Matthew 19:16–22 describes Jesus’ meeting with the man we call “the rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18 says he was a “ruler,” probably a synagogue official). This story is well-known, but it has not always been applied correctly.
Before encountering Christ, the man has evidently done some soul-searching, since he wants to know what will give him eternal life (Matt. 19:16). Later on, the rich young ruler admits to following the commandments (v. 20), and so his question reveals that he is looking for assurance beyond God’s revealed will. Our Lord knows the man is looking for more, but He starts with the law of God, for the Law is where salvation begins. Jesus reminds the man that His Father defines goodness and that obeying Him is the way to eternal life (vv. 17–19).
Jesus is not teaching that we are able to obey God perfectly and merit redemption. John Calvin writes that “the keeping of the law is righteousness, by which any man who kept the law perfectly — if there were such a man — would obtain life for himself. But as we are all destitute of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), nothing but cursing will be found in the law; and nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves to the undeserved gift of righteousness.” Only in trying to keep the Law will we see our failure and need of Christ, who flawlessly kept God’s law in our place (Rom. 5:20–21; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 5:2–5).
The man cannot verbalize this truth, but he knows of his failure to obey the Almighty’s rule. After all, he asks Jesus what more is required of him (Matt. 19:20). Of course, Jesus’ reply agrees with what Paul explains, namely, that following Christ is the only way to be saved (Rom. 10:13–14). For the ruler, following Jesus requires him to give away all his belongings (Matt. 19:21).
Wealth does not interfere with everyone’s discipleship (Gen. 13:2; Luke 8:1–3), and not everyone needs to sell all his possessions. Nor are the poor inevitably “better Christians” than the wealthy. Yet riches stood between this man and Christ; thus, he had to surrender his money. Likewise, we all must abandon idols (14:25–33; 1 John 5:21). Will we cling to that which keeps us from full commitment to Jesus, or will we surrender all that we have to the Lord?
Even though not every Christian is called to sell all his possessions, one commentator has helpfully noted that those who find comfort that this call is not universal are precisely those to whom Jesus would issue it! As citizens of the wealthiest culture to ever appear on the planet, we Westerners must be perpetually careful that our standard of living is not our idol. What comforts would Jesus have you surrender for the sake of His kingdom?
For further study:
The Bible in a year: