Matthew 19:16-17 – Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” NIV
This much commented on encounter with Jesus. The accounts by the different Gospel writers are basically the same but with a slight difference in what “good” modifies. In Matthew’s account in the earliest texts, good does not modify teacher but seems to be translated good thing. Luke’s Gospel (18:18) and Mark’s Gospel (10:17) seem to have good modifying teacher. Luke identifies the man as a ruler, and all three mention that he had great wealth. I get the impression that this man wanted to be sure that he had eternal life and was willing to do what was necessary. It seems that in his mind, he believed he had the means to do almost anything. Jesus question to him was about the word good. Now this is not the word holy. It can also be defined as admirable, distinguished, or useful. I can’t be sure of his inner motivation, but perhaps he was seeking to be both approved by God and esteemed by other people. Jesus is questioning his inner motivation for asking the question.
Jesus then told him to obey the commandments if he wanted to eternal life. The man immediately asked which ones? Jesus then mentioned only the commandments that deal with our relationship with other people. Interestingly, he omitted the commandments that deal with honoring God and putting Him first. The man said that he had kept all these commandments since his youth. Matthew has the man asking Jesus what one thing he lacked. The other two Gospels have Jesus telling the man that he lacked one thing. Now most of us focus on the statement, “… go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matt. 19:21 – NIV) We are so astonished by this statement by Jesus that the man give up all his stuff that we miss the statements that precede and follow this request.
First, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus qualifies His request with: “If you want to be perfect,…” Perfect can also be translated complete. This man had realized that he was lacking something in his life, and that he felt incomplete. Jesus was giving him a way to become complete or perfect.
Secondly, the way to completeness did not end with just relinquishing his stuff to the poor. Once released from his stuff, he was to follow Jesus. It appears that this man treated people morally correct as the Law dictated; but his stuff was getting in the way of his relationship with God because evidently God (Jesus) was asking him to benefit others with his stuff and he resisted. He would follow God only so far. Jesus then commented about how hard it was for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. His disciples were perplexed:
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26 – NIV)
This is a great encounter because it raised so many questions with the first disciples, and it raises so many questions today. How are we saved? What if Jesus asked something like that of me? What stuff gets in the way of my relationship with God and following Jesus fully? We cannot earn or buy our way into the Kingdom of God. Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is possible because of God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice. We can only accept it by faith and then obediently follow Him if we want our lives to be complete.
Wow! This encounter has a lot more insight and application for us than I could share here.