22 November 2011

Matthew 19:13-22

"Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell our possesions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'" (v. 21)


Striving for perfection is perhaps a Christ-affirmed endeavour that has somewhat shifted from our focus. Of course, John Wesley was firmly of the belief that this was a necessary and worthwhile pursuit, and Jesus commends this approach to the rich young ruler. If we're honest, if that particular rich young ruler, or his more modern counterpart, came and joined one of our congregations, we'd be giving him plaudits: "Oh, you're rich? And you still obey all the commandments? Great job!" The young man has got a bit of a raw deal here, because normally, he'd be 'getting away' with his approach to life. But of course, you shouldn't ask Jesus to affirm you, if you don't want to be scrutinised.

In the famous 19th century portrayal of this scene by the German painter Heinrich Hofmann, the rich young ruler looks heartbroken by Jesus' verdict on what he should do next, presumably believing that he wasn't the awful man that this judgement suggested.

Here lies one of the greatest struggles in the Christian faith; we are called to Christlike perfection, and to never waver from this task, yet fully knowing that we will waver and we will struggle to be like Jesus. If wealth is not our problem, it may well be pride, or jealousy or a thousand other human issues. We know this to be our nature - to regret our current state, to repent and then to fail again. Jesus knew that this was a problem for all of us, so why was he so hard on the rich young ruler?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that "he [Jesus] alone understands the true nature of the law as God's law: the law is not itself God, nor is God the law. It was the error of Israel to put the law in God's place, to make the law their God and their God a law". Bonhoeffer not only explains that Jesus insists in the Gospels that the law is not dead and is not to be forgotten about, but also that Christ is the one whom the disciples must follow, and breaking from the law would mean breaking from Christ, because Christ is the fulfilment of the law. Therefore, the rich young ruler will have to learn (although we never find out if he does this or not) that following the law is not enough, for that law has now been fulfilled in Jesus; he must sign up to everything that following Jesus entails, which is this case means renouncing his possessions.

To Ponder

Why might we struggle with notions of the law? In what ways can we reconcile ourselves with the law?

Like the rich young ruler, we all have things that should be questioned. What would Jesus challenge you about?

Bible notes author

Jon Curtis

Jon Curtis is a Venture FX pioneer minister in Exeter, Devon. He lives with his exceptional wife Beth, and beautiful baby Freddie.