Is God Asking Too Much of Me?: Why God expects certain things from certain people that are not expected of everyone

Uncategorized May 09, 2024

One way I know the Word of God is working in my heart is when a perplexing question confronts me as I read a passage of scripture. Sometimes, these confrontations are welcome, but frankly, sometimes, they bug me.

The other day, I had one of those confrontations while reading Matthew 19:16–30. It is the familiar story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus responds with a simple recitation of six out of the Ten Commandments. His response is typical of what any rabbi would have given during his day. He quoted the six commandments dealing with actions and behaviors toward others. The other four are more inwardly focused and center on one's attitude toward God. Jesus’ answer was wise. It caused the young man to consider whether he was practically applying the law: How are you treating other people?

The young man responded that he had faithfully kept all of those commandments. Then he asked if there was anything more he should do. The reply that Jesus gave him has caused many Bible students to wrestle with the question of what is required of them to follow Jesus. And it was the statement that confronted me. Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (v. 21). 

It struck me that Jesus had asked this young man to do something he never asked anybody else to do: sell everything and give it all to the poor. There is no record in the scripture that Jesus demanded anyone else give away all of his possessions to follow him. I wondered why God expects certain things from certain people that he does not expect from everybody.  

Because I was sure I was not the first to face such a confronting question, I began to read how this passage has been interpreted historically. I found that there are three basic interpretations. A minority of Bible scholars hold the first interpretation. It suggests we should take Jesus' words as instructions to every individual. In other words, when a person comes to Jesus, he should take a vow of poverty and give away everything he has. It is no surprise that this is the least popular interpretation.

The second interpretation came across to me as a legal loophole. This perspective centers on the preemptive words of Jesus, "If you want to be complete.”  It suggests that there are two tiers of discipleship. Some want to be “complete (perfect),” and those who apparently can settle for being an average disciple. The average disciples can maintain some of their possessions. But those who choose to be fully committed must relinquish all their possessions. In my experience, any attempt to find a loophole in a commandment from the Lord usually reflects self-justification on my part. Legal loopholes only exist in man-made laws. God's commandments are perfect. They do not contain overlooked semantics, exception clauses, back doors, or loopholes.

The third interpretation is the one with which I am most familiar. This interpretation suggests that Jesus' commandment was specific only to this young man. The basis for this is that the text called particular attention to this young man's wealth (v. 22). It seems this was a personal issue for this individual. And since there is no record that Jesus ever asked any other person to give away all their possessions, it is reasonable to assume this instruction was unique to the young man. Perhaps his wealth was just that great.

A slight variation of this interpretation is that the young man represented his class. After he walked away, clearly rejecting Jesus' instruction, Jesus turned to his disciples and famously said, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—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!” (vv. 23-24). The context makes it reasonable to consider Jesus' instruction unique only to the wealthy. In other words, it doesn't apply to everybody.

Seeing this young man as a representative of his social class fits nicely within the passage's cultural context, too. The young man looked like the perfect candidate for discipleship. He was young. He was wealthy, which in common Jewish thought was a sign of God's blessing upon an individual (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14). He was also a sincere seeker, not willing to merely rest upon his moral behavior but daring to ask whether there was something more he should do. So when Jesus demanded such a high price and told his disciples that it was hard, no, it is impossible for such a candidate to enter the kingdom of God, his disciples were shocked. They would have thought that if this young man couldn’t make it, then nobody could. No wonder they asked, ”Who then can be saved?” (v. 25).

Jesus does not correct them, as if they have a misconception about what a prime candidate looks like. He affirms that it is impossible for wealthy people, or prime candidates, to enter the kingdom of God. It is so impossible that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But God makes the impossible possible. And with God, it is possible for anyone to be saved.

Other biblical evidence would support the conclusion that what Jesus required of this young man was specific only to him or perhaps only to his social class. We find other examples in the Gospels of people who were not required to give all their possessions away but seemed uniquely positioned to use their wealth for God. People who come to mind are Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 12:1-2) and Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60). Luke 8:1–3 records that wealthy people supported Jesus’ ministry and made it possible for him and his disciples to travel from place to place. 

