Because in the Old Testament many of the old covenant saints are depicted as wealthy (Gen. 13:2; Job 42:10–17), and since it often links prosperity with God-pleasing behavior (Ps. 1; Prov. 22:4), first-century Jews commonly believed that riches were a sign of righteousness. To have wealth, they thought, is to be favored by God, signifying that a person has a share in the kingdom of heaven.
To be sure, personal righteousness and wealth are sometimes directly linked. In a capitalistic society, honest businessmen often prosper because their trustworthiness encourages many others to do business with them. Knowing this to be generally true, the biblical wisdom literature links wealth and holiness. But Scripture does not say rich people are always righteous (James 5:1–6), and we can by no means link goodness with wealth in every case.
Yet our Savior’s disciples have bought into the assumption that the wealthy deserve the kingdom. This is seen in their response to Jesus’ teaching on the stumbling block of riches in salvation (Matt. 19:23–24). In today’s passage, the disciples are astonished at Christ’s words, wondering aloud how anyone can be saved (v. 25). In essence they are saying this: “But Jesus, if rich people cannot find the salvation they obviously deserve, what possible hope is there for the rest of us, who show that we are undeserving by our lack of money?”
Though He could do so, Christ does not question His followers’ unsubstantiated link between riches and salvation. Instead, He uses the opportunity to teach them about His Father’s grace. Some wealthy people never find salvation because, no matter how hard they try, they cannot stop worshiping their bank accounts. But though this is impossible with men, it is possible with God (v. 26). Some rich people like Abraham and David enter the kingdom, but only because the Lord, who can do all things, has intervened on their behalf, as He does for all the elect.
Matthew 19:26 deals mainly with the ability of God’s grace to rescue those in bondage to their wealth. In the light of the entire canon of Scripture, however, we realize that were it not for this sovereign grace, no person would be saved from the sin that has enslaved his soul (Eph. 2:8–10).
James Boice writes: “The only way anyone will ever be saved is if God operates entirely apart from us and for his own good pleasure” (The Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 2, p. 410). We are tempted to look at our own efforts for our salvation and to believe that all “good people” will be saved, no matter their religious affiliation. It is therefore vital to constantly remind ourselves that none of us would love and serve God apart from His grace.
For further study:
The Bible in a year: