Updated: Jan 30, 2021
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 19:16-26
In one of the most amazing passages in the Bible, Jesus sets a surprising standard that terrifies His disciples. What’s the one thing you won’t give up for God? Well, that’s what He wants. But it’s nothing to be afraid of—there’s nothing you can give up that God won’t restore 100-fold in eternal life. So . . . follow Jesus!
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven!" Matthew 19:23
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
I’m really not sure where you want to go with this passage, so let me give you several ideas. This first one is about longevity in the workplace. The longer you work somewhere, do you expect that the company should do something nice(r) for you when you retire? Do you think that the kind of work you did should impact your retirement gift? How would you feel if your company didn’t really do anything for you other than a cake? Some people really get caught up in this. (As in, wasn't this the entire plot device behind Speed?) You would use this as an illustration to show that lots of people believe that we should get what we’ve earned/deserve. Jesus addresses this mentality in the very next section (the parable of the workers in the vineyard), saying that “wages” are simply what the master chooses to give. In life, we should be focused on “being the best employee”.
This might be too morbid, but it might get your group thinking. What does “R.I.P.” mean? Why would we put “Rest in Peace” on a tombstone? The truth is that most people in the world look at life as a struggle, that you work and strive your whole life until your body gives out. Always seeking to please someone, always seeking to satisfy something. “I’ll rest when I’m dead” is the sentiment. Well, the rich young man certainly had some of those characteristics. He had worked and worked, knew something was still missing, and wanted to work even more to fix it. Is that you, too?
That Nagging Thing You Can’t Quite Remember.
Or try this one to get people talking. Have you ever had a word “on the tip of your tongue” or a thought that you can’t quite figure out but know is just on the edge of your brain ifyoucouldjustsomehowtriggeritarrgh. Well, that’s actually a documented syndrome, called Tip-of-the-Tongue (TOT) Syndrome (really). The best way out of it is not to look up the answer because that actually uses a different part of your brain and makes it more likely for you to forget that word or name again. Rather, you should ask someone and let them tell you the answer verbally because that puts the word or name in the correct part of your brain to recall it later. Just a public service announcement. What does this have to do with anything? Well, the rich young man was unsettled. He was missing something and he didn’t know quite what, so he went to Jesus for help. But then he didn’t listen and obey, so whatever.
What Makes a Marriage Work?
And then there’s this approach that might work in some groups. Ask, “What makes a marriage healthy? Is it the big things or the little things?” Well, it’s both. But the big things won’t matter if the little things are all wrong. Some spouses say “I love my spouse so much, I would take a bullet for him/her.” That’s great, but do you take out the garbage and help with the dishes? You see, that’s what the rich young man wanted out of his relationship with God. He wanted something big and grand that he could check off the list—"what’s something big I can do to prove to God how devoted I am to Him?" So Jesus gave him a big and grand suggestion (sell everything and give it away). But the rich man couldn’t do it. Why? Because he had neglected all the little things along the way, and there was no true relationship there to begin with.
An Outline of Matthew
You should remember from the Bible Project video (and a few things that I’ve said) that Matthew’s Gospel is brilliantly organized. Let me outline where we are so you can best understand where we’re going in these next months.
I. Prologue: The origin and birth of Jesus the Christ (1:1-2:23)
II. Cycle 1: The Gospel of the Kingdom (3:1-7:29)
A. Narrative: Early Galilean ministry (3:1-4:25)
B. First Discourse: The Sermon on the Mount (The Kingdom) (5:1-7:29)
III. Cycle 2: The Kingdom grows under Jesus’ authority (8:1-11:1)
A. Narrative: Miracles demonstrating authority (8:1-10:4)
B. Second Discourse: Commissioning the disciples (10:5-11:1)
IV. Cycle 3: Opposition grows to the Kingdom
A. Narrative: Conflicts with John the Baptist and the Pharisees (11:2-12:50)
B. Third Discourse: Parables about the Kingdom (13:1-53)
V. Cycle 4: The glory and the shadow and continued polarization (13:54-19:2)
A. Narrative: Greater miracles, greater signs, greater confessions (13:54-17:27)
B. Fourth Discourse: Life under Kingdom authority (18:1-19:2)
*VI. Cycle 5: Final cycle: The triumph of grace (19:3-26:5)
A. Narrative: Correcting our understanding of Kingdom living (19:3-23:39)
1. The meaning of marriage (19:3-12)
2. The value of children (19:13-15)
*3. The place of wealth (19:16-30)
4. “Wages” in the Kingdom (20:1-16)
5. Predicting the passion (20:17-19)
6. Suffering and service (20:20-28)
7. Healing two blind men (20:29-34)
8. The opening of the Passion Week (21:1-23:39)
B. Fifth Discourse: The Olivet Discourse (The End of All Things) (24:1-25:46)
VII. Epilogue: The passion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (26:6-28:20)
A. The Passion 926:6-27:66)
B. The Resurrection (28:1-15)
C. The Commission (28:16-20)
We are in Matthew’s final “cycle” of writing. We have seen Jesus’ proof of who He is rise to its highest point, and we’ve realized that the opposition has cranked up right along with it. So now, before the Gospel reaches its inevitable conclusion, Matthew covers the final topics, literally. Jesus’ final discourse is about the end of all things. And Matthew’s final narrative section covers either receiving eternal life or understanding eternal life. Take a close look at the themes: if you don’t have a right view of marriage or children, you don’t understand the Kingdom. If you don’t understand sacrifice and reward, you don’t understand the Kingdom. If you think you’ve earned anything and don’t simply throw yourself on the mercy of God, you don’t understand the Kingdom. It’s quite tight. I’ll say more about the Kingdom of God/Heaven in two weeks.