And what about Zacchaeus? He only gave away half of his possessions in addition to paying retribution for the things he had unjustly acquired (Luke 19:8). His response was voluntary, not required or even suggested by Jesus. Still, Jesus did not press him by telling him that one-half was not enough and that he should give it all away.

Other evidence supporting that this instruction is unique only to certain people can be found in passages that deal with spiritual gifts. When the Bible speaks of the spiritual gift of giving or charity, it seems clear that not everyone has the same degree of grace for giving their stuff away (Romans 12:6-8). For that matter, there are examples outside of the realm of finances that would indicate God’s gifts, callings, and requirements are unique to individuals. The apostle Paul was uniquely called to suffer extreme physical persecution to preach the gospel (Acts 9:16; 2 Cor 11:21-28; 12:7-10). But not everybody is. And what about the spiritual gift of martyrdom? Yes, that is listed as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

Contrary to popular belief, Paul did not provide only one list of spiritual gifts in the book of 1 Corinthians. There are as many as five or more different lists of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14. The list found in 13:1-3 implies that giving one's body to be burned is somehow a gift of the Spirit. But not everyone has that spiritual gift, and I have never met anyone who would argue with me about this exception.

In the midst of all of these considerations during my devotional time, I started to breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps my possessions were safe after all. However, as I returned to Matthew 19, there was one obvious point that I could not ignore. This young man's problem was affluence. Case closed. It was not his moral behavior. It was not his sincerity that Jesus addressed. It was his affluence. When Jesus told the young man to give away all of his possessions, he explained the result would be that he could have "treasure in heaven.” That phrase set off bells in my heart. Let me explain why.

I am currently in the process of writing a book entitled "Treasure in Heaven." The book is based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, a part of his Sermon on the Mount, where he clearly states that we are not to store earthly treasures but rather to store up treasures in heaven. In this teaching, he sets two things in opposition. "You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). It is either serving one or the other, but not both. And in his conclusion to that section of teaching, he declares, "Seek first (primarily) the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).  It cannot be ignored that there is an inherent warning about wealth in Jesus’ teaching.

The mention of treasure in heaven caused me to realize that there is a striking similarity between the conversation with the rich young man in Matthew 19 and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5:20: "But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" The religious teachers and Pharisees were keepers of the law, just like this young man. The religious teachers and Pharisees were wealthy, just like this young man. The religious teachers and Pharisees were challenged to pursue treasure in heaven, just like this young man.

I paused again to ask myself whether I was handling wealth correctly. Was I supposed to give away my stuff? Is money dangerous for the believer? Could it keep me out of heaven?

And then it was as if the Holy Spirit drew my attention to four simple words. They are all verbs, action words. “Sell,” ”give," “come," and “follow” (Matthew 19:21). Immediately, I felt a shift in my heart as God seemed to communicate the clear point that he wanted me to see. The goal for this young man was not dispossession of all of his goods. The goal was discipleship. The first two actions, sell and give, would not be how he would become a disciple. Truthfully, one can give away all of his possessions and still not be a disciple of Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:3), but these two actions represent the doorway into the young man's heart. These actions represented the obstacles that were hindering his discipleship. Jesus was not after his wealth. Jesus was after his heart. And whether it was merely to this individual, the class of the wealthy, or a humble pastor in North Carolina that Jesus spoke these words, they strike the same blow upon everyone who reads them. Whatever obstacles hinder a person from being a disciple, Jesus wants them out of the way. The goal is not dispossession; it is discipleship.

Suddenly, I was no longer concerned about my wealth, business, money, or even the legacy I might leave to my children and grandchildren. I am concerned with the only thing any believer should be concerned about. I want to be a disciple of Jesus.

I once heard a philosopher make a statement applicable to this train of thought. He said, "If Jesus is who he says he is, then any demand he makes upon me is reasonable.” Perhaps God does ask radical things of certain individuals. But because I believe Jesus is who he says he is and who the Word says he is, there is no unreasonable demand he could make. After all, if he has my heart, he has my everything.

I closed my Bible, and, one more time, I opened my heart.


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