16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 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.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- A young man came to Jesus.
- YM What good deeds do I need to do to inherit eternal life?
- JC Why do you ask me about what is good?
- JC There is only one person who is good.
- JC Keep the commandments.
- YM Which ones do I need to keep?
- JC 5-9 of the Ten Commandments mentioned in this order 6,7,8,9,5 (see Ex. 20)
- JC The commandment to love your neighbour as you love yourself (see Lev. 19:18)
- YM I have kept all of these commandments.
- YM What do I still lack?
- JC For you to become a whole person you need to go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
- JC You will be regarded as poor on earth, but you will be rich in the kingdom of heaven.
- JC Come and follow me.
- When the young man heard Jesus say this, he was saddened because he wasn’t able to respond.
- He simply went away from Jesus.
- This young man was very wealthy and had great possessions.
- Jesus spoke to his disciples about what had happened with the rich young man.
- JC It is so very difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
- JC It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
- The disciples were amazed when they heard Jesus say these things.
- PT Who can be saved
- JC It is impossible by human effort, but possible through the supernatural work of God.
- PT We have left everything to follow you.
- PT What will the consequences be for us?
- JC A new world is coming.
- JC The Son of Man will take his place of honour on his throne.
- JC Those of you who have followed me will also sit on thrones in the new world.
- JC You will be involved in exercising authority over the twelve tribes of Israel.
- JC Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children or lands to serve me will be rewarded.
- JC They will receive a hundred-fold in return for their sacrifice.
- JC They will also receive eternal life.
- JC It will be different in the kingdom of God:
- JC Those who are thought to have great status and wealth in this world’s kingdom will be seen to be poor in the eternal kingdom.
- JC Those who are thought of as having little by the standards of this world will be seen to have the greatest measure of what is valuable in the kingdom of God.
A young man came up to Jesus and asked him what good deeds he needed to do to make sure he was going to heaven. Instead of answering his question directly, Jesus asked him what he meant by “good.” He pointed out that the only way to define “good” would be to reference the character of God. If God was good, then his commandments were the good works that would express that goodness. When the young man asked Jesus to be more specific, Jesus rolled out a sample of the ten commandments, in this order, 6,7,8,9,5. Then he added the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, taken from Leviticus 19.
The young man responded by telling Jesus that even though he had kept all of those commands, he still felt something was lacking. Jesus told him what was lacking. He needed to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Then he needed to become one of Jesus’ followers. At this, the young man became sorrowful and sadly slipped away. He happened to be very wealthy.
As he left, Jesus commented that it was profoundly difficult for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven. He likened the degree of difficulty to that of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. The disciples were taken aback by this comment. Peter pointed out to Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow him. He asked what kind of reward would be coming as a result of their commitment.
Jesus said that there was going to be a new world order, the kingdom of God. In that kingdom he, Jesus would be ruling from his throne. The disciples would exercise leadership among the twelve tribes of Israel. In addition to that, everyone who had left family, homes and property to serve God would receive a hundred-fold and would be given eternal life. He added that in this coming kingdom, the things that made people important in this life would be seen to amount to nothing. Similarly, the people who were regarded as unimportant in this life would be honoured.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
There are two things about this person that we only discover at the end of this story. The spotlight seems to focus on the wealth of this young man so quickly. I don’t think that focus is warranted. The generic description at the beginning suggests that it was not the most important thing at all. Both the man and his question are not related to his age or his wealth. It would be a fair and reasonable question for anyone to ask. On this occasion, the question was sincere, unlike some other notable occasions where the motive was entrapment. The man was asking a question that came from inside of him. His follow-up question about lacking something shows the probable reason for approaching Jesus in the first place. And it is a universal concern: “What can I do in this life that will make sure I am will be going to heaven after I die.
