Commentary on Matthew 19:16-30

by Dr. Knox Chamblin


On the context, see the opening comments on 19:13-15.


A. The First Exchange. 19:16-17.

1. The man's question, v. 16. By "eternal life" (zosn ai©nion) is meant "the life approved by God and to which access to the Kingdom (present and eschatological) is promised (cf. the rabbinic 'life of the age to come')" (Hill, Matthew, 283); cf. Jn 3:15-16. The meaning and import of this question can best be judged by examining the rest of the conversation.

2. Jesus' question, v. 17a: "Why do you ask me about what is good?"

The Markan parallel reads, "Why do you call me good?" Mark's wording does not call into question the actual goodness of Jesus - any more than Matthew's calls into question his gifts as a teacher. On this difference of wording, see the fine discussion in Carson, 422-23. Taking account of both Matthean and Markan accounts, he reconstructs the actual exchange as follows: "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you ask me questions regarding the good?..." (p. 423). To try to explain the difference by reference to Christology, is to miss the purpose of Jesus' question (in its Markan or its Matthean form).

3. Jesus' declaration, v. 17b: "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life [tsn zosn, "the life," i.e. the "eternal life" of v. 16], obey the commandments." Jesus now reveals the intent of his question. He wants to direct the man's attention both to God and to His commandments (cf. Robert Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition, 160-61). This does not necessarily mean, however, that Jesus directs attention away from himself. Indeed Gundry, observing Mt's omission of the name "God" (from Mk's "No one is good — except God alone"), comments: "The result is a broad hint that Jesus is the good one - Jesus rather than God or, better, Jesus as God" (p. 385), which fits well with Matthew's stress upon the deity of Jesus. There is another broad hint: that recognizing God's goodness (and thus loving him for who he is) is the essential basis for obeying his commandments; cf. Jn 14:15. The rest of the conversation must be viewed in light of the declaration of v. 17b.

B. The Second Exchange. 19:18-19.

In response to the man's inquiry ("Which ones?"), Jesus replies: "'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" Jesus first quotes from the Ten Commandments in the order six, seven, eight, nine and five (Ex 20:12-16; Deut 5:16-20). The adjoining quotation from Lev 19:18 does three things: (1) it underscores the fact that Jesus has just been quoting Commandments about "love of neighbor"; (2) it shows that "loving one's neighbor" is represented but not exhausted by keeping Commandments five through nine (see Rom 13:9); and (3) it accentuates the centrality of the love commandment for both Jesus and Matthew (cf. 7:12; 22:40; and Banks, Jesus and the Law, 162, noting that Lev 19:18 is placed at the end of the series and is set off from the other commandments by the conjunction "and," kai).

C. The Third Exchange. 19:20-22.

1. The young man's opening, v. 20: "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" What do these words reveal?

a. Ignorance. He inadequately understands the commands which he claims to have kept. Especially is this true of Lev 19:18. How could one claim to have fully kept the command to love one's neighbor as himself? Cf. Lk 10:25-37; Rom 13:8-10.

b. Zeal. He evidences a zeal to do good works over and above those required by the Law of Moses (Banks, 160; Carson, 423; Lk 18:12, where the Pharisee's fasting goes well beyond that stipulated in the Torah; and Gal 1:14). With the man's now claiming to have kept all the commands of Moses, it is clear that his original question (19:16) proceeded from his desire to accomplish a work of supererogation.

c. Anxiety. The words of vv. 16 and 20 reflect an undeniable anxiety - which in turn helps to explain the man's zeal. Rather like Martin Luther before his "conversion," this young man fears that in the end, at the Last Judgment, his good works will prove to be inadequate for his gaining God's approval and inheriting the Life of the Age to Come. The man's questions "show his uncertainty and lack of assurance of ever being good enough for salvation" (Carson, 423).

2. Jesus' response, v. 21: "If you want to be perfect [teleios], go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

a. The meaning of teleios. The term suggests "totality" or "all-inclusiveness" (cf. comments on 5:48). The corresponding Hebrew terms are tamim and shalem. "The one who does the 'whole' will of God is tamim; the heart which is 'undivided' in obedience to God is shalem" (G. Delling, TDNT 8: 73). Cf. Deut 18:13, "You must be blameless [tamim] before the LORD your God" (where LXX renders tamim by teleios), a verse which (together with Lev 19:2) Jesus probably has in mind in Mt 5:48 (thus Gundry, 100). Here in 19:21, the usage of teleios serves to join together the two parts of the young man's statement in v. 20: i.e., for him to be a "total man," for his obedience to God to be all-encompassing, he must combine fidelity to the commandments with something more (as disclosed in the remainder of Jesus' reply). In other words, the man's being teleios does not require that he abandon his prior law-keeping (insofar as he has genuinely obeyed the Law) but that he build upon it (cf. the comments on 5:17-20). Jesus' response will force the young man to look both forward and backward.

