Jack M. Lane
Many people have read this story in the Bible and have understood it only on a superficial level, or have come to a wrong conclusion about what they have read. It's time to look at this story a little more closely and dig out its deeper meaning and significance. Let's learn the real lesson our Savior intended, because when you understand and apply it, it can dramatically change your life!
"Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, 'Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?' '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.' 'Which ones?' the man enquired. Jesus replied, '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.'
"'All these I have kept,' the young man said. 'What do I still lack?' 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.' When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, '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.' When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'
"Peter answered him, 'We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?' 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. 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. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first'" (Matthew 19:16-30, NIV).
What was the Lesson?
What was the lesson Jesus was teaching that day? Was He teaching that we should give away all our money and become poor? Was he teaching that everyone should sell off their properties and give the money to the church? That is, after all, what many in the early church did (Acts 4:32-37)! Was Jesus teaching about financial sacrifice, or perhaps about tithing?
No, that was not the lesson that day. If that's all Jesus had meant, the wealthy young man might have stayed. But what Jesus was really asking the young man to do was so grievous to him, so unacceptable, that he left sorrowing.
This wealthy young man thought he was a righteous Jew. He had kept the commandments all his life, or so he thought! Sin was, to him, simply not a major factor in his life. He also had a genuine zeal to be righteous, which Jesus could see, although it was righteousness on his own terms. Jesus, who could read all hearts, knew what it would take for this particular young man to break down the major barrier that stood between him and entering the kingdom. Jesus addressed this personal matter very frankly.
To the young man, Jesus said, "If you want to be perfect ...." This is not a command for all His followers through the ages, but a private recommendation to one person. We can learn a lesson from it, but the lesson for us is not the thing Jesus is about to recommend to the young man.
"If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have, give money to the poor, and come follow Me." Apparently this was not anything remotely like what the young man was expecting to hear. Jesus didn't say, "You're doing a fine job as it is. Just keep it up." He didn't even congratulate the young man for keeping the commandments. Instead, He said, "If you will be perfect ...."
The Greek word for "perfect" is teleios (Strong's #5046), which can mean both perfection and coming to maturity, with full human integrity and virtue. To become fully mature and virtuous, the young man would need to sell off his holdings, give away great sums to the poor, and leave the comfort of his lifestyle to become, of all things, an itinerant disciple of the Nazarene! This, he was not able to see himself doing.
What was keeping this man from spiritual perfection? Having money? Would giving away money somehow absolve him of guilt feelings and make him perfect? That's what some teachers have taught in the past. (Of course, the outcome of such teaching by modern-day preachers has often been a rise in the generous contributions of the congregation, but that's probably only a coincidence.)
What was holding this man back was his love of money, and real estate holdings, and his comfortable lifestyle. Were any of these physical things sin? No, but they were keeping him from being perfect, and Jesus, who understood human nature better than any other human, knew what was motivating this young man. It may be significant that, when Jesus was listing some of the Ten Commandments in this story, he didn't mention covetousness -- the tenth commandment!
Even the apostle Paul, years later, wrote, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6:10).
Jesus knew that the young man was not perfect in his commandment keeping after all, and He confronted the young man with the hardest decision of his life. The one thing that struck right to the man's heart, that kept him from being perfect, was his love of money. He thought he was keeping the commandments, and Jesus didn't actually contradict him or condemn him. But to ask him to truly love God above all else, even to the point of giving up his vast wealth, seemed like an insurmountable difficulty! And after only a moment's thought, the young man decided which of the two, God or mammon, he would rather serve.
He kept his money! He had what he wanted! Why, then, did he go away in sorrow? This was not a light thing with him. He seemed to know what it was he was giving up. He apparently knew himself well enough to know that he might never, under his own power, be able to overcome his love of money and wealth. In order to avoid the pain of failing later on, he chose to let Jesus' calling go by. He chose to remain "good enough" in his own sight, rather than do what it took to become perfect, or spiritually mature, in the good Master's sight.
Why is it easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Is it the money? Of course not! It's the love of money, the lusts of the flesh, which will always be in the rich person's mind and being! These thoughts can rear their ugly heads on occasion and take the mind off of the things of God.