We would have to ask why Jesus seems to shift the attention from ‘eternal life’ to what is ‘good’. As someone who was born again and raised within the evangelical part of the church, I would have loved this question and the response I would have given might have sounded something like Paul and Silas speaking to the jailer in Philippi: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” Instead, Jesus seems to want to clear up the issue as to how they should understand “good.” The text tells us that the man wanted to know what “good thing” or what “good work” or even “good deed” would earn him the reward of going to heaven. It sounds a bit like asking what the pass score is in a graduating exam. When I was learning to fly, all my theory tests had a pass mark of 75%. As long as you got that score or better, you could proceed to the next level. If I had been asked the question as an evangelical, I would have responded by giving this man a lecture about the insufficiency of good works. But Jesus asked what he meant by the word “good.”
My way of understanding this presumes that Jesus wanted to shift the focus from him as an independent answer-giver to God. That means, he was actually saying, “If you want to know how to define ‘good’ or ‘goodness’ you can’t start with your opinion or mine. We must start with the presumption that God is the reference point for ‘good’ and move forward from there. I’ve been a Christian leader for a long time, and it is very common for someone to come and ask a question so you can give them the answer. If I give someone an answer, they can choose to agree or disagree. All they are doing is disagreeing with a human opinion. I have learned that human opinions are not worth much at the best of times. Flawed humans mean flawed opinions. There would have been a time when my ego would have been flattered enough to enjoy the fact that someone wanted to know what I thought about a matter.
What is more important than my opinion is what God has said. I have learned, over the years, that it is much more helpful to someone when I assist them to find the answer from what God has said. By contrast, if someone discovers for themselves what God has said the options are a little different. They have the option of embracing God and trusting in God rather than in the opinion of a flawed human being. They have the challenge of obeying what God has said. This will bring life from heaven rather than mere agreement on earth.
I think Jesus wanted this young man to get his answer from what God had said. That’s why he gives the simple answer: “keep the commandments.” If God is good, then his commandments are good. If we trust in God’s goodness we will embrace his commandments. We will be joining with and be coming to know God – which we know from John’s gospel is the definition of eternal life.
18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
I am told that there are 613 different laws in the Old Testament. It seems that the young man was not satisfied with a generalised answer. Perhaps he was a particularly meticulous person who could only be satisfied with the fine details. More likely he was simply wanting assurance about going to heaven and wanted Jesus to give him a list so that he could check all of the boxes and then tally up his score. Once again Jesus takes a pathway that seems a bit dodgy to a good evangelical boy like me. He gives the man a list. You will recognise this list I am sure. It is taken from the Ten Commandments given to Moses on the mountain. I have no idea why Jesus chose five of the ten. I also don’t know why he wanted them in this order: 6, 7, 8,9, 5. I am assuming it was not random, perhaps it had something to do with starting where the young man was at. Command six through to command nine are all very concrete and can be readily ticked (or crossed). The addition of Leviticus 19:18 is consistent with the summary Jesus gave in other places. Scot McKnight calls this the Jesus Creed: love God and love your neighbour.
I don’t know whether Jesus knew how the man would respond but this conversation is an example of Jesus taking the young man on a spiritual sightseeing tour. Much more could be said about this journey than space provides here, but there is a progression. We will soon see that Jesus is aware of what is going on inside the man concerning his attitude to wealth, but it is also true that this is a quality person. This part of the conversation makes that clear. Jesus is not on a spiritual point scoring mission, nor is he a spiritual policeman focusing on defects. He is a loving Saviour seeking to offer redemption. I am largely saddened by sections of the church that reduce the gospel message to a single take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The same people are liable to see salvation as a single decision or moment. Whatever Jesus knew about this man without being told, he was willing to affirm so much about him. If I were to temporarily set aside one of my principles here and refer to other versions of this story, it tells us Jesus loved so much about this man. This is a great example of an incarnation approach to kingdom ministry. He was alongside him peering into his soul affirming what was already in place and showing him how to get from here to the next way station on the journey. It is easy for this young man to be known only by the last part of the story. I think that has more to do with our sad penchant for judgment than the text would warrant. If we take notice of the way, Jesus showed love to this man we might be less willing to make hasty judgments about a lot of people we are given the opportunity to love.
20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 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.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
It is well worth noting that the young man was not prepared to “quit while he was ahead,” so to speak. He asked one question and then a second. Jesus gave him a clear answer. He had allowed Jesus to put him to the test and he passed with flying colours. He could have walked away with satisfied approval.
