8 November 2016

Matthew 19:16-22

“Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” (v. 21)

Psalm: Psalm 43


Matthew's Gospel continues to relate the lessons about discipleship that the disciples learned as they followed Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Today we hear how a young man with many possessions sought to have eternal life and asks what good deed he must do.

In the time of Jesus the Pharisees argued that only by keeping all of God's commandments could a person be sure to be morally good. The Talmud - the Jewish law and the record of the discussion of the rabbis concerning the law - notes that the Hebrew Scriptures contain 613 different commandments which a good Jew needs to follow. Yet the young man asks about a single deed. How might he win the jackpot in the easiest way possible? Never mind the detail - what about the goal?

The man treats his discipleship in the same way that he treats life. Perhaps his many possessions constitute such wealth that he does not need to work for a living. Perhaps he only does the minimum for himself - that which he cannot pay someone else to do. Only Matthew tells us that he is young: is this a man who wants to get the one deed out of the way so that he might rely on his wealth to get on and enjoy the rest of his long life on earth, knowing that his afterlife is already booked?

Yet of the 613 possible answers, Jesus does not even list all ten of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:7-21) which were the 'premier league' for good Jews. (Perhaps 'lower league' commandments would include the one about silver trumpets needing to be sounded at new moon feasts - Numbers 10:10). This seems to be for two reasons. Firstly, deeds are not in themselves 'good', because only God is good (verse 17). The man's following of God's commandments is about his relationship with God, not about the commandments themselves. It is impossible for him to do anything to save himself (Matthew 19:26). Secondly, Jesus lists the last six commandments which focus on the man's loving his neighbour rather than the first four which are about directly lovingGod. By not sharing his possessions with the poor, the man proves that he neither loves his neighbour nor the God who asks him to love others. The man relies for life on his possessions, not on God. He is not yet perfect! (Though, of course, he does not need to be if he is relying on God).

To Ponder

  • How do these words of Jesus apply to you personally about the way you treat possessions? Do you 'own' them, or do you see them as gifts to use for God?
  • If Jesus were to say to you, "If you wish to be perfect, then you must …" how do you think he would complete that sentence for you personally?
  • Jesus appears to think that it is possible to be perfect! How do you respond to that possibility?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.