The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 (and parallels; Luke calls him a “ruler”) has got to be one of the most misunderstood passages in the NT. It is confusing on the face of it. Because at a cursory read, it really looks like Jesus tells the guy he can have eternal life if he sells his stuff and gives the money to the poor. And, of course, this could be contrasted with other passages that make it seem like we can only get eternal life by trusting in Christ.
A few reasons I don’t think Jesus means to tell this guy he’ll be saved by selling his possessions:
- It would contradict numerous other texts, including words out of Jesus’ mouth, that say we are saved only by grace through faith (for example, Matt 20:28, which is discussed below).
- The first thing Jesus says to the young man is “Why do you call me ‘good’? There is only one who is good.” This would not be true if selling his stuff would make the young man good enough to inherit eternal life.
- In v. 21 Jesus tells him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess,” etc. Since the man asked what he needed to do to have eternal life, it seems like Jesus is saying that you have to be perfect to inherit eternal life. Surely he’s not admitting that the young man has never sinned, and that if he did this one thing he would become “perfect.”
- When the young man walks away, Jesus comments on how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom. His disciples ask him, “Who then can be saved?” His reply: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” If the young man could actually be saved by selling his possessions, why would Jesus say “with man this is impossible”?
- The very next passage is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the point of which is that God’s grace, not the amount or quality of our work, is the issue in salvation. Matthew chose to place these passages next to each other. Why would he do that if they contradicted each other?
- In the next chapter Jesus says “the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many.” We would not need such a ransom if we could be saved simply by giving away our possessions.
So what does Jesus mean to tell this young man? More tomorrow.