This incident turns on two points and this is the first of them. It becomes clearer by focusing on what is going on inside the young man. Apparently neither the privilege of wealth nor compliance with religious orthodoxy gave him the assurance he was looking for. Instead of seeking answers at the synagogue, he went looking for Jesus. Why then, when Jesus gave him the thumbs up, was he not satisfied. The answer lies in the fact that Jesus had only talked to him about things that were already part of his life experience but his experience to that point hadn’t produced what he was looking for. I think Jesus was aware of this and was helping him to see it for himself. It was a mark of his sincerity to admit it and a mark of goodness to want it – whatever IT was.
We have to handle the word “perfect” with a little bit of care. It is one of those words that, when translated literally, doesn’t carry the sense of the original Greek word, τέλειος (teleios). The use of the word generally in the New Testament has much more to do with “completion” or “fulfilment” than moral or spiritual flawlessness. A screwdriver is not perfect when it is manufactured so skilfully and artistically that it looks good to the eye and feels good in the hand. It is perfect when it is pressed into the groove of a screw and drives the screw in or draws it out without slipping. If a screwdriver is used as a chisel or a lever, it not only does a bad job but it damages its capacity to fulfil its designed purpose. It is “perfect” for screwing in screws but not for levering or chiselling.
In this instance, Jesus is using this word to tell the young man that if he wants to discover what he was designed by God to do (remember he asked at the outset what he should “do”), he needs to look at a different area of his life than simply keeping specified commandments. Keeping the commandments won’t do it. Jesus now lovingly exposes the thing that is locking the man out of assurance and away from finding his God-given purpose in life. He is talking about his addiction to wealth. Instead of saying it like that, Jesus tells him what to do to get rid of the problem. He needs to replace his commitment to wealth with a commitment to follow Jesus. He is told to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Just in case we might think that a vow of poverty is the holy thing, Jesus makes it quite clear that the goal is following him not getting rid of his wealth.
I am sure this young man wouldn’t have figured this out in a hundred lifetimes by himself. His life up to that time had been built around the idea that being wealthy was a sign of the blessing of God – and in the case of a different person that might well have been the case. There are parts of Christianity today who have the same view. “God wants people to be wealthy, and if you are wealthy, it is because God has decided to bless you.” Take this a step further, and we have the idea that such wealth is, therefore, “sacred.” To challenge anyone about their commitment to wealth would be like challenging someone about their commitment to prayer. I’m sure there were plenty of people who would have seen this young man in that light and probably some of them would have told him so.
We must not just focus on wealth itself here. In this man’s case, wealth was the primary shaping force of his life. It was the single powerful thing that locked him out of the experience of God he was seeking, but it was also the last place he would have looked for a solution to his problem. Everyone who wants to make this incident support their campaign against wealthy people should pause and think. Jesus wasn’t prescribing poverty as a higher form of existence. He was speaking with a person who had made wealth his foundation rather than God. On another occasion, Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and material wealth.” Not every person in the world who is wealthy is serving their wealth. So the issue is about choosing to serve God and not serve wealth. In this man’s case, it was the single thing locking him away from the very assurance he desired.
When we come to hear the message of this incident we need to allow this man’s commitment to wealth to stand as an example of every other thing that we can find ourselves serving instead of God. There are endless versions of this story happening in our lives and around us every day. People become addicted to the idea of serving themselves, careers, comfort, family, their physical appearance, pleasure, entertainment, power, ambition, careers, special abilities and so on. The danger of all of these is that it can be happening to us without us being aware. It can be justified, rationalised and morally defended. It can demand all of our energy and attention but leave us with an inner emptiness similar to this young man. We can serve any of these things and, like the young man, be morally upright and even look spiritual. Jesus was giving this young man his only way out of the trap. Jesus lovingly presented it as a practical task, not as a theological principle. I love him for that.