Bonus Topic: American Protestants and the Self-Made Man
This topic will be harder to discuss than you think because most of us won’t say we have a problem with it. ”I’m not anything like the rich young man!” The problem is deeply rooted in American culture—the “self-made man”. It is considered a virtue for a young person to make his/her own way in our world, to make something of himself. Most Protestants look very negatively on voluntary freeloading. America exists because of the blood, sweat, and tears of countless pioneers, and it is believed (even rightly so) that the take-care-of-me/remove-all-risks attitude springing up around us will be the downfall of our nation. Unfortunately, that trickles into our religion. Religion is something we do. Christianity is what God has done for us (that we can’t do for ourselves at all).
Part 1: Standard Defined (Matthew 19:16-20)
Just then someone came up and asked Him, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” “Why do you ask Me about what is good?” He said to him. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked Him. Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. “I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack?”
I have encouraged you to keep up with the different Gospel accounts; this episode also appears in Mark and Luke. Mark mentions that the man ran up to Jesus and knelt; Luke said he was a ruler. Matthew’s focus is on how Jesus responds. Both Mark and Luke say he called Jesus “Good teacher” which probably isn’t a significant change because he immediately asks about a “good thing”. As Jesus points out, “good” can only apply to God, so it means the same in either location.
This man, like a lot of people today, gets that there is some kind of connection between doing a good thing and receiving eternal life (I think that he’s asking the equivalent question to “How can I be saved?”). If you’re starting from scratch, that’s a good place. If you’re starting with baggage, like this man, you have to be broken down first and realize that your definition of good will always fall short of God’s. In other words, you have to be saved from your religion (those good things you think you’re supposed to do) before you can understand what you’re really asking. I don’t think this man was trying to justify himself and show off in front of his friends. He seems truly earnest. He gets that there is something missing in his life, but he doesn’t know what it is. He goes to Jesus (that’s a good thing!) but reveals that he’s completely on the wrong track—thinking that heaven is about what he does. Jesus sneaks in the answer right at the beginning! He says that God alone is good. That’s a big hint that the young man isn’t good, and that the focus shouldn’t be on a good thing but on a good person (and again, there’s only one good person). The man should have been thinking about what he was asking.
Jesus’ answer probably was disappointing to the man! It sounds like a standard answer we would expect to hear from any religious hack. “Keep the commandments!” Wait, isn’t that the exact opposite of what Christians are supposed to say? Ah - remember that Jesus is far more clever than we are. I’ve already pointed out that He gave the answer at the very beginning. But let’s parse the rest of his words carefully.
Jesus mentions commandments 6, 7, 8, 9, and 5, and then adds the “love your neighbor” bit (Mark and Luke don’t mention that). Here’s your teaching exercise: have your group come up with the Ten Commandments in order (no cheating!). Then ask them, what did Jesus change and leave out, and why? Jesus only mentioned the “second table” of the Law (summarized by the “love your neighbor”) because He understood the man’s problem. The man immediately responds with “I’ve kept those. What am I missing?” What are you missing? The entire first table of the law!! The problem is that the man assumed he was getting that part right. Just like a lot of people today. Jesus had to prove to him otherwise, but did so by not addressing it at all—brilliant! Please note that Jesus responded compassionately, not angrily. The young man was sincere, but misguided.
