Matthew 19 & Rich Christians: Possible or Impossible?

Few stories fascinate me as much as the tale of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30).

A summary: Jesus encounters an extremely wealthy man who, by all means, is also a very moral man. However, the man realizes that he is still on the outside of the Kingdom and is not experiencing eternal life. Jesus’ solution is a command –  sell all that he has and give it to the poor. In this way, Jesus implies, he will reach a moral standard consistent with entering into the Kingdom and experiencing eternal life. Indeed, this was the path already followed by his closest disciples (Mt. 19:27). The man walks away sad and unable to obey. Jesus, never one to pass up a teachable moment, tells the disciples that it is “difficult” for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. The then defines “difficult” as “impossible”: 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.

The primary reason this is such a fascinating passage to me is because… I’m rich. And I live and worship in a wealthy (both relatively and globally) city. And yet there doesn’t seem to be an anxiety over our growing bank accounts, even with the extremely disparaging warnings about wealth like this one from Jesus. I constantly wonder, have we really felt the weight of Jesus’ words?

It is impossible for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The passage also fascinates me from a hermeneutical angle – I love analyzing the interpretive practices of various groups. I know first-hand why this statement from Jesus doesn’t scare the hell out of those who are well-off. It’s because two verses later Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Like a boy pursuing a girl playing hard-to-get, rich Christians are quick to go, “So, you’re saying there IS a chance.” And this statement from Jesus allows us to effectively forget his previously scary words. The moral import of his warning is drowned out by the credit-card shaped angel on our shoulder saying, “See, it’s possible! Don’t worry so much!”

Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that this as an incorrect reading of the passage. The question needs to be asked: what exactly is Jesus referencing when he speaks of human impossibilities that are possible for God? Is it the possibility that a rich person will enter into the Kingdom or is it the possibility that a person will give up their riches in order to enter the Kingdom? This is a subtle yet incredibly significant interpretive decision. You see, Jesus never changes his command to the young ruler. The hope that Jesus holds out is not that the man might enter the Kingdom despite his disobedience. It is the hope that the man, through a powerful work of God, might come to a place where he fully loves God and others by giving away his possessions.

Stanley Hauerwas nails it, as usual: “Our temptation is to think that Jesus’ reply is intended to “let us off the hook.” Being rich is a problem, we may think, but God will take care of us, the rich, the only way God can. Yet such a response fails to let the full weight of Jesus’ observation about wealth have the effect that it should. We cannot serve God and mammon (Mt. 6:24). Jesus’ reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.” [1]

Or as Frederick Dale Bruner says: “What Jesus does not mean by “this is impossible for human beings” is the interpretation that says ‘If you will just be born again and experience miraculous conversion, you can then continue seeking money, honor, and success, for conversion does not replace all these earthly goods; it actually assist their acquisition.’ . . . . What Jesus does mean by this verse is that God can work the miracle of putting God instead of gain on the throne of the human heart (cf. Ps 119:36). No human power can displace the desire for “more” as the reigning human drive. Only God’s power can. Unless this miracle of dethronement-enthronement occurs again and again, there is no hope of salvation. That is the sober meaning of verse 26.” [2]

How Then Shall We, The Wealthy, Live?

I’ve already acknowledged that I am a relatively wealthy person (and not currently selling all of my possessions on eBay). So, I pass no judgement on those who like me follow Jesus and have wealth. However, I do believe two things:
– First, Jesus’s command to the rich young ruler is not a universal command. He doesn’t command all to give up everything, even as he clearly commands a radical commitment to the poor and oppressed from His people.
– Second, I don’t know the cut-off point! I have no clue “how rich” you can be and still enter into the Kingdom. So I can’t say “you have too much” (and neither should you).

What I do know, and would expect of those who follow Christ, is that we should be a people with bank accounts and storage closets that communicate a sacrificial love for God and others, instead of for ourselves and our stuff. I also expect this to be a gradual, consistent, and clear progression in our lives.

