Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 19:16-26

The Rich Young Man

     16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

     17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

     18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

     Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

     20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

     21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

     23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich person to 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

     25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

     26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What would you give? What price would you be willing to pay for eternal life in the kingdom of God?

Or maybe a better question is what price you wouldn’t be willing to pay. Is there anything in your life you would try to hang onto – even if it meant sacrificing eternal life?

Maybe that’s the central question in this story from Matthew.

A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he needs to do to get eternal life. And Jesus tells the man to obey the commandments. I suppose in the minds of lots of Christians, there’s nothing surprising about that. Lots of people still associate ‘keeping the Ten Commandments’ with ‘going to heaven.’

But we’ve devoted several of our recent Reflections to passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the apostle writes that none of us can obey God’s commandments well enough to earn a place in heaven. So why does Jesus tell this man to obey the commandments as a way to get eternal life?

It seems to me that to really make sense of what Jesus says here, you have to read the whole story. I say that because when you get to the end of the story, it seems that the point Jesus wanted to make was that just trying to obey those commandments is not enough to earn eternal life. The rich man says he’s obeying all the commandments, but then Jesus tells him that’s not enough. Jesus tells the man to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. The man needs to get rid of his earthly riches in order to have greater riches in heaven.

This story doesn’t seem to leave much room for the ‘American dream,’ does it? Not much room for the idea that getting rich and successful is the mark of a good life. In fact, this story – an probably the Bible as a whole – portrays getting rich as more of a problem than a noble goal. In the story, as the man walks away sadly, Jesus says that it’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

The story seems consistent with a message that shows up in the Bible in a number of places and in a number of forms. That message is that wealth isn’t evil, but rather is dangerous. It can so easily become a god to us. And as we’ve said in past Reflections, by “a god,” I don’t mean something that people bow down and worship – I mean something that people look to for salvation.

From the beginning of the covenant, God has made it plain that you can only have one God at a time. You can place your hope for salvation in the God of Israel who came into the world in the form of Jesus, or you can place your hope for salvation in something of this world. That something could be money, technology, the free market, the government, your political program, your guns or even your sports teams.

Today’s story, of course, calls on us to choose between God and worldly riches. And it seems that God doesn’t have that much interest in people who claim to put their trust in him, but who want to hang onto a bunch of worldly wealth as a backup plan. Those who do that have what the Bible calls “a divided heart.” Just look at the man in this story – “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He’s been given the secret of eternal life – and yet he’s sad! Think about what that says about the grip our wealth can have on our hearts and minds.

The part of this story that should never be overlooked is that the disciples are amazed by what Jesus said about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven. The disciples were Jews, and the Jews assumed that earthly blessings were a sign of God’s favor. So naturally, they also assumed that if anyone was going to get into heaven, it would be a rich person. But Jesus points out to the disciples that a person’s salvation rests with God, not with humankind.

The real lesson of this passage seems to be a warning against allowing the things of this world to have a hold on us. Because even our blessings can become dangerous if we allow them to become the center of our lives – and if we start hoping that they will save us from poverty and the loss of control over our lives.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the many blessings you provide for us. But help us to remember always that these are blessings from you, and help us to place our hope for salvation in you, the giver of our gifts, and not in the gifts you give. Amen.

Every Blessing,