Aside: Wealth in Ancient Judaism
Like people today who hold to the "prosperity gospel", Jews in Jesus’ day unilaterally considered wealth a sign of God’s blessing. Wealthy people were favored by God, and poor people had done something wrong. Consequently, when Jesus appeared on the scene with His grand talk of a “great reverse” (the first and the last will be switched), that confused a lot of people, not the least of which were the wealthy. Try to be sympathetic, though—if you had been taught that your wealth was proof of God’s blessing, why would you want to give it away? You see, Jesus had to change them from the inside out. Their entire manner of understanding God had to be torn down before salvation would make any sense.
Part 2: Impossible to Keep (Matthew 19:21-22)
“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” When the young man heard that command, he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.
Jesus’ answer has a double meaning. It is not a double standard, as some have accused (that Jesus was being harder on this guy because he was rich). Jesus would always hit the seeker where it hurt the most. The word “perfect” means “complete”. It’s certainly the grand goal the young man was looking for. The problem is that the man didn’t understand the meaning of the word. He saw it through earthly, human eyes. But we will never be able to be complete in and of ourselves. We will always have a hole in our lives that we can’t fill. It’s not about being good enough because we will never be good enough. Think about this young man—he was a good guy, thought highly of himself, but when Jesus said what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and never once mentioned God, the young man didn’t even notice it!!! That's the lesson. He had no idea how far off his heart was. (By the way, “young” could refer to a wide range of ages.)
So Jesus gave him a concrete illustrative command to show him evidence of his imperfection: sell what you have and give it to the poor. Note that Jesus never asked this of anyone else. What do you think it means? Here’s how I explain it. There’s a bizarre old Meatloaf song “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” (We don’t know what “that” is. Look it up, kids.) Jesus applies that mentality to a relationship with God necessary for eternal life. “You say you would do anything for God. Anything? Are you sure?” In the man’s heart, there was a “but I won’t do that”, and that’s immediately where Jesus went. Why beat around the bush? “You are not as wholly devoted to God as you think, and here’s the proof.” I actually don’t think it matters exactly what Jesus was asking because the point was that the man wouldn’t do it. This isn’t about the peril of riches (as monastic movements have interpreted it) or the importance of giving to the poor (as Islam has interpreted it), it’s about holding nothing back from God. That line will be different for every human being. Here’s what I want you to do: come up with a list of increasingly difficult things a person could do for God (that God could conceivably ask), like
tell your neighbor about Jesus,
leave a job where you were asked to do immoral things,
break up a friendship where God was not honored,
leave your home to be a missionary,
sell everything and serve the poor in downtown Atlanta,
you name it.
Make it a tough list! I’m hoping you find some things that even you would be uncomfortable considering!
But make sure you explain the real point! God may never ask you to . . . sell everything, leave the country, whatever, but the real question is would you be willing? If there’s something you wouldn’t be willing to do, that’s where God will come calling.
Here’s a way to illustrate this: If your house was on fire, what would you save? And then the followup, What kind of risk would you take to save it? We can learn a lot about ourselves with these answers. I would do everything I could to save our living things (the people and the pets). I would be very sad about pictures, heirlooms, and valuable items, but I like to think I could just let that go. Would you be crushed, devastated by what you lost? Why? That might be a red flag that you’re a little too attached.
Aside: Come, Follow Me
If you haven’t read the simple book Follow Me by David Platt, it’s worth your time. Essentially, he roots this call in a relationship with God, something the rich young man obviously missed! Jesus issued the very same call to “Come, follow Me” to the disciples in their boats (4:19) and to Matthew at the tax collector’s booth (9:9). They may not have had the amount of wealth as the rich man, but they still had to choose to leave what they had. The problem today, with churches on every corner, is that people think they can follow Jesus without leaving anything behind. They keep their same job, same friends, same lifestyle, same house, same everything, with just a few minor tweaks here and there (more charitable giving, less profanity).
Here's the thing: you don’t have to leave your home in order to follow Jesus, you don’t even have to leave your life. But you do have to leave your old self. The rich man’s self was tied up in his wealth, and he could not let go of it. As you follow Jesus, ask yourself what you’ve left behind. Not all of the disciples had to leave their home. Not all of the disciples went “out on mission”, but all of them knew their lives would never be the same. No minor tweaks for them!
