The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke each record an account of a rich man who comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Here is Matthew’s account, found in Matthew 19:16-23 WEB (R))
“Behold, one came to him and said, “Good teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Eternal life is the subject of this entire conversation). He said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is, God. (Right away, Jesus challenges this man’s perception of what constitutes “good”). But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder.’ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ‘You shall not steal.’ ‘You shall not offer false testimony.’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’ And, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” The young man said to him, “All these things I have observed from my youth. What do I still lack?” (He and Jesus knew the keeping of law can never make one perfect (literally: “fully mature” or “complete”)). Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect (complete/mature), go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Following law is one thing, but only following the way of Jesus leads to “perfection” or full maturity). But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sad, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus said to his disciples, “Most certainly I say to you, a rich man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty” (Jesus compares having “eternal life” with “entering the Kingdom of Heaven”).
This can be a troubling passage for those with wealth, such as most Americans (did you know if you make $25,000 per year, you earn more than 90% of all people on earth?)1 But is Jesus really saying that if you own anything, you can’t follow him, can’t inherit eternal life or enter the Kingdom of Heaven? The answer is obviously no.2
To understand what Jesus meant, it’s important to remember that in public, Jesus always spoke in parables, as Matthew 13:34-35 says. This is why Jesus so often said “he who has ears to hear, let him hear,“ which essentially means “only those with spiritual understanding will apprehend the meaning of my words.” So, let’s look beyond the obvious, surface interpretation to the spiritual.
After the man goes away, Jesus tells his disciples a rich man will “enter into the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty.” So, somehow poverty helps one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This reminds me of Jesus’ earlier sermon on the mount, in which he said: “Blessed are the poor in >spirit<, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”3 As I’m going to try to demonstrate, it wasn’t this man’s material riches that were the issue, but his spiritual ones! To those with ears to hear, to “sell all you have” isn’t speaking of physical/material things, but inward things, of our heart – things like our own understandings, our own ways, and anything of our own which give us a feeling of security and confidence before God. These are the “great possessions” which hinder us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to become poor in spirit, to do so, which I will explain.
Matthew 13:44-46 records a couple small parables Jesus told about the Kingdom of Heaven: “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Do you see that?! The price quoted to the rich man for eternal life and the price these men paid to get the kingdom of heaven is exactly the same – all you have! Whether you have “great possessions” like the man who approached Jesus, or possess very few things, the Kingdom of Heaven is still going to cost the exact same price – everything!
Those who own “great possessions” are those who, in their own eyes, are secure and confident before God based on their obedience, their doctrines, or any number of their own ideas or ways. They are like the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:17 of whom Jesus said: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing;’ and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” This man’s “great possessions” were based on his strict adherence to the law. He said that though he had kept the commandments from his youth, he still “lacked” something. What he lacked was poverty of spirit.
Jesus said “a rich man will enter into the Kingdom with difficulty“ because those who find security, confidence, and comfort (i.e. “riches”) before God based on ANY of their own understandings, ways, or behaviors, will feel they have the most to lose. Both outwardly and inwardly, the more you have and the more valuable it is to you, the harder and costlier it is to give it up. Very often it is religious and devout people who have the hardest time “selling what they have,” because they feel their possessions are divine and of the utmost value and importance. Also, in many cases, forsaking one’s religious ways will also mean losing one’s family and friends. But we CANNOT follow Jesus, inherit eternal life or enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we do so. One reason for this is that nothing “carnal,” that is, nothing which has it’s origin in our human nature inherited from Adam, can exist in God’s spiritual presence. Trying to follow Jesus and worship the Father in spirit and truth while holding on to Adam’s ways (though we may see them as divine) is like trying to make yourself lighter by picking up bags of sand.
Notice the stark difference in the two men. The rich man who approached Jesus “went away sad” at the prospect of selling everything, while in the parable about the Kingdom of Heaven above, the man joyfully sells all he has. This is simply because the rich man felt he had a lot to lose, while the second man did not, realizing how valuable the treasure is and how empty his possessions were in comparison. When you see that, selling everything becomes joyful! What Jesus told the rich man here is basically the same thing he said in his famous statement in Matthew 16:25: “For whoever desires to save his life (holds on to his own ideas and ways (religious or otherwise)) will lose it (God’s spiritual, eternal life), and whoever will lose his life (sells all he has, gives up his own ways) for my sake (in order to follow Jesus’ way) will find it (eternal life and the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven).” You could say that to “sell what you have” is to lay down down your very life. That’s why it’s also referred to as “all you have.”
I also noticed an amazing similarity between all this and what Paul said about himself in Philippians 3:6-9:
“…concerning the righteousness which is in the law, (I was) found blameless (in other words, he had great wealth). However, what things were gain to me (the things that made me rich), these have I counted loss for Christ (he sold all he had). Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in him (because he recognized the far greater worth of eternal life and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, he sold all he had with joy), not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law (his own riches), but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (being rich by virtue of union with God in Christ, receiving eternal life and entering the Kingdom of Heaven)…”
Sell what you have, go ahead and file for bankruptcy and become poor in spirit. It’s ok, your Father is extremely rich and will take care of you. He’s been waiting for you to return to the family business, and your business was actually losing money anyway. Mourn if you need to, but know that bankruptcy is necessary and is the beginning of a spiritual walk. You will end up rejoicing and walking in deeper spiritual places than ever before, without having to fake it or stifle the persistent feeling that something is missing.
I can’t give you an exact guideline of what to do, or say just how it will look in your case. Let the spirit of God lead you, seek and trust him to do so. The Kingdom is within you, the spirit of God is within you – trust that fact and if you need to, start over! It’s ok : ) God bless you…
- The early believers owned homes and had possessions (though they willingly shared them with each-other). At times, the apostle Paul would collect financial offerings, so we know believers had money to give. Additionally, in 1 Timothy 6:17-18, Paul’s counsel to wealthy believers isn’t to sell everything and give it away, but to not trust in their riches and to be willing to share.
- Matthew 5:3