If it's difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom, what should be done? Take his money away from him? That's the surface way of looking at it. But if you take away a rich man's money, he'll soon be devising ways to make more money! And if he's doing that, he won't be concentrating on what it takes to make it into God's family.
If God wants to call a rich man, He will first need to gain the rich man's attention, and make what God has to offer more attractive. To do this, God must first cause the rich man to lose his primary interest in being rich, so that he will desire to place God above that interest. There are a number of ways to do this. One way is to show that the value of what God has to offer greatly exceeds any value men place on riches and wealth in this life.
If God first removes from someone the desire for wealth and accumulating wealth, and shows that person the meaninglessness of chasing after money, the wealth will somehow begin to find a new home, seemingly on its own! Giving to the poor becomes easier, and in fact will bring new purpose to the man's life.
But the important purpose being worked out is that God wants the man, not his riches!
The Real Lesson
We have seen that it is the love of money, and not wealth itself, which can lead to evil. We have also seen that Jesus' recommendation to sell everything and become a disciple was for that particular young man, and not a general command for everyone to cash in everything they have and give the money to the church of their choice.
In fact, Jesus continued His lesson by mentioning other things which could side-track people from following Him with their whole hearts: "houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields." What are these things? Physical possessions and family relations. These provide some of the most powerful holds exerted on our lives, and have caused a number of people through the ages to reconsider following Christ if it meant giving up these things.
On one level, this story is in the Bible as a lesson against covetousness, and many sermons have been preached on that subject using this passage. But what is the deeper meaning of this lesson? Can we phrase it into one sentence? Perhaps the lesson for us could be this: Whatever is standing in our way, keeping us from perfection and maturity, it is an obstacle that can keep us out of the kingdom of God.
Jesus asked the young man to do something he found very, very difficult to do. The young man was not able to bring himself to break down this barrier. It would have been a huge leap outside of his feelings of security and comfort, and he chose to simply retreat into his safe zone. Did he come into fellowship later, after the New Covenant ekklesia began? We can only hope that he did. If he later came into fellowship, then he would have been better equipped to overcome his personal barrier with the help of God's Spirit.
A Tough Lesson for Us!
How can we apply this lesson to our own lives? We must begin by asking, "What is it that is keeping me from becoming perfect, or spiritually mature? What aspect of my life have I not been willing to examine and, if necessary, give up?"
Is there a secret sin? Something we may not even admit to ourselves, although God is aware of it? To become perfect, we should beseech God, "Forgive my hidden faults" (Psalm 19:12). "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
What hidden fault are we carrying around, so hidden that we might not even be aware of it ourselves? For the young man in the story, his hidden fault was being unwilling to let go of his wealth. He was, in fact, violating both the tenth commandment and the first commandment (Colossians 3:5). He might even have been able to intellectualize that, ultimately, his wealth could not save him, but that was the way he was, and he was not willing to change -- at least, not just then. We can hope he reconsidered things later and changed.
What is it for you? What do you worship more than God Himself? Whatever it is, it can keep you out of the kingdom of God!
A rather silly example of how something could get in the way of our spiritual development might be this: Imagine we just got a gleaming new car, a real beauty that we simply love! Driving it around is sheer ecstasy. Polishing it and keeping it shiny is a favorite pastime for us. We bask in the glory of people admiring our new car. We often find ourselves daydreaming about our beautiful car, rather than paying attention to more important things.
This example is so obvious, and so petty, that probably none of us suffers from this particular malady. But it can serve as a metaphor for the thing that really is at the heart of our problem.
What is it in our lives? Pride? Vanity? Self-righteousness? Anger? Fear? Jealousy?
What is it that means the world to us, to the point that we're not willing to let go of it? A job? A career? An idea? A cherished theory? A pet doctrine?
What security blankets are we holding tightly in our own subconscious minds? Perhaps feelings that we are better than or superior to someone else? Conceits that we know our Bibles better, have more Holy Spirit, have a sure entrance into the kingdom?
Whatever it is in our spiritual lives that will keep us from achieving our goal of entering God's kingdom and family, we must root it out!
In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew chapter 25, the people typified by the goats are clearly astonished when Christ says He never knew them! It came as a complete surprise to the goats that they were to be cast out into eternal punishment after a lifetime of thinking they were the special ones who would be ushered into the kingdom! We must ponder the meaning of the verse that says, "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12)!
