Setting the Context
[April 27, 2008] Since Easter Sunday we have been considering what Jesus has been teaching His disciples since He came down from the Mount of Transfiguration. When He left Mount Hermon in the north, He and His disciples have been walking south to Jerusalem for the last time. Jesus knows what awaits Him. Just before this journey, when Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus revealed to them the church, the way of the cross and, on Mount Hermon, the coming of the kingdom. Now, between announcements of His coming death and resurrection, Jesus’ teaching forms a whole. It has one theme: “living the life of the church in the light of the kingdom.”
In the incident at the end of chapter 17, Jesus shows that the “sons”—meaning His believers—”are free” to follow the Son and not always follow the demands and expectations of those around them. Then in chapter 18, Jesus taught about the believers’ relationships to one another. In chapter 19 and 20 (up to verse 16), Jesus teaches about being the church in the place where we interface with the world, in our homes and families and affairs. The believers’ homes are to be places of hospitality where believers meet with one another and where the world is invited into the church. What Jesus taught in chapter 18 needs to be carried out in the marriage (and the single state) and toward the children, all the children.
Now comes the issue of the household’s property (Matthew 19:16-29). The theme is the same: it is about being free to follow Jesus, and using that freedom in hospitality (now applied as generosity). As with the previous lesson, this has two parts: Jesus’ interaction with someone outside the circle of the disciples, and then the teaching this elicits for His disciples. As with the other lessons, our ability to understand what Jesus says depends upon our knowing the difference between the church and the kingdom.
The lessons in this section are important. The things Jesus teaches here are part of what He laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. Now He spells it out again—this time in the context of the church—as His final instructions before the cross. They are His last will, as it were, though He also promises to be with us always as we disciple all nations and teach them to observe all that He had commanded us (28:19-20). This is what He commanded us—how to be the church in the light of the kingdom. It is for us.
“That I May Have Eternal Life”
The story begins when an enthusiastic young Jew comes up to Jesus as a Teacher and wants to know what he must do to have eternal life. Here the question has to do with eternal life. Jesus’ answer directs him to the Scriptures for, as He says in John 5:39, “it is these that testify concerning Me.” Why do you ask Me? He says. He who alone is good has already made it clear: “If you wish to enter into life, keep His commandments.”
This answer puzzles us, because it sounds like Jesus is teaching salvation by works, that is, justification by following the Law. I think, though, that Jesus is handling the young man with skill. If the young man truly sought the will of God in the Torah, he would realize that Jesus is its fulfillment.
The young man asks, “Which ones?” Jesus lists several of the ten commandments, four from the second table, the last one on the first table, and the summary commandment from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These commandments give the periphery, the outer boundary, of what God expects of the covenant people. Jewish children are taught to live within these boundaries. If a person is sincere, they will take you further because they are witnesses, pointers to something deeper.
“All these things I have kept,” the young man says. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus does not dismiss what the young man says, as though it cannot be true. It was probably true, superficially. Paul said it was true of himself before his conversion to Christ. This would be enough if a person followed to where the commandments lead. Jesus presupposes the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, and then shows where they lead. They lead to a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees that only He can fulfill (see Matthew 5:17-20), and which He fulfills in those who enter His sphere—who commit themselves completely to Him in faith and trust.
So He says to the young man, “If you want to be perfect …” We misunderstand this word because we take it in a modern perfectionist sense. The word (teleios) does not mean this. The word means mature, ripe, completed, fully equipped, and also has the sense of being undivided in loyalty and devotion. Matthew tells us that the man who asks this question is young. Jesus wants to know if he is serious. So he says to him, “If you want to be grown and mature” (that is, mature in your following the Torah), then this is what you must do.
Jesus tells him to do three things: (1) sell his possessions, (2) give the money to the poor, and (3) follow me. Protestants traditionally have said that what Jesus says was either only meant for this particular individual and not for all His followers, or is so impossible that He does not really mean it. Catholics traditionally have said that this is an ideal only meant for people in Holy Orders (monks, nuns and clergy). Both of these interpretations are disingenuous. Jesus’ teaching about wealth is consistent throughout the gospels, and the apostles after Him continued to take it seriously. The preachers who advocate using Jesus to get wealthy fly in the face of His actual statements. When Peter said, “We have left all and followed You,” Jesus did not disagree with him. This is what Jesus intended for all His followers.