How do I respond to Jesus’ statements about money in this story?
First, with some anxiety. Second, with effort and intentionality, hoping that this year my habits of spending and accumulating will reflect Kingdom values more than it did last year.

Needle-through-a-camel


[1] Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible),174-175.
[2] Bruner, Matthew, 308.

4 thoughts on “Matthew 19 & Rich Christians: Possible or Impossible?

  1. Everytime I draw breath I am rich. God gives it all….it is ALL His. Money is an interesting thing. It usually comes with power. The danger is that false power it gives. We don’t give 10%….we give 100%. Its all his. When we think we own a penny, we are off center. Just draw near to him and quit worrying or listening to man. Shalom!

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  2. I really appreciate this post because it’s something I think about a lot. It seems that we Christians like to pick and choose which commands of Jesus we take literally and which ones we feel are either symbolic or somehow only to be taken in spirit. I suppose that is true in any culture. Here in the rich USA, we obviously like to think those comments don’t really apply to us as long as we “put God before our wealth.” However, I think that is an exceedingly difficult thing to do and I think that is Jesus’ point in all his teachings about money. So, yes, I agree it’s not “universal” for the reasons you point out, but I think we also need to take a long, hard look at wealth. Stan is absolutely right, but I’ve always had a hard time trying to figure out the implications of the idea that everything belongs to God. Trying to figure out what that means in practice is always harder than making the pronouncement. Guess I really don’t have any answers other than pray hard on the subject and don’t fret over your fellow Christian’s attitudes toward wealth and how you stack up against them.

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  3. I have a slightly different perspective on Matthew 19:16-30. I don’t think when Jesus is speaking with the young man his interaction is directly about riches; instead I think it he is asking the young man if he loves God as much as the thing he loves most, which in this case is money. If the young man had been Michael Jordan then Jesus might have said basketball instead of riches, computers to Steve Jobs, super heroes to Stan Lee, etc… Ultimately I see this exchange as: will you sacrifice your temporal love to pursue the eternal one?

    When the man cannot, Jesus’s “teachable moment” to the disciples in response IS specifically about money. Most people then as now who are rich got that way by devoting themselves to becoming rich, or in the case of inheritance staying rich. This devotion all too easily supplants a true devotion to God. When we measure ourselves and each other by our bank account we fail ourselves as Christians, because God does not measure us by wealth but by thought, deed, and word. By adding materialism to our value system we undercut God’s values.

    And it extends beyond the bank account. In today’s world where the majority of wealth exists in electronic form – there is not a paper bill for every dollar in every bank account – it’s easy to translate this into a modern view of rich i.e. fiscal assets. The author of Matthew would have had a different and broader view, particularly in his use of the word mammon which carries with it the connotation of possessions as much as coinage. So then Jesus’s warning is to be careful of loving things instead or over loving God and loving each other.

    As for the other commenters, Stan and Matt, I disagree with a few of your premises. Money comes from man. It is of man, and not of God. I don’t think God cares about money and how much or how little I have. Remember Jesus and the denarius – Caesar’s face is on it, it’s Caesar’s. I think God cares about people, about devotion, about thoughts and actions. I do not think that everything belongs to God. Certainly sin does not belong to God. What about disease? Viruses? War?

    The “everything belongs to God” statement is the rhetoric of the Gospel of Prosperity – a heresy that attempts to justify Social Darwinism with a theological endorsement. “If you are a good enough Christian, God gives you the Mercedes.” God doesn’t care what car you drive. God cares about if you helped the poor when you have the means to do so. God cares if you pray for those in need, take time to show and express love, and sacrifice for others. God cares if you keep his Commandments.