Here is the second pivot point of the story. Until now the young man has been sincerely offering questions and responses to what Jesus was saying. Up until this time, we only see the highly principled sincere person that he is. This is not some ego on legs trampling on everyone around with his arrogance and petulance. This is a sincere young bloke looking for answers to life’s most important internal questions. I am sure Jesus recognised this and lovingly helped him to get to a lookout point where he could see things that he had no knowledge of. I would love to see a video replay of this moment in the story. He came to a fork in the road and had to face the challenge of going down the road less travelled with Jesus (and without his wealth) or take the turnoff back to his world of wealth/status devoid of inner peace and satisfaction. It ought to make us so much more aware of these important spots on our trail. We need Jesus to point out the markers, and we need to see which of the alternatives he is taking so we can follow him along that path. As the Bible says, it is often narrow and windy and seems less inviting. Fewer people are taking that route, but it is the only one that leads to our completion and the fulfilment of God’s plan for us.
23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The comments of Jesus to the disciples after the wealthy young man turned and walked away is an indication of his disappointment. No cheap shots at rich people in general. Just a sad sigh from having come face to face with one of this world’s saddest realities. When people become ruled by the desire for material wealth, they are literally shutting down the very part of their lives that references their identity and significance as sons and daughters of their Creator. It is a sad and ugly reality of life, and Jesus calls on the disciples to be aware of it. They have just seen a fine young man come to the point of choosing and defer to the status quo rather than the path that would have led to his destiny as a son of God.
The metaphor is telling. I don’t think there is any great mystery. The camel would have been the largest animal known to people in Palestine, and the hole in a needle was probably among the smallest openings they could think of. The love of wealth will eventually make it as impossible as for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle. There could be no greater warning and no greater revelation about the perils of loving and serving the material values of this world’s order.
The disciples were quick to do the maths. They realised how universal the problem was. It was not limited to the stately homes of the most wealthy. Materialism knows no social, ethnic or geographic boundaries. It exists everywhere. You can always tell when it is around. Whenever someone assumes that lack of material wealth is the problem and gaining material wealth is the answer, this “kingdom” is lurking. I think of it every time I see an advertisement for a lottery. The reason there are so many lotteries betrays the number of people who think that it is true. “Lack of money is never the problem and money will never be the answer.” We have been so well taught to think like this. Even a statement like the one I have made will seem like a dreamy idealism. In a city like Canberra where I live and in western nations like Australia, wealth is heralded as a virtue. It is fated as the epitome of success.
We ought to be encouraged to know from Jesus that what is impossible by human ability is made possible by God. We ought to take note that the way to reach wealth loving people with the gospel will require a supernatural work of God. And guess what. God is in the supernatural working business. My way of reading this is to say that we need to pray for wealth loving people and not try to use human persuasion or human reason to do it. We need to look for a miracle work from heaven. Zacchaeus and Matthew were both wealthy people who came to Jesus, as was Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Sadly, this young man chose not to be numbered with them.
27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
When Peter heard what Jesus had said to the young man it obviously made him reflect on his own experience and that of the other disciples. All of them had faced the choice this young man was facing. In the case of Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew it was a stark unconditional invitation on the part of Jesus. In their case, it required an equally unconditional response. All of them had walked away from their family businesses to follow Jesus. When Peter speaks the words “What, then do we have?” is he asking Jesus the eternal life question or is he wanting to discover the consequence?
