Few stories fascinate me as much as the tale of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30).
A summary: Jesus encounters an extremely wealthy man who, by all means, is also a very moral man. However, the man realizes that he is still on the outside of the Kingdom and is not experiencing eternal life. Jesus’ solution is a command – sell all that he has and give it to the poor. In this way, Jesus implies, he will reach a moral standard consistent with entering into the Kingdom and experiencing eternal life. Indeed, this was the path already followed by his closest disciples (Mt. 19:27). The man walks away sad and unable to obey. Jesus, never one to pass up a teachable moment, tells the disciples that it is “difficult” for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. The then defines “difficult” as “impossible”: 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.
The primary reason this is such a fascinating passage to me is because… I’m rich. And I live and worship in a wealthy (both relatively and globally) city. And yet there doesn’t seem to be an anxiety over our growing bank accounts, even with the extremely disparaging warnings about wealth like this one from Jesus. I constantly wonder, have we really felt the weight of Jesus’ words?
It is impossible for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The passage also fascinates me from a hermeneutical angle – I love analyzing the interpretive practices of various groups. I know first-hand why this statement from Jesus doesn’t scare the hell out of those who are well-off. It’s because two verses later Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Like a boy pursuing a girl playing hard-to-get, rich Christians are quick to go, “So, you’re saying there IS a chance.” And this statement from Jesus allows us to effectively forget his previously scary words. The moral import of his warning is drowned out by the credit-card shaped angel on our shoulder saying, “See, it’s possible! Don’t worry so much!”
Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that this as an incorrect reading of the passage. The question needs to be asked: what exactly is Jesus referencing when he speaks of human impossibilities that are possible for God? Is it the possibility that a rich person will enter into the Kingdom or is it the possibility that a person will give up their riches in order to enter the Kingdom? This is a subtle yet incredibly significant interpretive decision. You see, Jesus never changes his command to the young ruler. The hope that Jesus holds out is not that the man might enter the Kingdom despite his disobedience. It is the hope that the man, through a powerful work of God, might come to a place where he fully loves God and others by giving away his possessions.
Stanley Hauerwas nails it, as usual: “Our temptation is to think that Jesus’ reply is intended to “let us off the hook.” Being rich is a problem, we may think, but God will take care of us, the rich, the only way God can. Yet such a response fails to let the full weight of Jesus’ observation about wealth have the effect that it should. We cannot serve God and mammon (Mt. 6:24). Jesus’ reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.” 
Or as Frederick Dale Bruner says: “What Jesus does not mean by “this is impossible for human beings” is the interpretation that says ‘If you will just be born again and experience miraculous conversion, you can then continue seeking money, honor, and success, for conversion does not replace all these earthly goods; it actually assist their acquisition.’ . . . . What Jesus does mean by this verse is that God can work the miracle of putting God instead of gain on the throne of the human heart (cf. Ps 119:36). No human power can displace the desire for “more” as the reigning human drive. Only God’s power can. Unless this miracle of dethronement-enthronement occurs again and again, there is no hope of salvation. That is the sober meaning of verse 26.” 
How Then Shall We, The Wealthy, Live?
I’ve already acknowledged that I am a relatively wealthy person (and not currently selling all of my possessions on eBay). So, I pass no judgement on those who like me follow Jesus and have wealth. However, I do believe two things:
- First, Jesus’s command to the rich young ruler is not a universal command. He doesn’t command all to give up everything, even as he clearly commands a radical commitment to the poor and oppressed from His people.
- Second, I don’t know the cut-off point! I have no clue “how rich” you can be and still enter into the Kingdom. So I can’t say “you have too much” (and neither should you).
What I do know, and would expect of those who follow Christ, is that we should be a people with bank accounts and storage closets that communicate a sacrificial love for God and others, instead of for ourselves and our stuff. I also expect this to be a gradual, consistent, and clear progression in our lives.
How do I respond to Jesus’ statements about money in this story?
First, with some anxiety. Second, with effort and intentionality, hoping that this year my habits of spending and accumulating will reflect Kingdom values more than it did last year.
 Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible),174-175.
 Bruner, Matthew, 308.