Throughout history, one of the most widely debated biblical texts has been Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler. In the previous article of this blog series, we explored the various interpretations of this command given by influential leaders in the early church. Now, we will examine the interpretations given by those who lived in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras.
A Growing Distinction–Some Versus All
As the church developed over time, another way of reading this story arose. It was connected to a broader theological turn that occurred as Christians wrestled with the high moral expectations and strong commands of the Bible overall. Specifically, a distinction developed between commands that apply to all Christians (praecepta), such as the Ten Commandments, and those that are obligations only of the called clergy, priests, monks, and saints (the consilia evangelica).
In this understanding of the teachings of the Bible—which Protestants opposed because of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—the command to the rich young ruler to be “complete” (teleios) obviously falls into the category of the consilia. In this way of thinking, the command to sell all possessions and give to the poor need not be taken as a realistic or necessary obligation for most Christians. Not all clergy applied it themselves in the same way either, although some such as the Franciscans did so, and Matthew 19:21 became the foundational text for their vow of poverty.
Lest the distinction between the praecepta and consilia be dismissed as merely convenient, it should be noted that in its best form, it is an attempt to make sense of how the average Christian, burdened by daily living and sinful habits, can still be a faithful follower of Christ. The high commands of Jesus at every turn would otherwise serve only as words of condemnation and discouragement to the majority of believers.
Moreover, theologians and preachers observed that in the Bible there were already two different callings given to people who followed Jesus. There were the apostles, who left everything to follow Jesus; but there were plenty of others who were not required to do so, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, who apparently owned property and possessions and remained in their roles in society.
The Protestant Perspective–Love & Responsibility
As noted, the Protestant Reformers were united strongly against the idea of the praecepta versus the consilia evangelica. They saw this distinction as precisely the problem with not only the monastic tradition, but with all of the Roman Catholic Church—that the clergy attempted to earn their salvation through their works, and the salvation of lay people was necessarily mediated through others (sacerdotalism). So for the Reformers, the traditional interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler did not work.
In its place, they offered a number of other readings. For example, many saw the man as the prototype of a godless person striving to earn righteousness based on his works. At other times, Jesus’ conversation with the man was seen as an example of the good use of the Law, leading us to conviction of sin. Overall, Protestant interpretation has emphasized that Jesus’ command is for all people (contra the consilia view), but that it was never meant to be understood as an external command; rather it is about our loves. Thus, the point of the story is that one should not love anything more than God, and one should love one’s neighbor.
Luther even turned Matthew 19:21 on its head against his monastic opponents (and former self) and said that the true command was not to leave everything and live like the monks who had to beg and live on the handouts of others. According to Professor Ulrich Luz, who summarized the history of interpretation of Matthew 19 in his commentary, Luther believed that the right goal was to earn one’s own keep and to protect and manage money responsibly; forsaking all possessions and neglecting one’s family and responsibilities was the greater sin.
The Post-Reformation View–A Wise Example
In the post-Reformation era down to today, not much new interpretation of this story has happened. As the general economic status of all individuals rises in the global West, interest in this text wanes. Instead of wrestling with the troubling command, interpreters point to the text as an example of how Jesus admirably used pastoral skill to deal with people, and many continue to see the man’s heart-focus as the issue in the story. Any more literal application would apply only to someone who is both wealthy and miserly and needs to hear Jesus’ pointed challenge. Few would see themselves in this category.
Knowing the background of the history of interpretation, we can now turn to the biblical texts for a more direct reading. In our next article, we will examine the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-26 in its context of Matthew’s theology.
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.