Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
A quick summary of the preceding context: a man asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus told him to keep the commandments, and the man replied that he had kept all of them and asked what else he is lacking.
Jesus then tells him that if he wants to be perfect, he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor and then follow him. Whoa.
This is one of those passages that immediately makes everyone uncomfortable. I know it makes me squirm a little. But before we get too uneasy, let’s make sure we’re interpreting it correctly. In his book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, David Platt writes about the parallel passage in Mark 10,
“I think there are two common errors people make when they read this passage.
First, some try to universalize Jesus’ words, saying that he always commands his followers to sell everything they have and give it to the poor. But the New Testament doesn’t support this. Even some of the disciples, who admittedly abandoned much to follow Christ, still had a home, likely still had a boat, and probably had some kind of material support. So, obviously, following Jesus doesn’t necessarily imply a loss of all your private property and possessions.”
So if Jesus’ command wasn’t universal, how should we interpret this passage and apply it to our lives? What does it have to say to those of use who aren’t commanded to sell all we have?
I think the answer lies in verse 22: When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. See, Jesus commanded this man to sell all he had because he knew that the man’s possessions had his heart. He came to Jesus in verse 16 wanting to know how to gain eternal life, but when Jesus gave him the answer, he left sorrowful. Why?
In his keeping of the commandments, the man had completely missed the heart of the commandments: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:36-40). He wanted eternal life but was unwilling to give up his wealth to do it: He loved his money more than God. He claimed to have kept the commandments but was unwilling to give up his wealth to those who needed it more: He loved his money more than his neighbor. He could not give up the blessings God had already given him for the greater blessing that God had in store for him.
The issue, as it applies to you and me, isn’t necessarily money (although it could be). It’s about what has our heart. What are we unwilling to give up? What do we love more than we love God and our neighbor? What earthly blessing do we refuse to relinquish for the greater heavenly blessing? It could be any number of things: time, relationships, a job or career, power, control (of your life, your environment, your future), popularity, leisure activities (video games, sports), etc.
What Jesus is getting at here is that following him, having eternal life, gaining heavenly blessings is about more than keeping the letter of the Law (which we can’t do anyway, no matter what the man said in verse 20). It’s about unbridled commitment to the heart of the Law. It’s about loving God to the extent that you would surrender everything your heart holds dear for the blessings he has in store for you and loving your neighbor to the point that you would give up what you want in order to give him what he needs.
Again, it’s not necessarily about money … but it could be.
In fact, let’s get back to David Platt’s two common errors in interpreting this passage. We looked at the first, which was to make Jesus’ command in verse 21 universal. After confirming that the command is not normative to all Christians in all times, Platt continues:
This causes many of us to breathe a sigh of relief. But before we sigh too deeply, we need to see the other error in interpreting Mark 10, which is to assume that Jesus never calls his followers to abandon all their possessions to follow him. If Mark 10 teaches anything, it teaches us that Jesus does sometimes call people to sell everything they have and give it to the poor. This means he might call you or me to do this.”
He goes on to quote Robert H. Gundry, who, in his commentary on Matthew, wrote, “That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”
So really, we’re right back to where we started: uncomfortable. Which is exactly where the young man was when he heard Jesus’ words. The question is, will we, who have already been freely given eternal life, make the adjustments necessary to fall in line with the heart of the Law and of the Gospel, or will we go away sorrowful because we treasure whatever has our heart more than we treasure life with Jesus?
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. What was my first gut-response to this passage? What does that say about the state of my heart when it comes to surrendering all for Jesus?
2. What has my heart? What do I cling to as a source of comfort, security, or pleasure? What am I unwilling to give up for Jesus or for someone who needs it more than I do?
3. What might Jesus be calling me to surrender out of obedience and love for God and my neighbor?
4. Will I respond to Jesus’ call with joyful obedience or walk away sorrowful, rejecting the blessing he has in store for me?