Matthew 19: To Be or not to Be Rich

The Rich Young Man (19:16–22)

These verses detail a conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and a young man who came to him to inquire about the way to eternal life. Like every conversation recorded in the Gospels between our Lord and an individual, it deserves special attention. Salvation is an individual business: every one who wishes to be saved must have private personal dealings with Christ about his own soul.

1. One May Desire Salvation Without Being Saved

First, we see from the case of this young man that a person may desire salvation, and yet not be saved. Here is one who in a day of abounding unbelief comes of his own accord to Christ. He does not come to have a sickness healed; he does not come to plead about a child: he comes about his own soul. He opens the discussion with the frank question, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (verse 16). Surely we might have thought, “This is a promising start: this is no prejudiced ruler or Pharisee: this is a hopeful inquirer.” Yet, by and by, this young man “went away sad” (verse 22), and we never read a word to show that he was converted!

We must never forget that good feelings alone in religion are not the grace of God. We may know the truth intellectually; we may often feel pricked in conscience; we may have religious affections awakened within us, have many anxieties about our souls and shed many tears; but all this is not conversion. It is not the genuine saving work of the Holy Spirit.
Unhappily this is not all that must be said on this point. Not only are good feelings alone not grace, but they are even positively dangerous if we content ourselves with them, and do not act as well as feel. It is a profound remark of that mighty master on moral questions, Bishop Butler, that passive impressions, often repeated, produce a habit in a person’s mind; feelings often indulged in, without leading to corresponding actions, will finally exercise no influence at all.

Let us apply this lesson to our own state. Perhaps we know what it is to feel religious fears, wishes and desires. Let us beware that we do not rest in them. Let us never be satisfied till we have the witness of the Spirit in our hearts that we are actually born again and new creatures; let us never rest till we know that we have really repented, and laid hold on the hope set before us in the Gospel. It is good to feel; but it is far better to be converted.

2. An Unconverted Person is Often Spiritually Ignorant

Second, we see from this young man’s case that an unconverted person is often profoundly ignorant about spiritual subjects. Our Lord refers this inquirer to the eternal standard of right and wrong, the moral law. Seeing that he speaks so boldly about “doing,” he tries him by a command well calculated to draw out the real state of his heart: “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (verse 17). He even repeats to him the second tablet of the law; and at once the young man confidently replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (verse 20). So utterly ignorant is he of the spirituality of God’s commands that he never doubts that he has perfectly fulfilled them. He seems completely unaware that the commandments apply to the thoughts and words as well as to the deeds, and that if God were to enter into judgment with him, he could “not answer him one time out of a thousand” (Job 9:3). How dark must his mind have been about the nature of God’s law! How low must his ideas have been about the holiness which God requires!

It is a melancholy fact that ignorance like that of this young man is only too common in the church of Christ. There are thousands of baptized people who know no more of the leading doctrines of Christianity than the heathen. Tens of thousands fill churches and chapels weekly, who are utterly in the dark as to the full extent of man’s sinfulness. They cling obstinately to the old notion that in some way or other their own actions can save them; and when ministers visit them on their death-beds, they prove as blind as if they had never heard truth at all. It is so true that the “man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

3. One Cherished Idol May Ruin a Soul Forever

Third, we know from this young man’s case that one idol cherished in the heart may ruin a soul forever. Our Lord, who knew what was in man, at last shows his inquirer his besetting sin. The same searching voice which said to the Samaritan woman, “Go, call your husband” (John 4:16) says to the young man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (verse 21). At once the weak point in his character is detected. It turns out that, with all his wishes and desires after eternal life, there was one thing he loved better than his soul, and that was his money. He cannot stand the test. He is weighed in the balance, and found wanting. And the story ends with the melancholy words, “He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (verse 22).

We have in this story one more proof of the truth, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). We must place this young man in our memories by the side of Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, and learn to beware of covetousness. Alas, it is a rock on which thousands are continually being shipwrecked. There is hardly a minister of the Gospel who could not point to many in his congregation who, humanly speaking, are “not far from the kingdom of God,” but they never seem to make progress. They wish, they feel, they mean well, they hope, but there they stick fast! And why? Because they are fond of money.

Let us test our own selves, as we leave the passage. Let us see how it touches our own souls. Are we honest and sincere in our professed desire to be true Christians? Have we cast away all our idols? Is there no secret sin that we are silently clinging to, and refusing to give up? Is there no thing or person that we are privately loving more than Christ and our souls? These are questions that ought to be answered. The true explanation of the unsatisfactory state of many hearers of the Gospel is spiritual idolatry. We need not wonder that St. John says, “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

The Danger of Riches; Leaving Everything for Christ (19:23–30)

1. The Danger Riches Bring to the Soul

First, we learn in these verses the immense danger which riches bring on the souls of those who possess them. The Lord Jesus declares that “it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 23). He goes even further. He uses a proverbial saying to strengthen his assertion: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (verse 24).