A Good Example from a Bad Decision
Many years ago, in a particular church, a horrible misunderstanding of scripture became law within that organization. It was taught that God bound every first marriage, no matter what the circumstance, the age, the frame of mind, or whether or not the participants knew anything about God or His law. The only way to unbind a marriage was to prove fornication (based on a very narrow interpretation of the Greek word porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9). This, of course, was next to impossible to do.
This misunderstanding of marriage and scripture caused a serious problem for some of the people who responded to the radio broadcast and the literature, and who wished to come into fellowship with the church. All prospective members underwent rigorous questioning, and if a prior marriage came to light, all progress stopped there. In several cases, prospective members were told that, because one or both partners had been previously married, they would not be able to come into the church as a married couple, because they were currently living in sin. God, they were told, had bound the previous marriage, and therefore the current marriage was not lawful. It made no difference if there were children from this second marriage, or the length of time the couple had been married, or how happy they were, or anything else in the world. The church ruled that these marriage partners must separate, and that they should, if possible, strive to go back to their previous mates!
The reason for bringing up this unfortunate time in the history of the church is not to stir up unfavorable emotions, although that happens naturally whenever this subject comes up. The purpose of mentioning this circumstance is to show how some people were faced with a very big decision.
On the one hand, to split up and come into the church meant (to the new member) the likelihood of being resurrected to immortality as a son of God. But to do so meant giving up the person and relationship that to some people almost meant more than life itself. If there were children involved, that only made it worse. But some people were willing to do that to be in God's kingdom (as the clergy understood and taught it at that time).
On the other hand, many people went away sorrowing, unwilling to give up their beloved spouse and children for the rest of their life, and break up their happy family, even if it meant risking not being in the resurrection (according to the teaching then).
This was a choice some people had to make. It was a very real choice, and the most difficult decision in the world for some people. And bless their souls, many of them were willing to sacrifice their own happiness, and give up what was most dear to them, to be in God's kingdom!
It was a terrible thing to put people through, and it was made doubly terrible when it was realized later that a mistake had been made, and these people did not have to go through that horrible experience after all!
We must let bygones be bygones, and forgive fallible human beings for their errant understanding of scripture. None of us today is perfect, either. But by seeing what pains other people had to go through, and what very difficult decisions they thought they had to make in order to be in God's family, we might have a better grasp of what we ourselves may have to go through, in our own lives, in order to purge out whatever is holding us back.
The Lesson Learned
Would you be willing to give up your most cherished loved one so that you could enter God's kingdom? How about your most deeply held religious convictions? What about the personal biases and prejudices that we all have? How about the training and conditioning so many of us have experienced in our religious lives?
Some people will step out, at least a little bit, but will go only so far down the road to perfection.
The experience of the rich young man shows us that, if Christ leads us right up to our own personal wall, we will be faced with the decision to climb the wall, tear it down, go around it, tunnel under it, blow a hole in it -- or be stopped by it, and have to either turn around and go back the other way, or stand there at our own wall, wailing.
Hardly anyone dared to believe that some day the Berlin Wall would come down. If there was one unchangeable thing in the lives of Berliners, it was that wall. When it finally did come down, people came from everywhere to help smash it to pieces, and souvenir fragments of the wall were sent all around the world.
We also must take down the wall that stands between us and spiritual maturity. If we need to call on others to help us break down the wall, then we must do that.
Many things have happened in our religious lives over the past several years which we scarcely could have imagined possible. Many barriers have been broken down, many ideas and attitudes changed, and many minds opened to greater possibilities. Great numbers of people have made huge strides forward in their direct relationship with God. Now it's time to find the wall in our lives that keeps us from being perfect, and tear it down.
Jesus said, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone ..." (John 8:7). But in the context of this discussion, let's change that slightly to read, "If any of you desires to be perfect, spiritually mature, let him be the first to take down his inner wall, and throw the stones of the wall out of his way!"
If you will enter into life, keep the commandments. If you will be perfect, find whatever it is, deep in your heart, that stands between you and spiritual maturity, and get rid of it!
That was the lesson for the rich young man, and it is the lesson for each one of us today!