Do you know how to catch a monkey? I’ve heard it said that if you put something the monkey wants, like some fruit, inside a narrow-necked jar, then the monkey will reach in to grab it. However, when he wraps his fist around the fruit he won’t be able to get it out because of the narrow neck of the jar. Rather than let go of the fruit and get his hand out of the jar, the monkey will keep his fist wrapped tightly around that object of desire. And while the monkey is distracted by the fruit in the jar, you catch him.
Today's lectionary reading from Matthew 19:16-30 is all about someone who had his fist wrapped so tightly around something that it was literally killing him….
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”This story is often referred to as the story of The Rich Young Ruler. That just goes to show how after reading the Bible for many years we tend to amalgamate the stories told in the Synoptic Gospels, that is, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three Gospels tell us this man was rich. However, only Matthew says that he was young and only Luke tells us that he was a ruler, that is, a member of an official council or court.
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘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.’”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said 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.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
It would be interesting to preach a sermon series on the great questions of the Bible. Of all the great questions, this is perhaps the greatest. “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
The question is posed in a slightly different fashion in Mark and Luke. There the rich young ruler asks: “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So in Mark and Luke the goodness of the teacher is emphasized whereas in Matthew the goodness of deeds is highlighted.
However, in all three versions of this story we see a man who thinks he can earn eternal life by his good works. And in all three accounts Jesus emphasizes the goodness of God alone. “There is only one who is good.” Nothing can touch, or even come close to, the holiness, the righteousness, the goodness of God. He is above all. Any human goodness is merely an approach, a distant echo of his goodness. For goodness as we use the term is relative.
If I say that you have a good cat I may mean that you have a cat who greets me when I come to your door. Your cat doesn’t scratch me with his claws. And when I sit down on your sofa your cat crawls up into my lap and settles down for a nice nap. But if I say that you are a good person I certainly don’t mean that when I come to your house you jump up into my lap and make yourself comfortable.
Goodness, in reference to human beings, and animals, and the things of this world, is a relative term. But when we are talking about the goodness of God we are speaking of something which is absolute. In comparison to the goodness of God nothing and no one else is really good at all.
That’s the first thing Jesus makes clear to this rich young ruler. The second thing we must be clear about is the nature of “eternal life”. When the young man asks Jesus about entering eternal life he is not talking about going to heaven when he dies. Eternal life is literally “the life of the ages”. It is a whole new quality of life which can begin now for each one of us, and will never end.
We have already seen how for Matthew, and the Jews of Matthew’s time, “kingdom of heaven” doesn’t mean simply “heaven” in our sense of the term. As N. T. Wright points out, “It means God’s sovereign, saving rule coming to transform everything, coming to bring the whole creation into a new state of being, a new life, in which evil, decay and death itself will be done away. Many, perhaps most, Jews of Jesus’ day believed that Israel’s God would do this, and would do it very soon.”
So the question the rich young ruler was asking was: “How can I benefit from the kingdom of heaven when it breaks into our present existence?” Or put another way, “How can I participate in the life of the new age?”
The standard Jewish answer to this question would be to keep the law in some fashion or other—especially those commandments which God gave to Israel through Moses. Jesus appears to give the rich young ruler a typical Jewish answer to his question, but there is a twist.
Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” And the rich young ruler asks, “Which ones?”
That’s a good question since there are 613 commandments in the Torah alone. The rich young ruler was wise to ask Jesus to narrow his answer a bit.
In reply Jesus quotes five of the Ten Commandments and adds to them Leviticus 19:18. The commandments cited by Jesus are slightly different according to Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, in all three accounts these five commandments are noted:
1. Do not murder.
2. Do not commit adultery.
3. Do not steal
4. Do not give false testimony.
5. Honor your father and mother.
Luke puts “do not commit adultery” first. Mark adds “do not defraud” which may be another way of phrasing the commandment “do not covet”. And only Matthew adds: “love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus.
What is most glaring is what Jesus leaves out, according to all three of the synoptic Gospels. In all three Jesus makes no mention of the first four of the Ten Commandments which have to do with a person’s relationship with God. It is as though Jesus is pointing out to the rich young ruler, in a subtle way, his greatest lack.
The young man tells Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments in regard to neighbor, but he too realizes he is lacking something and so asks Jesus about it.
Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect, or complete, that he needs to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. Matthew tells us that when the young man heard this he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
In this last statement this young man’s problem is revealed. Riches were blocking him from receiving the thing he needed most: a relationship with God through Christ. The rich young ruler was just like the monkey with his fist in the narrow-necked jar—except that his fist was wrapped around "the almighty dollar".
We will consider the rest of this passage in tomorrow's blog post....