Mother Escolástica Ottoni de Mattos, OSB
Abbess of Santa Maria, São Paulo (Brazil)
The rich young man (Matthew 19.16-26)
A Key Question
16And now a man came to him and asked, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?’ 17Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18He said, ‘Which ones?’ Jesus replied, ‘You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false witness. 19Honour your father and your mother. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 20The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these. What do I still lack?’ 21Jesus said, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ 22But when the young man heard these words he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Amen I say to you, it is hard for someone rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven. 24I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.’ 25When the disciples heard this they were much astonished, saying, ‘Who can be saved, then?’ 26Jesus gazed at them and said to them, ‘By human resources it is impossible; for God everything is possible.’
As we read this passage let us stop at the first words, ‘Now a man came to him’. Let us consider the variety of people who come to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and their different motives. Let us put ourselves too inside this movement of approaching Jesus; let us approach him.
4.3 The Tempter approaches Jesus to test him.
4.11 Angels approach him to serve him.
8.2 A leper approaches him to be cleansed.
8.19-20 A scribe approaches him and offers to follow him wherever he goes.
13.36 The disciples approach to ask the meaning of a parable.
17.14 A man approaches to ask his pity on his possessed son.
26.7 A woman approaches with an alabaster flask to anoint Jesus’ head.
26.49 Judas approaches to give Jesus the kiss of death.
Here, in 19.16, a man approaches him and asks, ‘What good deed must I do to possess eternal life?’ The person who approaches in this passage is called ‘someone’ (eis in Greek). This could be any of us. Nevertheless, he addresses Jesus as ‘Master’.
- He is seeking eternal life
- He is a young man
- He keeps the commandments
- He does not go in for half-measures, since he goes off sad because he finds it impossible to accept the one thing he lacks
- To have nothing, only ‘treasure in heaven’, is the final lesson.
Let us look carefully at the passage. It is composed of two distinct highly structured scenes:
1. Dialogue of a man with Jesus
a. Approach to Jesus (v. 16a)
b. Question to Jesus (v. 16b)
c. Answer of Jesus (v. 18b-19)
b’ Question to Jesus (v. 20)
c’ Answer of Jesus (v. 21)
a’ Departure from Jesus (v. 22)
This dialogue is framed by a conflict which is all the sharper in that it concerns a commitment of the whole life, and even of the after-life.
As for ‘everything’, the demand is for everything:
v. 16 approach is balanced by departure (v. 22)
v. 16 ‘to have eternal life’ is opposed ‘to have many possessions’ (v. 22)
In the course of the exchange (v. 21) there are many antitheses: go><come, sell=""><possess, give="" to="" the="" poor="">The young man is preoccupied with HAVING; being rich and accustomed to having, he wants, with all good and logical intention, to have eternal life. Jesus presents him with another reality, ‘be perfect…follow me’ and so have nothing. It is a matter of total dispossession in view of the Absolute which is calling him. As Romano Guardini underlines, ‘Possessing anything is already to be rich… What matters is possession itself.’ St Benedict reminds us in the chapter on good works, ‘to prefer nothing to Christ’ (Rule 4.21). And again at the end of his Rule, as a witness who has taken the Christian and monastic life seriously, he says, ‘To prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life’ (Rule 72.11-12).
The commandments of the Law, expressed in negative form, already show the presence of a need which represents a void, a void needing to be filled, a dispossession of the instinct to kill, to commit adultery, to steal, to bear false witness. Paul Beauchamp attests, ‘The prohibitions of the dialogue create a void in front of a space where God asks nothing’ The whole Law is represented by the commandments quoted.
Next ‘What do I still lack’ and ‘If you wish to be perfect’ (v. 20-21). The adjective teleios signifies a completed action, brought to maturity. In addition this is evoked by the word translated ‘commandment’ entole, en teleios in view of completion. This young man has not yet reached maturity even though he observes the commandments. He is caught in a coming-and-going between selling and possessing, giving to the poor or keeping for himself; he is at the beginning of the road. The founder of Hassidism, Baal-Shem-Tov, a seventeenth century rabbi, gives us this pearl from the Jewish tradition:
These are the words which Moses spoke to all the sons of Israel beyond the Jordan in the desert (Dt 1.1). More than one person thinks he has found God and is entirely wrong. More than one person thinks that he is longing for God at a distance when God is within him. For yourself, always think that you are finding yourself on the bank of the Jordan although you have not yet entered the land. And if you have already kept several of the commandments, be aware that you have done nothing.
In all his approaches and departures, his coming and going, the young man clings to his possessions. He cannot accept the void which is the place of Christ within himself.
2. Dialogue of Jesus with his disciples
a. Saying of Jesus
1. Difficult for a rich man to enter (v. 23)
2. Easier for a camel to pass through (v. 24)
b. Question of the disciples to Jesus: ‘then who can be saved?’(v. 25)
a’ Saying of Jesus
1. Impossible for men (v. 26)
2. Possible for God (v. 26).
At the heart of this sharp antithesis (‘difficult…easy’) the disciples’ question arises dramatically; it concerns salvation. ‘Being saved’ is a reality which occurs often in the gospel of Matthew from the very beginning as we can see:
- It is linked to the very name of Jesus: ‘You will call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.1).
- It can also be linked to danger: ‘Lord, save us, we are sinking’ (Matthew 8.25)
- To an illness: ‘If I can only touch his tunic I shall be saved’ (Matthew 9.21-22).
The objective of our pericope is expressed in this verse, ‘Whoever holds firm till the end (eis telos) will be saved (sothesetai)’ (Matthew 10.22). Again the perspective of achievement. Nothing can happen outside this perspective, but for Jesus holding firm to the end means the cross, the doorway by which life is entered. The question is so serious that Jesus leaves it to be understood that such a task is possible only for God. By this he shows us the necessary dependence of salvation on God. Jesus himself is not saved alone. It is to this that he is invited on the cross, ‘If you are the Son of God save yourself and come down from the cross’ (Matthew 27.40). And again, ‘He saved others and he cannot save himself’ (Matthew 27.42).
Jesus, God and man, did not wish to exempt himself from this need. As St Paul puts it to the Philippians 2.6-8, ‘Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness, and found in human shape; he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, death on a cross.’ To save oneself is not going to the limits of dispossessing oneself, it is coming down from the cross, having no need of it. Nevertheless, this is what gives us the key to dispossession.
As the Letter to the Hebrews tell us, Moses ‘considered that the humiliations offered to the Anointed were more precious than the treasures of Egypt, because he had his eyes fixed on the reward’ (Hebrews 11.26). The Jewish tradition tells us that Moses entered upon life through the kiss of the divine. Even if we live for 120 years in dialogue with God, we must have the courage to free ourselves as he did in order to get rid of our too formal certainties and our illusions. We must be on the road ‘from one beginning to another’ following Christ over the fascinating abyss and the unquenchable novelty of this question, ‘What do I still lack?’
 Romano Guardini, ‘The Lord’, vol 1 (Paris, ed. Alsatia (1945), p. 322).
 Paul Beauchamp, ‘D’une montagne à l’autre, la Loi de Dieu’, (Paris, ed. du Seuil (1999), p. 33).
 Martin Buber, ‘Vivre en bonne entente avec Dieu selon le Baal-Shem-Tov’ (ed. du Rocher, 1990, p. 106).
 Ovadiah Camhy, ‘Paroles du Talmud’, ed. Stock (1951), p. 79. Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Life of Moses’, 1.