If the kingdom belongs to children (19:13-15)-those who receive the kingdom as humble dependents (18:1-6)-then someone accustomed to being powerful and supporting dependents might find it difficult to enter the kingdom (compare 5:20; 7:14; 18:8; 25:46). This is the illustration with which 19:16-24 confronts us: wealth and status make perfect surrender to God's will more difficult, because we think we have more to lose.
Many examples of faith in the Bible are acts of desperation; few are the acts of self-satisfied individuals. Ultimately one who would receive the kingdom must not only obey like a trusting child but also relinquish worldly possessions and cares, acknowledging the absolute authority of our King.
Those Who Want Eternal Life Must Obey God's Commands (19:16-20)
The good thing the man must do is show his fidelity toward God's covenant by obeying his laws. These laws were part of first-century Jewish culture, and the young man is convinced that he has kept them, as many of us have avoided breaking the laws of our society (compare Odeberg 1964:60). But if he is really ready to submit to the yoke of God's kingdom, he must also become a follower of Jesus and submit to Jesus' demands. That he is unwilling to spare all his goods to help the poor will soon bring into question whether he really loves his neighbor as himself (vv. 19-22).
Jesus Summons Disciples to Absolute Commitment (19:21-22)
The commandments listed in verses 18-19 are humanward, summarized in the decree Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18); by adding these words from 22:39, Matthew underlines this point. Yet if God alone is good (19:17), the man is lacking in some way (he himself admits it in v. 20, allowing Jesus to echo in 19:21 the call in 5:48 to "perfect obedience"). Now the man's allegiance to the Godward love commandment (22:37-38) is tested: does he serve God or money (6:24)? Loss of our wealth or fear of how our needs will be met can test us in this way (6:19-34); the needs of the poor can test us in the same way, as here. Love for God demands a true love for neighbors that not only avoids harming them but actively serves them. The young man wants a teacher (19:16); he does not want a Lord who demands sacrifice (20:20-28).
By "going" (19:21; also 8:4; 20:4; compare 10:6; 28:19) and abandoning all else (compare especially 13:44), the man could have "followed" Jesus, that is, become his disciple (compare 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24). The kingdom demands more than merely keeping many commandments; if we recognize Christ as our King, we must surrender to him everything we have and are (compare L. Johnson 1981:17). Whether he then allows us to use some of what he has given us is his choice. Disciples do not always lose all possessions upon conversion-but they lose all ownership of them, for they themselves belong to a new ruler.
Jesus generally called his own chief disciples (Mt 4:19, 21). Yet on some occasions prospective disciples did approach him (8:19); as here, Jesus sometimes thrust them aside-probably, like some other ancient teachers, to test the would-be student's real willingness to become a learner (as in Diog. Laert. 6.2.21, 36; 7.1.22; compare Sipre Num. 115.5.7). When Jesus turned away prospective disciples with heavy demands, he probably intended the same as some other teachers did: disciples must count the cost, repudiate their prior assets and recognize the incomparable value of his teaching.
Persistent seekers throughout the Gospels display the appropriate response: the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:25-28), the blind men (20:31-34), the Gentile centurion (8:7-13) and Jesus' own mother (Jn 2:3-9). Jesus' sorrow over the unwilling disciple (Mk 10:23-25) indicates that he hoped not to turn inquirers away but rather to make them genuine disciples, which they could become only if they counted the cost and chose the narrow way of following him.
When we tell prospective disciples today, "Just ask Jesus to forgive your sins and you can go to heaven," we are not telling the whole truth of the gospel. Jesus is available for the asking, but accepting Jesus means accepting the reign of God and God's right to determine what we do with our lives. When we invite our Lord to free us from sin, we are inviting him to rule our life; and while we may yet fall short in submission to his will, we must actively acknowledge his right to determine our lives, acting on the knowledge that he has begun to transform us by his Spirit. If we accept Jesus' terms of unconditional surrender to him, however, he promises an unlimited supply of what truly matters (Mt 19:23-30).
The wealthy would-be disciple was not the only person whose attachment to possessions proved a challenge to his commitment to Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis, pointed out, the difference between us and the rich man in the story is that Jesus stood before him and did not allow him to reinterpret the Master's words in a more convenient manner. Bonhoeffer claims that the man's honesty in rejecting Jesus' command was better than disobedience that pretends to be obedience today (1963:88). He compares a boy told by his father to go to bed; the boy has studied theology, however, so he is now intelligent enough to reason, "Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play." But a child offering such arguments to his father would likely meet with language or an experience he would have to interpret more literally, as would a citizen with her government-or a disciple who reasons away God's demands (Bonhoeffer 1963:90).