The Rich Young Man

Matthew 19:16-22

This passage is unique among the stories in this series. It has all the ingredients of a life-changing encounter, and yet the man involved emerged unchanged and his life remained as it was before. It is ‘the one that got away’.

The man the story describes is young, rich and apparently law-abiding. He approached Jesus and asked what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life. From his reaction to Jesus’ answer, it is clear that he wasn’t actually looking for something new to do, but was rather hoping that the answer would vindicate him in the things he was already doing.

Jesus’ answer shows that he has sized up the man’s motives. He points out that only one is good (which should have given the man pause for thought), and then explains that keeping the commandments will lead to life. This is of course true (see Leviticus 18:5). Perfect obedience of the law would lead to life. The problem is that none of us have perfectly obeyed.

On hearing the answer, the young man pushed further, asking ‘which ones?’, no doubt still hoping that the answer will justify him. Jesus listed several Old Testament laws that are ‘horizontal’ in nature, and that it was plausible that the man might have kept the letter of (though he doubtless had not kept the spirit of them that Jesus expounded in Matthew 5). The man had indeed kept all of these things, and asked if there were more. This time Jesus instructed him to give his possessions to the poor and follow him.

This is not a command that Jesus gave to all of his followers. In fact, this is the only time he is recorded to have asked it of anyone, so we should not see it as a universal command for all Christians, but rather as something specific to this man. His unwillingness to give up his money highlighted that he loved it more than God, and showed that he therefore hadn’t kept the first commandment and so could not live by the law.

This story could be repeated for any of us. None of us have or can keep the whole law, and so the very question of what good deed we can do to have eternal life leads us to a dead end. This is what Jesus was attempting to show in how he answered the man. He pushed the demands of the law to their unkeepable extreme and the man saw that he couldn’t do it. Yet as we read on and the disciples see how hard it is for someone with wealth to enter the kingdom, Jesus explains that whilst it may be impossible for man, all things are possible for God.

We may not be able to keep the law and so earn eternal life, but God can still make a way.

Some Key Points:

  • The only way to have eternal life through our deeds would be keeping the whole law. This is the wrong question to ask.
  • Whatever things we would be unwilling to give up are idols that we have put above God.
  • Like this man, we are invited to follow Jesus. This is the way to eternal life, and it means laying down whatever gets in the way.

Potential Applications:

  • What Are You Unwilling to Give Up? – Challenge people to think of what the equivalent of this man’s money is for them that they would find it difficult to give up if Jesus asked. Those things may well be our idols and need dealing with.
  • Focus Away From Works – Are we looking to find eternal life through good deeds? It is a dead end. Invite people to turn instead to the grace that is only found in Jesus.
  • Will You Miss Your Life Changing Encounter? – This man had the opportunity for a life changing encounter with Jesus but chose to miss the chance and stay as he was. What will you do with Jesus’ invitation to you today?