Part 3: Provision to Accept (Matthew 19:23-26)
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were utterly astonished and asked, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
So Jesus, as He has done repeatedly in this section of the Gospel, makes another grand point that turns His disciples’ views on their head. They thought that rich people were blessed by God. But if rich people are going to have problems getting into heaven, who can get into heaven?? That, of course, is the whole point that Jesus has been trying to make! People can’t do anything on their own to get into heaven. Only God can make that happen. In a Jewish world about keeping commandments, that was inconceivable. In their worldview, God set the rules for entering heaven, and then the people had to follow them. And in our world of self-made people, it’s equally difficult to understand. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO MAKE YOUR WAY INTO HEAVEN. I’m sad that the lesson stops here; the next few verses explain what this claim means to us. Peter immediately asks, “But what about us?” because now he’s worried—if it’s impossible for people to do enough to be saved, then are the disciples okay? And Jesus reassures him that their choice will be honored. And then Jesus tells the fabulous parable of the workers in the vineyard where we learn that everybody earns the same wages, regardless of the amount of work they did. Was it because the master did not appreciate the early workers? No! The master had compassion for all of the workers. And he gave each of them best wage he had. It was not about the workers at all but about the master and his generosity and compassion. And that’s where we get it wrong (where the rich young man got it wrong)—we try to make this about us. And it isn’t! It’s all about God.
There’s an awful lot of irony in this story. The rich young man wanted some sort of “wow” command to reassure his self-doubts to prove his commitment to God. And Jesus gave him one—but one he realized he couldn’t keep! And then we find out that it really isn’t about that command at all, it’s about putting God first. And then we get to the greatest irony of all: what’s actually instrumental in salvation is even more mind-blowing than what Jesus commanded. Surrendering everything to God and acknowledging that you cannot do anything for yourself in salvation, that’s what it takes.
I like to think that the rich young man eventually, finally realized what Jesus was saying and was one of the people converted at Pentecost. It’s possible. Ask some questions to wrap this up: Jesus pinpointed the one matter in the young man’s life that would keep him from following Jesus. If Jesus needed to pinpoint something in your life, what would it be? Should you be a little more worried about that thing than perhaps you are? Second: What have you given up to follow Jesus? (Or have you tried to follow Jesus without giving anything up at all?) What has been the result of those things no longer being in your life? If you can’t answer those questions quickly and easily, then we need to spend some serious time in personal reflection this week. It is the season of Lent, and that’s what Lent is all about. What have we sacrificed to be better followers of Jesus?
Aside: Camels and Needles
This is just a strange saying. Some have said that “the eye of a needle” was the name of a same gate in Jerusalem. No such gate has ever been recorded. Then the word for “camel” is chamilos, which is very close to the Greek word chamelos, which means “heavy rope”. Some have thus claimed that Jesus meant to say “harder for a large rope to go through the eye of a needle . . .” and it was written down incorrectly. While that is possible, that’s unnecessary to speculate. Camels are essentially the largest land animals in the Near East. As you might imagine, size is actually a terrible liability in the desert, where the lack of food and water make survival very difficult. If you look up any list of the most amazing desert creatures, you will always find the camel at the top of that list. (Of course, they will always call the camel an “adaptation” rather than just enjoy it as an amazing creation of God.) Camels can grow to 1600 pounds—heavier than a water buffalo.
This is the point of Jesus’ curious saying: it’s humorous. It’s a Jesus joke. Jesus is saying something funny to illustrate just how wrong-headed the rich man was about his wealth and also how wrong-headed the disciples were about salvation. None of it is about them—all of it is about the grace of God. If God can save the disciples, God can save the rich man. But they each have to stop thinking of it as some kind of chore.
Closing Thoughts: Is It Really That Hard for a Rich Person to Be Saved?
Look, it’s no harder for a rich person to be saved than any other person. But the numbers most certainly bear out that wealthier people tend not to be committed Christians. Is that the chicken, or the egg? This is interesting. In a 2012 survey, we found out that 45% of atheists/agnostics had a 4-year degree (30% otherwise), and 45% reported making more than $75,000/year (the average household income was $51,000). This Pew Forum survey from 2015 found about income brackets:
<$30k $30-50k $50-100k >$100k
Evangelical Protestants 35% 22% 28% 14%
Do not believe in God 7% 9% 11% 14%
Religion is very important 58% 53% 48% 42%
Seldom attend religious services 31% 31% 30% 32%
Believe in heaven 77% 73% 70% 61%
This table absolutely fascinates me. On the one hand, it shows some negative correlation between wealth and religion. But on the other, it says that income doesn't make us quite as different as some make us out to be. Common sense says that wealthier people don’t worry so much about God because they can take care of their own needs. It also says that the more education you have (which corresponds to wealth) the less you believe in Jesus jargon. But there are other factors to consider. What kinds of people tend to make lots of money? In what kinds of households were they raised? And there are lots of other circumstances that could be involved. So the numbers say that it is rarer for a rich person to be saved—but what makes that “hard” is probably a myriad of circumstances behind each person’s individual story of gaining that wealth.