b. Retrospect. By instructing him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, Jesus tests the truth of the man's claim to have kept the commandments of Moses. As noted, Jesus' recitation of the commands in vv. 18-19 concentrated on those pertaining to love of neighbor. Just how well has the young man understood the breadth and depth of Lev 19:18? Is the one who claims to have loved his neighbor as himself, now willing to bestow his possessions upon his most impoverished neighbors? Moreover, to speak of love for neighbor is to speak in turn of love for God (22:37-40). By bringing to light the man's attitude toward his possessions, Jesus will also bring to light his attitude toward God (cf. 6:24). Has the man's zeal for law-keeping proceeded more from self-interest (the gaining of eternal life) than from love for God? Does his anxiety betray an ignorance of Yahweh's character? Has he ever really understood Yahweh's grace (Ex 34:6)? Has the man's very law-keeping stood in the way of his honoring "the weightier matters of the law" (23:23)? Has his zealous activity blinded him to the true condition of his heart?

c. Prospect One: "You will have treasure [thssauron] in heaven." This recalls 6:19-21 (where thssauros and its cognate verb occur five times), which in turn is closely connected with 6:24. We are confirmed in the judgment that the crucial issue for this man is the choice between slavery to God and slavery to Money. These words of v. 21 anticipate v. 30, where Jesus promises his followers riches abundant in the coming Kingdom. At work here is the principle of 10:39, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." By clinging to his wealth, the young man shall abdicate his right to the true riches (13:44-46). He who seeks first the kingdom of God and who lays up treasures in heaven, is the only person in a position really to enjoy the treasures of this life (cf. the comments on 6:19-34).

d. Prospect Two: "Then come, follow me." It is for this particular statement that all else has prepared. (1) Jesus and God. It is striking that Jesus, having first directed the young man's attention to God and his commandments, now commands that the man follow him. We are confirmed in conclusions reached above (A. 3.). Now that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated, obeying God and keeping his commands requires that one follow Jesus - "God with us" - and submit to the authoritative teaching of the New Moses. (2) Being teleios. We now see that being teleios requires that one follow Jesus. This term is not indicative of a "two-level ethic" in the Matthean community, as some have argued (as though the teleioi were select members within the community who dedicate themselves to the celibate life). No: it is discipleship itself that makes a person teleios; it is discipleship itself to which Jesus summons the young man, not a higher level within discipleship. "To be teleios... involves obedience to the all-embracing demands of Jesus [cf. 7:13-27], and should logically issue in discipleship and it is only those who pursue this path who have zosn ai©nion [eternal life]" (Banks, 163). Cf. Gundry, 388; E. Schweizer, Matthew, 388. (3) Grace and judgment. These themes are woven together throughout Mt (as noted already in the use of Isa 7:14 in ch. 1); the present passage is a beautiful case in point. Jesus judges the young man and exposes the superficiality and (as v. 22 will show) the spuriousness of his commitment to God. But the moment of judgment is a moment of grace, for Jesus invites him into discipleship. That - and that alone - will free him of his false striving and his nagging anxiety; the only way to true rest in face of the Law's stringent demands is to come to Jesus (11:28-30). Then he will discover for the first time that the obedience that leads to life (v. 17) rests upon and responds to grace (as noted, 5:3-16 is foundational for the law-giving of 5:17-48).

3. The man's decision, v. 22: "When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth." He renews his allegiance to Mammon. Perhaps his sadness is caused by the double realization that his devotion to God has been imagined, not real, and that he must choose between obeying God and obeying Mammon - that he cannot, somehow, maintain allegiance to both simultaneously (cf Js 1:5-8; 3:13-18). Perhaps we really begin to understand this story when we find ourselves engaged in the young man's struggle - when the story makes us (not just young people whom we know) uncomfortable like him (cf. Bruce, Matthew, 63).