    We should be grateful for what we have. It’s ok to pray about money concerns. God does help us in the here and now, and in that respect we should most definitely be thankful to God for everything we have. But I find a subtext of predestination in your comments that I have to disagree with. If someone does a kind deed for us, it’s ok to thank that person because they may have been prompted by the Holy Spirit but still made a choice. If something bad happens, it may not be God’s plan – it may be someone else’s bad choice. It is a flaw in Western thought that we inevitably view the world from an egocentric perspective. It works great in democracy and in capitalism. But “It’s all part of God’s plan for me” easily becomes “I am all that matters. The rest of the world is filled with secondary people who God marionettes around ME – all their choices are dictated by him in service of his plan for ME.” If for example I am violently mugged and afterwards I cry out to God, “Why did you let this happen?” The answer may well be, “I didn’t. You see I’m working in the mugger’s life too, and he’s not listening to me and making the wrong choices. So I didn’t let this happen, and I didn’t do this to you. But I am interested in if you react to it in the manner I have asked you to.”

    In my disagreements I hope no one has felt attacked. That was not my intent, and I hardly consider myself an authority, much less unarguably correct. I merely wanted to, as the prompt suggests, voice my thoughts.

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  4. I have a slightly different perspective on Matthew 19:16-30. I don’t think when Jesus is speaking with the young man his interaction is directly about riches; instead I think it he is asking the young man if he loves God as much as the thing he loves most, which in this case is money. If the young man had been Michael Jordan then Jesus might have said basketball instead of riches, computers to Steve Jobs, super heroes to Stan Lee, etc… Ultimately I see this exchange as: will you sacrifice your temporal love to pursue the eternal one?

    When the man cannot, Jesus’s “teachable moment” to the disciples in response IS specifically about money. Most people then as now who are rich got that way by devoting themselves to becoming rich, or in the case of inheritance staying rich. This devotion all too easily supplants a true devotion to God. When we measure ourselves and each other by our bank account we fail ourselves as Christians, because God does not measure us by wealth but by thought, deed, and word. By adding materialism to our value system we undercut God’s values.

    And it extends beyond the bank account. In today’s world where the majority of wealth exists in electronic form – there is not a paper bill for every dollar in every bank account – it’s easy to translate this into a modern view of rich i.e. fiscal assets. The author of Matthew would have had a different and broader view, particularly in his use of the word mammon which carries with it the connotation of possessions as much as coinage. So then Jesus’s warning is to be careful of loving things instead or over loving God and loving each other.

    As for the other commenters, Stan and Matt, I disagree with a few of your premises. Money comes from man. It is of man, and not of God. I don’t think God cares about money and how much or how little I have. Remember Jesus and the denarius – Caesar’s face is on it, it’s Caesar’s. I think God cares about people, about devotion, about thoughts and actions. I do not think that everything belongs to God. Certainly sin does not belong to God. What about disease? Viruses? War?
    The “everything belongs to God” statement is the rhetoric of the Gospel of Prosperity – a heresy that attempts to justify Social Darwinism with a theological endorsement. “If you are a good enough Christian, God gives you the Mercedes.” God doesn’t care what car you drive. God cares about if you helped the poor when you have the means to do so. God cares if you pray for those in need, take time to show and express love, and sacrifice for others. God cares if you keep his Commandments.

    We should be grateful for what we have. It’s ok to pray about money concerns. God does help us in the here and now, and in that respect we should most definitely be thankful to God for everything we have. But I find a subtext of predestination in your comments that I have to disagree with. If someone does a kind deed for us, it’s ok to thank that person because they may have been prompted by the Holy Spirit but still made a choice. If something bad happens, it may not be God’s plan – it may be someone else’s bad choice. It is a flaw in Western thought that we inevitably view the world from an egocentric perspective. It works great in democracy and in capitalism. But “It’s all part of God’s plan for me” easily becomes “I am all that matters. The rest of the world is filled with secondary people who God marionettes around ME – all their choices are dictated by him in service of his plan for ME.” If for example I am violently mugged and afterwards I cry out to God, “Why did you let this happen?” The answer may well be, “I didn’t. You see I’m working in the mugger’s life too, and he’s not listening to me and making the wrong choices. So I didn’t let this happen, and I didn’t do this to you. But I am interested in if you react to it in the manner I have asked you to.”

    In my disagreements I hope no one has felt attacked. That was not my intent, and I hardly consider myself an authority, much less unarguably correct. I merely wished to, as the prompt suggests, voice my thoughts.

    Like

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