It’s easy to read the story of the rich young man of Matthew 19:16-26 as a statistical outlier. To be rich and young was not common in the first century (or today). In those times, it would have suggested royalty (which Luke’s account verifies). Beyond that, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give everything to the poor. We certainly haven’t been told to do that. Therefore, it’s an interesting story but we’re ready to move on to something that “applies to us” or “has to do with real life.”
That’s precisely the kind of thinking that gets us into trouble when we read the Scripture.
To begin with, this story is included in all three of the synoptic gospels. While you could make an argument that Theophilus (the recipient of Luke’s gospel) was an affluent person, Matthew and Mark both wrote to economically very ordinary people. There must be something in this story that would connect with them. What is it?
It’s clear the young man, like many young people, was searching for something. His life was lacking in some way and he was aware of it. Furthermore, he came to Jesus to find out what is was. If you are searching for something or believe you have found what you were searching for in Jesus, it’s hard not to get sucked into the story.
We find out from their initial conversation that the rich young man was no casual or occasional follower like so many are today. He had been pursuing God and His commands “since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20). We can do as some have done and write him off as a hopeless legalist, but I think this is a mistaken view that’s spawned more out of a post-Reformation context than the context of Matthew. His Jesus calls people back to the Torah. His Jesus didn’t come to abolish Torah but fulfill it (5:17), the greatest commands are found there (22:34-40) and in the context of chapter 19, marriage is rooted in it (v. 4-6) rather than in the concession God makes to Israel’s sinfulness in Deuteronomy 24:1ff. Torah was a gracious gift of God and man’s obedience a response to that grace. We are “blessed” when our “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:1-2). This psalmist was no legalist and neither was the young man!
Yet something was lacking, and it was important. Jesus’ command for him to sell all that he had and give to the poor reminds us of His observation at the temple regarding the widow’s giving (Luke 21:1-4). Although the rich people were putting larger amounts of money in, she was outgiving them because of the cost to her (“she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” – v. 4 and 2 Samuel 24:18ff). As a rich person, it’s possible that his giving was like the rich people Jesus observed—superficial rather than sacrificial (without personal investment). His unwillingness to do what Jesus said indicates that he was more attached to his material blessings than the God who gave them. That’s always a problem.
This is where his story merges with ours and becomes statistically significant. It’s possible for anyone (rich or poor) to fall in love with their blessings more than the God who gives them. We can steer clear of this by recognizing that all our blessings are on loan to us from Him. Material things, relationships, health—they belong to us only is a secondary sense, ultimately, they belong to God. Recognizing this is basic to discipleship, which is why Jesus tells us that we cannot be His disciples if we don’t give up everything we have (acknowledge God’s ownership of all). God might choose for us to steward them for a lifetime or something more temporary—but if we are living with the illusion they are ours we are as mistaken as the young man was. We are to hold on tightly to God and loosely to everything else.
This is bad news only for who have more faith in themselves than in their Father. That was ultimately the rich young man’s problem and why “he went away sad” (Matthew 19:22).