The Gospel of Matthew 19:17-22 tells the familiar story of the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus’ reply to him is, “keep the commandments.” The young man, clearly a faithful Jew who keeps the commandments, wants to know what else he must do. Jesus’ reply is stark: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man, Matthew tells us, “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
In the verses of Matthew 19:24-26, Jesus offers additional reflections on the topic of wealth and salvation, ending by noting that it will be “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew notes that the disciples were greatly astonished by these statements, leading them to ask “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus gives the ultimate answer: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Jesus’ answer to the rich young man continues to apply to Christians today. In order to follow him completely we must give away everything that we possess. Wait a minute. Everything?
There are several passages in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus makes this same point. Take for instance Luke 9 where Jesus says “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” (Lk 23) and to another prospective follower who asks for time to bury his parents, “let the dead bury their dead.” (Lk 60)
Several of Jesus’ parables make this point as well. There is, for example, the person who finds a great treasure buried in a field and, with great joy “sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Mt 13:44) and the merchant who sells all he has to purchase a “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46).
Luke provides perhaps the clearest statement of this teaching. Here we find the story of the man who builds new barns to hold his great harvest only to die before being able to use this new wealth (Lk 12:18) and the parable of the flowers and grass of the field (Lk 12: 22-28).
What Jesus is telling the rich young man, and us, is that “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Lk 12:34). The story isn’t a condemnation of money or wealth. Rather, it is a challenge to us to determine what we would be willing to give to gain something whose value is beyond measure.
Jesus is asking us to determine what is really important to us and telling us the cost to achieve it. Are we willing to pay the price? Fortunately, all things are possible with God, so there is hope for us all.
Mulhall is a freelance writer and a catechist for adults. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.