Few of our Lord’s sayings sound more startling than this; few run more counter to the opinions and prejudices of mankind; few are so little believed; yet this saying is true, and deserves to be accepted by everyone. Riches, which all desire to obtain—riches, for which people labor and toil and become gray before their time—riches are the most perilous possession. They often inflict great injury on the soul; they lead people into many temptations; they engross people’s thoughts and affections; they bind heavy burdens on the heart, and make the way to heaven even more difficult than it naturally is.

Let us beware of the love of money. It is possible to use it well, and do good with it; but for one who makes a right use of money, there are thousands who make a wrong use of it, and do harm both to themselves and others. Let the worldly, if they want, make an idol of money, and count them happiest who have most of it. But let Christians, who profess to have “treasure in heaven” (verse 21), set their face, like a flint, against the spirit of the world in this matter. Let them not worship gold. The best in God’s eyes are not those who have the most money, but those who have the most grace.

Let us pray daily for rich people’s souls. They are not to be envied, they are deeply to be pitied. They carry heavy weights in the Christian course; they are the least likely of anyone to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Their prosperity in this world is often their destruction in the world to come. Well may the Litany of the Church of England contain the words, “In all time of our wealth, good Lord, deliver us.”

2. The Power of God’s Grace in the Soul

Second, we learn in this passage the almighty power of God’s grace in the soul. The disciples were amazed when they heard our Lord’s language about rich people. It was language so entirely contrary to all their thoughts about the advantages of wealth that they cried out with surprise, “Who then can be saved?” (verse 25). They drew from our Lord a gracious answer: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). The Holy Spirit can incline even the richest to seek treasure in heaven. He can dispose even kings to cast their crowns at the feet of Jesus, and to count all things loss for the sake of the kingdom of God. Proof upon proof of this is given to us in the Bible. Abraham was very rich, yet he was the father of the faithful; Moses might have been a prince or king in Egypt, but he left all his brilliant prospects for the sake of him who is invisible; Job was the wealthiest man in the East, yet he was a chosen servant of God; David, Jehoshaphat, Josiah, Hezekiah were all wealthy monarchs, but they loved God’s favor more than their earthly greatness. They all show us that “nothing is too hard for the Lord,” and that faith can grow even in the most unlikely soil.
Let us hold this doctrine fast, and never let it go. No man’s place or circumstances shut him out from the kingdom of God; let us never despair of anyone’s salvation. No doubt rich people require special grace, and are exposed to special temptations. But the Lord God of Abraham, Moses, Job and David has not changed. He who saved them in spite of their riches can save other people as well. When he acts, who can reverse it (Isaiah 43:13)?

3. Encouragement to Those Who Give Up Everything for Christ

Third, we learn in these verses the immense encouragement the Gospel offers to those who give up everything for Christ’s sake. We are told that Peter asked our Lord what he and the other apostles, who had forsaken their little all for his sake, should receive in return. He received a most gracious reply. A full recompense shall be made to all who make sacrifices for Christ’s sake: they “will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (verse 29).

There is something very cheering in this promise. Few in the present day, except converts among the heathen, are ever required to leave homes, relatives and lands on account of their religion; yet there are few true Christians who do not have to do this in one way or another if they are really faithful to their Lord. The stumbling-block of the cross is not yet over: laughter, ridicule, mockery and family persecution often hit a believer. The favor of the world is frequently forfeited by a conscientious adherence to the demands of the Gospel of Christ. All who are exposed to trials of this kind may take comfort in the promise of these verses. Jesus foresaw their need, and intended these words to be their consolation.

We may rest assured that no one will ever be a real loser by following Christ. The believer may seem to suffer loss for a time when he first begins the life of a committed Christian; he may be cast down by the afflictions that besiege him on account of his religion. Let him rest assured that he will never find himself a loser in the long run. Christ can raise up friends for us who will more than compensate for those we lose; Christ can open hearts and homes to us far more warm and hospitable than those that are closed against us; above all, Christ can give us peace of conscience, inward joy, bright hopes and happy feelings, which will far outweigh every pleasant earthly thing that we have cast away for his sake. He has pledged his royal word that it will be so. No one ever found that word to fail: let us trust it and not be afraid.