Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler has been the source of much theological contemplation and discussion throughout history. In the last article of this blog series, we examined the interpretations given by those who lived in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. Now, we will take a closer look at the biblical story in the book of Matthew and explore the text based on the context of Matthew’s theology.
The Importance of Understanding Context
In Matthew 19:16-26, the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus’ response to his poignant question regarding eternal life is laid out. Through this story, we come to learn about the implications of the young ruler’s decision as well as the reaction of Jesus’ disciples, among other things.
Every story in the Gospels exists in a historical, literary, theological context. When we read a Gospel story, it is helpful to understand that there are aspects that are historically conditioned and different from our own historical and cultural context. At the same time, each story is crafted, shaped, and placed in a series of other stories and a larger literary structure, in this case in the Gospel of Matthew.
This threefold context means that in the Gospel account, certain theological assumptions and arguments are being made that go beyond the specific story. Recognizing and understanding these three contexts is the key to reading any Gospel narrative well and wisely.
The Historical Perspective
From the historical perspective, we can observe that the interaction between Jesus and this young Jewish man sits directly on a key human question, framed here in its Jewish and Greco-Roman historical context. The question the man asks is a common one for any pious and sincere Jewish person: “What does God want of me to be aligned with him and to experience the fullness of life he promises?” This is not only a Jewish question, of course, but is universal to all religions. Indeed, it is ultimately the question of human flourishing that motivates all religions and philosophies.
In this particular story, we see the juxtaposition or crossroads of two overlapping historical contexts: first century Judaism and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition. The latter comes out most clearly in the key word that drives this passage, Jesus’ exhortation for the man to be “complete” in verse 21. This Greek word teleios is very important and is evocative of the Greek philosophical tradition and its own answer to the great question of human flourishing. In effect, Jesus pointed out that for the young man to obtain what he really wanted—complete and mature human flourishing—the young man must do more than keep a list of external commands, as good and divine as they may be. In this way, Jesus’ teachings corresponded closely with his own historical context.
The Literary & Theological Perspectives
In addition to this important note on the historical context, we can also observe several key ideas by paying attention to the literary and theological context of this story. The first thing to observe is that the issue of salvation, entering the kingdom, and eternal life are all overlapping concepts and all very important ideas in Matthew. Throughout his Gospel account, Matthew, along with the rest of the New Testament, describes God’s redeeming work through Jesus in a variety of ways, each of which contributes its own portion to the overall and elaborate tapestry that is redemption. This story is one clear example of the overlapping nature of these distinct descriptions: obtaining eternal life (v. 16), having treasure in heaven (v. 21), entering the kingdom of heaven (v. 23), entering the kingdom of God (v. 24), and being saved (v. 25).
A second literary and theological note is that this idea of having treasure in heaven is part of a larger and important theme of reward and recompense in the Gospel of Matthew, as author Blaine Charette documents in his study. This is particularly relevant for the broader question of wealth and Jesus’ commands. The promise to the young man in Matthew 19:21 is but one instance of many times that Jesus promised people great rewards in God’s coming kingdom.
For example, Matthew used the noun misthos, “reward,” ten times (as compared to five times in the rest of the Gospels combined). Sometimes misthos is used negatively, warning against loss of reward (6:1, 2, 5, 16), and at other times positively as a promise (5:12, 46; 10:41-42; 20:8). The same is true of the word “treasure,” thesauros (6:19, 20, 21; 12:35; 13:44, 52; 19:21). Closely related, God the Father is depicted as rewarding or recompensing people (apodidomi), either good or bad (6:4, 6, 18; 16:27; implied in 18:35; 20:8; 21:41). This is all relevant because it is our first hint that the pervasive use of terms related to money, treasure, and reward are functioning as metaphors; that is, the language related to money is being used to speak to something larger, deeper, and more important than mere financial concerns.
This leads to a third and final literary and theological observation. Woven deeply into Matthew is the exhortation to internal, whole-person righteousness. It is no overstatement to say that for Matthew a major goal was to teach disciples of Jesus that to be true followers they “must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees” (5:20). What this greater righteousness looks like is unpacked most fully in the Sermon on the Mount, but also more broadly throughout the whole Gospel.
In short, it means being people of Godward-directed, Christ-believing, kingdom-oriented, whole-person virtue or character, all by grace. Jesus taught that true righteousness is about the internal person, who one is on the inside, what kind of tree one is as manifested by what kind of fruit one produces (3:10; 7:17-19; 12:33). True righteousness is a matter of the heart, which in Greek parlance means the whole person, not just the emotions (cf. 6:21). Most succinctly, true righteousness is being teleios, complete or whole (5:48).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus constantly called people to this kind of whole-person, heart-mind-actions character. It is precisely the disconnect between the internal heart and external behavior that was constantly under attack by Jesus, hence his recurrent conflict with Pharisees. Jesus considered them “hypocrites” not because they were behavioristically immoral while claiming they were not, but because they were righteous on the outside but not on the inside (6:1-21; 15:1-20; 23:1-36). Jesus played the same exhortational role that the prophets sent by God did in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 29:13, quoted in Matt. 15:8).
With this meta-theme in Matthew in mind, we can consider anew the story of the rich young ruler. The man is to be commended for his external righteousness; he had faithfully kept the commandments of God and was apparently wise and blessed as a result, both financially and in terms of standing in his society. By normal human standards—including apparently the perspective of Jesus’ disciples—this man was worthy of eternal life, of entering into God’s coming kingdom.
However, according to Jesus, he still lacked something crucial and foundational. He was not teleios; he was not whole or complete (cf. 5:48). What he lacked was not something that could be put in the external behavior column of his life. The gap between his externally righteous behavior and his completeness was apparently an issue of his heart. Fulfilling what Jesus had already proclaimed—“where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (6:21)—this young man went away sorrowful in his heart because he had much wealth.
The issue was not money in and of itself or giving to the poor as a behavior, but, consistent with all the other stories and teachings in Matthew, completeness/wholeness/righteousness is a matter of the heart, of the internal person in his or her commitments, values, and treasures. The reason Jesus commanded this particular would-be follower to sell what he possessed and give it to the poor was precisely because this was the man’s heart-treasure issue.
Many others in Matthew followed Jesus without being commanded to leave everything, precisely because their heart issue was different. The centurion who came to believe in Jesus was commended simply for his obvious heart-deep faith, and no extra demands were made upon him (8:5-13). The same was true of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Likewise, as a negative example, even the Pharisees were not commanded to give away their possessions to the poor; their heart issue/problem was different—seeking the praise of others (6:1-21).
All of this makes clear that the reason Jesus required the selling of possessions for the rich young ruler is that this was the spiritual heart-ailment that Jesus the great physician diagnosed. And though it is not argued in quite the same way, this confirms much of the church’s historical interpretation, especially the stream from Clement of Alexandria noted in the second article of this series.
In the next article of this series, we will explore the story of the rich young ruler found in Luke 12:33 and 14:33, as understood within Luke’s broader arguments.
Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, “Sell Your Possessions And Give To The Poor” A Theological Reflection On Jesus’ Teaching Regarding Personal Wealth And Charity, by Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington. Read the full paper here.