In responding to the question Jesus lifts the disciples’ vision beyond the boundaries of the kingdoms of this world and talks about the “new world.” I am going to assume that it was the new world of the kingdom of God. We ought to be more than a little wary of making this a comparison between life this side of death and life after death. The New Testament teaching about the kingdom of God does not encourage this polarisation. The comparison it always draws is between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. These are going to co-exist until the time when there is a new heaven and a new earth. When he talks about the new world, he uses the same language as he will later use with John and recorded in the Book of Revelation where there are thrones and tribes and ruling. Paul uses the same language. Jesus will testify to the Sanhedrin that they will see “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One..” This is a present reality for us, and it was about to happen for the disciples. Their choice to follow Jesus meant that they were going to see Jesus taking his rightful place as Lord and King. It was going to happen through his death and resurrection, not by raising up an army and overthrowing Rome. When they were all filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they began to exercise the authority of their king. Their “thrones” would be the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The rule they would exercise would include events like the one that happened at the gate of the temple: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but such as I have I give to you, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”
Jesus went on to speak about all those who, through the generations, will set aside the normal pathways taken by people who know only the kingdom of this world. They will set aside the comforts and assurances of home, family and possessions to serve Jesus and the kingdom. Rather than losing out, they will gain a hundred-fold. Most of us who have spent our lives serving Jesus will be able to testify to this. Other buildings become our homes, other localities become our homeland, and other people become our family. This goes on multiplying as we go on discovering kingdom family and kingdom work. We also experience eternal life. It is not something we are going to need to die to gain. It is something we have begun to experience now and will fully experience after this life. In that kingdom, the people who had earthly status and power often find themselves under the covering leadership of people who were not recognised by the kingdom of this world. Thankfully those values don’t transition.
IF THIS WERE FULFILLED IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
- I would be careful to make sure that everything about my life was an expression of the Lordship of Jesus. I would be consistently reviewing and renewing my commitment and offering everything to Him for His purposes.
- I would ask others to help make sure that I don’t have areas of my life ruled by desires and ambitions that take priority over serving the kingdom of God.
- I would seek to become more and more generous with my finances, my material possessions, my time and abilities so that they were all seen as tools available for God’s use, not signs of my significance.
- I would continue to hear and heed everything Jesus said. In this way, the things in my life that do not reflect my commitment to Christ would become apparent. As they did, I would want to do what the young man was not willing to do. I would want to leave no area of my life independent of God’s rule.
- I wouldn’t fear to do things that may, at the time, seem unpopular with my family, friends or authorities and I wouldn’t fear the idea of moving to a different place to serve God. I would be able to celebrate the houses and circumstances and the sense of belonging to other members of God’s family – and know that I could continue to love my own family and value the familiar places without being ruled by them. Home becomes the will of God.
- I would be able to accept the idea the possibility that there are things that I am doing and values that I protect that are not part of God’s plan for me. They may not present as destructive or wicked because they represent accepted values that have come from my culture or peer group. But they are locking me out of the very experience of God that I sincerely desire.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
I think there are two different gospel messages in this incident. The first one is the message conveyed by Jesus to the young man. It is important to notice ALL of the message, not just the last part. Jesus affirmed his respect for the lives of other people, his commitment to sexual purity, his respect for the property of others and his commitment to honesty. He also confirmed his love for his parents. Beyond that, Jesus publicly acknowledged his love for fellow humans. That’s a great start to a gospel message. I wonder what would happen if we were as willing to acknowledge the things that are good in people who are far from God rather than what is bad? When I was in Bible College, it seemed that a gospel preachers task was to paint the worst picture possible about “sinners.” Maybe a theological idea called “total depravity” should carry some of the blame. I could never quite get used to that idea when I was a theological student, and I can’t see it anywhere in the ministry of Jesus. Here is a good example of why that was a bad idea. That the challenge for him to sell his possessions and follow Jesus came after such affirmation might be a good practice for all of us to develop. There is a much greater chance of someone seeing the challenge to sell possessions etc. as a loving thing, rather than a social, moral or political judgment. Let me say it again. Possessing wealth is not immoral. Loving it will make it impossible to hear the good news.
The second gospel message was to the disciples. It was the challenge to see the issue of setting aside normal family, normal job and normal possessions as the doorway to a bigger vision – becoming a part of God’s family, living in God’s house and stewarding God’s property for God’s purposes. That is the first down payment of the eternal life Jesus promised. How profound a promise this is. My own story would testify to that. When I left the farm and my family to go and serve God, it was so hard. My family didn’t understand, and there was deep pain. The longer story saw all of those relationships become stronger and better than ever. At the same time, I met mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lived in houses and stewarded resources in the kingdom that would never have happened if I had allowed family culture to set the boundary lines.
 See Acts 16:31
 See John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
 See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5
 The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight, Paraclete Press 2014
 See Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
 See Revelation 21, “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
 See Matthew 26:63,64: “The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
 See Acts 3