A millennial entrepreneur comes to you, bank details ready, asking “What good thing could I do so I could have eternal life?” How do you respond?
You’re probably looking for a seeker-friendly way to respond, “Goodness! It doesn’t work like that. You can’t earn God’s favour by doing something good.” You probably don’t say, “Live like God says; he’s good.”
Apart from the obvious problem of suggesting anyone could earn eternal life by obeying commands, a vague answer like “Do what God says” is unsatisfying for a project manager used to SMART goals. Their next question will be, “Like what?”
They will be really frustrated, insulted even, if you go on to explain the basics of being a good person: “Don’t kill anyone. Don’t sleep with someone else’s spouse. Don’t defraud your business. Don’t commit perjury in court. Take care of your parents, and your neighbours.”
Okay, this story probably isn’t working for you. You can’t even imagine having this conversation. You would not give the answers Jesus did:
Matthew 19:16-22 (my translation, compare NIV)
16 See, someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good could I do so I could have eternal life?”
17 Jesus replied, “Why are you asking me about goodness? Goodness is One Person. If you want to enter life, keep his commands.”
18 “Which ones?” he asked.
Jesus said, “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false testimony. 19 Honour your father and your mother. Love your neighbour as yourself.”
20 The youth replied, “All these I’ve kept. What am I missing?”
21 Jesus replied, “If you want to be complete, go sell your possessions and give to the poor. You will have treasure with God, and you can come follow me.”
22 Hearing Jesus’ answer, the youth went away grieving, for he was in possession of much property.
Why would Jesus give these answers? In part, it’s because he was speaking to a Jewish man under the Mosaic covenant, so it was natural to highlight what God had decreed for his nation. That covenant and its laws no longer define who’s in the kingdom, the people of God. The covenant made Israel a privileged people, but God’s commands gave no special honour to privileged individuals. So, Jesus pushed back against his assumption that a wealthy person can have an inside run on kingdom life.
In the end, there is something the privileged youth can do to contribute to God’s kingship over everyone. It isn’t something that sets him apart from everyone else. It’s something that takes away his privilege, making him just like everyone else.
Let’s see how this works.
His question (19:16)
When he asked about eternal life, he probably imagined a future day when the dead were raised to live in God’s restored reign under a David-like anointed king instead of under foreign powers like Rome. Whether he’d heard rumours that the disciples were making such claims about Jesus is not clear, but he did approach Jesus with his question. The kingdom is the key theme here in Matthew (16:19, 28; 18:1, 3, 4, 23; 19:12, 14, 23, 24).
Reframing his view (19:17)
Jesus deconstructs his perception of goodness. In Mark 10:17, the guy treats Jesus as a good person, hoping to have that perception reciprocated. Matthew focuses on the man’s desire to do something good.
Philanthropists are recognized as good people because of their goodwill to the community. But for Jesus, goodness is not social recognition but the character of God. Since God is the standard, goodness means living as Israel’s sovereign expected of his nation, as he commanded.
Jesus undermined the youth’s intention to distinguish himself. Jesus sent him back to Ethics 101, treating him no better than anyone else. The commandments were the same for everyone.
This was totally unsatisfactory. He asks for clarification.
Which commands? (19:18-19)
Jesus persists in this levelling exercise, quoting a selection from the Ten Commandments, the foundational covenant Law, along with an additional one from Leviticus about caring for the community. This is what God expected of everyone. He asked for a special assignment, and Jesus lumped him in with everyone else.
Over the years, I’ve heard many preachers view the Law as lofty and beyond human reach. Jesus considered God’s commands to be quite basic, not onerous. So did his conversation partner.
Avoiding bad stuff does keep us from destructive patterns, but it doesn’t give us a satisfying life. What am I missing? is a telling question.
What’s missing (19:20-21)
Jesus saw the problem: the man’s holdings were holding him. He could never find satisfaction with a goal as small as himself. How about losing the little empire he’d been building for himself, and living for the restoration of the world as God’s kingdom?
When Jesus spoke of treasure in the heavens, he wasn’t talking about sending a bank transfer into the next life so you could draw on it later. Storing stuff up for yourself is the opposite of being rich toward God (compare Luke 12:21). We have honour with God when we share the resources he provides as he intends — so there’s enough for everyone.
Unencumbered, we’re free to come and follow Jesus as he leads the world into God’s kingship. There’s a truly fulfilling goal: the nations of the world unified in the leadership of heaven’s anointed (28:20).
Surrendering good for great (19:22)
This story ends with a tragic twist. His desire for something good led him to God’s anointed, discovering God’s world-changing mission. But in the end, he couldn’t drop his candy to reach for the greater goal.
What would change if you rewrote your life goals around Jesus’ kingship instead of personal accumulation? What would change if our church rewrote its goals for Jesus’ kingship over the community instead of accumulating attendance and giving for itself?
It’s an either/or choice, because the kingdom is our life when we follow the king. I hope that doesn’t make you sad.
Open Matthew 19:16-22.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 735:
Rather than some spiritual exercise or mystical pilgrimage Jesus first prescribes a very practical action. But this is no token gesture, but the total disinvestment and irrevocable disposal of everything that has provided the basis for his “good” life so far. He has no doubt, like all pious Jews, made regular and generous contributions to the relief of the poor and disadvantaged within his community (that is at least part of what he would understand by “loving your neighbor as yourself”), but Jewish charity operated within prudential limits, whereas Jesus puts no limit to his demand. To follow it will place this self-sufficient young man in the same position as the birds and the flowers in 6:25–32, depending directly on the provision of a heavenly Father for the essentials of life.
But even this radical action of dispossession is not simply another “good thing” to do; it is the prelude to something even more far-reaching. The imperatives “sell” and “give” are followed by “come” and “follow;” the essence of Jesus’ demand is not disinvestment but discipleship. So the giving up of possessions is not presented as a sacrifice desirable for its own sake, but rather as the means to something far better. … The release from material preoccupation is not in itself the secret of eternal life; it is the introduction to a new way of life as a disciple of Jesus.