I am just in the process of preparing a sermon from Matthew 19. As I was reading RT France’s commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series, he includes a striking quote from Robert Gundry in relation to the rich young ruler. For context, I will quote France’s wider comments, but include Gundry’s in bold.
[I]s poverty then an essential condition of discipleship for all? Verse 26 will allow that the rich can be saved, and among Jesus’ followers there were some who were wealthy, and indeed on whose wealth he and his closest companions apparently depended for their living (see on 8:14-15 for Peter’s home and possessions). The demands of discipleship will vary for different individuals and situations. But they will never be less than total availability to the claims of Jesus, however differently those apply in practice. ‘That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command‘ (Gundry, p.388).France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 2008, p.290
Just let that settle for a moment. Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell all he had and follow him. It is right to note this is not a universal command. But Gundry is surely right that the only people comforted by the fact that Jesus did not command his followers to sell all they have are those to whom he would issue that command.
I have mentioned before about Dale Ralph Davis’s comments on pouring cow urine all over the text. We so often spy a potentially wrong understanding of what the text says and spend so long addressing it that we simply lose the force of what the text is actually saying. We effectively ruin the text before we can accept it for what it says. We let potential dangers drive us away from what the text actually says.
I think this happens nowhere so often as with texts about money, wealth and possessions. Either – as in Davis’ specific example – we get so scared about the dangers of the Prosperity Gospel that we ruin texts about actually enjoying God’s blessings, particularly those material blessings he bestows on us. Otherwise, we land on passages like Matthew 19 or Acts 2 and 4 and spend the entire time painstakingly proving that the call on us to sit loosely with money and possessions, being willing to give it all up for Christ and use it in his service, doesn’t actually mean that at all. We quickly rush to downplay what the text actually says and, I suspect, seek to comfort ourselves in a technicality that – as Gundry notes – serves to suggest we are exactly the kind of people to whom Jesus would make this command.
Jesus is quite clear in the passage that money and possessions are frequently a hindrance to belief. The rich young ruler went away sad because he preferred his wealth to Jesus. Jesus wasn’t joking when he said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil specifically because that love of money has a tendency to priority over Christ. Jesus doesn’t say it is impossible for rich people to be saved – with God, he says, all things are possible – and the rich can see Jesus as more valuable than their personal wealth. But Jesus is clear with his disciples – who note they have given up everything to follow him – ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’
In the end, Jesus demands our total allegiance. He demands to be first priority in our lives. He is to take priority over national, family and cultural ties. He is to take priority over money and possessions. He is to take priority over our own will. Jesus insists he is either first – and on the throne of our lives – or he won’t be taking up residence with us at all. Those of us quick to find comfort in the fact that some of these things are not universal, direct commands fail to realise that we are exactly the people to whom Jesus would issue that command. If we aren’t prepared to give up all – and we take comfort in the fact that Jesus hasn’t specifically commanded this of everyone – the chances are we are exactly the kind of people Jesus would command this of and, we may just find, like the rich young ruler, we finally get to grips with that reality and end up going away sad.