Our possessions possess us. The fact that the young man went away sorrowing shows how his possessions possessed him. A possession is that to which we have an exclusive title. You do not possess the books in the library, nor do you possess the tool that you borrow from your neighbor. Likewise, we do not possess what we share in common. To follow Jesus, though, we must become free of possessive clutching. Our possessions obligate us in ways that we would not be obligated if we did not have them. In exchange, our possessions give us a sense of security. We rely on our possessions for a safety net. If we rely on our possessions for security, we are not relying on God. Since we are not relying on God, we live for our possessions and feel impelled to make them more and more secure and to acquire more and more of them. To be free of our possessions enables us to be free for God.
To follow Jesus means we no longer live for our possessions, and we no longer rely on them for security. We live for Christ and trust God to take care of us. We no longer worry as though God cannot care for us. This takes faith.
To give what we have to the poor means we are free for our neighbor. We are free to love our neighbor because we no longer worry about ourselves. We are no longer keeping what he or she needs for our own security.
The young man indeed realizes that what Jesus demands of him is impossible. As Jesus says, it is as impossible for him as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
The failure of the young man was not this realization, however, for Jesus agrees in verse 26. He was supposed to realize this. His failure was to walk away. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” If the young man was to become mature and to take responsibility for himself so that he could have eternal life, he would have to trust Jesus implicitly and let go of everything else that he relies on. Jesus gives the gift of faith to all who turn to Him. If we turn away, He cannot help us.
We turn to Jesus in faith and He gives us the gift of eternal life. Then, and only then, can we live up to the standard He calls us to. Eternal life does not depend upon doing good works but on our turning to Jesus.
“Entering into the Kingdom of the Heavens”
Jesus begins to talk to the disciples about entering the kingdom as soon as the young man leaves. The disciples are still thinking about eternal life and they think that Jesus means just what the young man thought. “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus assures them that this is not something they can do on their own. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Nevertheless, if we belong to Jesus, if we are depending on Him, if we are believers and therefore have eternal life, then “with God all things are possible” and Jesus can call us to live in such a way that we can enter the kingdom. The kingdom is not the same as having eternal life.
The gift of eternal life is by faith alone, through grace alone. You either have it or you do not. No one who has it has more or less of it. All who are in the body of Christ possess eternal life equally. The life of the church is based on this gift. Therefore we do not distinguish among each other. All are brothers and sisters, and only brothers and sisters—without rank.
The kingdom, on the other hand, has to do with God’s rule, with His purpose, and with His overcoming the powers that oppose Him. It has to do discipline and reward. On the one hand, if we give up our possessions and give to the poor, we will have treasure in the heavens. On the other hand, it is only with difficulty that a rich man can enter the kingdom.
Peter points out that he and the other apostles have left all to follow Jesus. “What will there be for us?” Peter has a bargaining mentality, but for the sake of the lesson, Jesus does not challenge this. Instead He assures Him that they will be rewarded with thrones and they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. In Revelation 20:4, John “saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them, even the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God … and they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This harks back to Revelation 2:26 where Jesus said, “He who overcomes and he who keeps My works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations.” Paul also says, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12).
If we left houses, family or fields for the sake of Jesus, we will be rewarded with a hundred times as much in the kingdom (according to Mark, even now in the fellowship of the church) and we shall inherit eternal life. To inherit eternal life is different than the gift of eternal life. To inherit means that we get to enjoy what we are have and are entitled to in the time of the kingdom. If we are unfaithful, we will suffer loss during the kingdom so that we can be ready to enter the New Jerusalem for eternity.
Exercising Freedom and Generosity with our Property
How shall we live the life of the church with respect to our property in the light of the kingdom? Please realize that Jesus and His followers did not live in abject poverty. Jesus might have had a house in Capernaum, as did Peter, and Peter kept his fishing boat. Jesus welcomed and expected the hospitality of other people’s homes, such as the house in Bethany. Nor did they all leave their families—Peter took care of his mother-in-law and Jesus provided for his mother. But we can say that they no longer “possessed” these things. In Acts the believers shared all things in common, though on a voluntary basis. Just as marriage and singleness are not a private possession but are for the church, and our children are not the private possession of the parents but are the responsibility of all the believers, so also our property is not our own but we hold it in our trust for the sake of the body of Christ. Just as we open our homes with hospitality for the church and the world, so we exercise the same freedom with our property—we hold it in common for each other and give it in generosity to the poor. We are always obligated to one another and to help the poor. May we be faithful in the church to Christ with our property! “With God all things are possible.”