A. The Rich and the Kingdom. 19:23-26.

1. The gravity of man's problem. Upon the young man's departure, Jesus says to his disciples: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (19:23-24).

a. The power of money. The rich man's difficulty witnesses to the enormous power of Mammon (Foster, Money, Sex & Power, part 1) — as poignantly evidenced in the decision of 19:22.

b. The camel and the eye. We must not weaken the powerful imagery of v. 24 by imagining that Jesus is speaking of a small gate in the Jerusalem wall. It is the image's hyperbole that provides its power. "As the largest beast of burden in Palestine, the camel made a good figure (cf. 23:24). As the smallest opening in a familiar object, the needle's eye made an equally good figure" (Gundry, 390; he notes that giving the name "Needle's Eye" to a small gate probably arose out of the present saying). Jesus is speaking of something that is humanly impossible. Something more than human will power (whether of the rich man or of people around him) is needed to rescue the wealthy from bondage to Money. Even amidst the hyperbole, there is a note of hope: Jesus says that it is hard - not impossible - for rich man to enter the kingdom. "It is easier for a camel...than for a rich man" - words that offer a glimmer of hope (as would not be the case had Jesus said, "A camel may...a rich man cannot").

2. The power of God's grace.

a. The disciples' pessimism. In response to the words of vv. 23-24, the disciples ask in astonishment, "Who then can be saved?" (v. 25). They hereby reflect the commonly-held view, firmly rooted in the OT, that riches signal God's favor. (It should be noted that the OT itself combats a one-sided view on the matter by placing Job and Ecclesiastes alongside Proverbs in the Wisdom Literature.) The point of their question: "If even the rich have such difficulty, how could there be hope for anyone else?"

b. Jesus' optimism. Jesus answers: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (v. 26). The first part of this reply underscores the point already made in the figure of v. 24. The second part is a magnificent witness to the power of the divine grace to accomplish what man cannot do. Only the mighty grace of God can liberate the rich man from his bondage. What the ultimate decision of the rich man was, we cannot tell; perhaps the absence of further evidence indicates that the decision of v. 22 was his final decision. We may say, however, that the sort of struggle reflected in the man's sadness, could prepare one to admit his failure and sin, to recognize his dire need of the divine grace and power, and in his extremity to call upon God in faith and repentance. It is just such people that Jesus came to help (1:21; 9:12-13).

B. The Riches of the Kingdom. 19:27-30.

1. The coming Reversal. Jesus, responding to Peter's question, speaks of the coming consummation (cf. 6:10; 8:11). When that day comes, he promises Peter and the other disciples, present conditions of suffering and evil and deprivation will be overturned and the powers and graces of the kingdom — already experienced in part - will be fully realized for those who belong to Jesus, v. 29 (cf. comments on 5:3-10). See also below on 19:30.

2. The coming Glory. In the consummation the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne (v. 28a; cf. 25:31-46). His followers will share in his reign (v. 28b); cf. 3.

3. Hope for Israel. The words "the twelve tribes of Israel" (v. 28b) are not, in this instance, an image of the Christian Church, but a reference to the renewal of the nation Israel when God fully establishes his Kingdom on earth (thus too Gundry, 392). Comments:

a. This does not discount the certainty and severity of the judgment which lies ahead for the nation of Israel (cf. the comments on 21:18-22; 21:28-2- 2:14). But it does indicate (as often in the OT) that God's grace follows in the wake of his judgment, and that God's very judgment calls forth his grace. It is the present generation of Jews that will suffer God's judgment. At the time of the Kingdom's consummation, there will be a great ingathering of Israelites into the Kingdom. "Matthew does not regard God's rejection of Israel (21:43) as permanent" (Gundry, 393). Israel is one of the "nations" embraced by the Commission of 28:18-20.

b. This reading of the present passage agrees with Rom 9-11, at least with the line of interpretation which seems to me to be most reasonable for these chapters of Romans. See especially Rom 11:1 ("I ask then, did God reject his people? By no means!"), 25-27 (including the words "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel shall be saved..."). I take "Israel" in both passages to denote God's elect Israelites from within ethnic Israel (thus too Herman Ridderbos, Romans).

c. Jesus here appoints the twelve apostles to "judge" (krin©) the twelve tribes of Israel on that Day. Here "judging" means fundamentally not punishing but (as in the Book of Judges) governing. "Jesus promises dominion to the twelve and makes Israel their subjects. Matthew's use of 'regeneration' [palingenesia] agrees with Jesus' promise by making the governing of Israel harmonize with Israel's renewal in a messianic kingdom on earth" (Gundry, 393).

4. The transition. V. 30 links the present section with the parable of 20:1-16 (note 20:16). We shall consider the meaning of this saying after looking at the parable.

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