but the word is present in Luke’s version of our text (Lk 18.29). All these data suggest that the renunciations Jesus is considering point to legitimate realities, which are the expression of beautiful and good divine blessings: family, house, property. If this is the case, one can easily understand the disciples’ astonishment and perplexity!
One of the possible explanations of Jesus’ intransigence is that his renunciation requirements would concern only some of his disciples and only in certain circumstances. We meet here the same interpretation as the one which limits the fact of becoming a eunuch to celibacy and to some disciples. It is clear that, according to our text, Jesus does not expect all of his disciples to renounce all the realities he mentions: only rich people can give their goods to the poor, and not all of the disciples have brothers, sisters, children or fields they can leave. Actually, the presence in the Greek of the word “or” before each reality shows that Jesus enumerates different realms that renunciations may concern: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields”.
However, the issue of renunciation itself concerns each of Jesus’ disciples because its issue is eternal life or the admission into the Kingdom of heaven. The rich man’s question shows this clearly: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?” as well as the teaching of Jesus about renunciation, which he links to inheritance of eternal life. Therefore, every disciple of Jesus will have to experience renunciation in one way or another “for Jesus’ sake”.
This story of the rich young man explains well why Jesus required renunciation of all his disciples. Because of the stubbornness of our hearts, which was spoken about in the preceding section, we inevitably give to divine blessings the place which only God should take. And we tend to understand eternal life as a supplementary blessing we can acquire by doing what is good. At the very most, because of our sense of lack, we are looking for gurus in matter of good or in eternal life. But who does spontaneously seek the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his mind? A Lord who will take the place he earns in our lives? This kind of tearing out of the idolised blessings of God is impossible to man, Jesus says, but with God everything is possible (v.26). He is the only one who can give birth to the perfection the rich man was seeking, through producing, in those who will inherit eternal life, exclusive love for Jesus and acceptance of inevitable renunciations, which are the marks of true disciples of Jesus.
From the following of Jesus to the life of the Spirit
But some may object that such an interpretation of our text spiritualises the renunciations Jesus is speaking about. For Jesus is urging the man to really sell his possessions and to give them to the poor, and Peter is thinking about very concrete realities when, as the spokesman of his companions, he exclaims: “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
I will make two remarks. First, faith in Jesus, quite often, leads us, out of love for him, to make very concrete choices in our personal and social life which correspond to the kind of renunciations Jesus is speaking about in our text.
My second remark is linked to the change of situation produced by the passage from the concrete following of Jesus to the life of the Spirit. This leads me to go back to the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, as in study 1. There I said that Paul must have known the teachings of Jesus that we have in this chapter of Matthew. In the verses I quoted, it seems to me that he is applying to our post-Pentecost situation what Jesus taught to his followers on renunciation when he was still with them. Let us read again 1 Corinthians 7.29-31:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
There should be nothing in our lives that proceeds from anything other than the love of Jesus, in the light of the coming Kingdom. This is what Christian ethics is all about!