In a way that reminds us of this chapter’s first half, its second half also highlights a religious leader over and against the Lord’s own disciples; and yet, there is not the same strife in this second part. That is not to say there is not the same surprise for its readers.
In verse 16 we are told how a man approached our Lord with what seems to have been an honest question. The Pharisees had earlier approached the Lord, merely to tempt him (Matthew 19:3). For that reason, their question was not really a question at all, but a quest for an accusation. Since an accusation is not a question, the Pharisees never heard the Lord’s answer; instead, he revealed that to his own disciples in private.1See a previous post, For this Cause. That said, this is a different set of circumstances. The young man who approaches the Lord here—often referred to as the Rich Young Ruler—arrives with a real question. This is clear to us from Mark’s gospel, which records the same scene. Mark 10:17 tells us that this man comes running, and then kneels to the Lord in inquiry. This is not the insolence of the Pharisees.
The ruler’s very question is itself striking. Indeed, this man inquires after a hope seldom articulated in the gospels. On the one hand, the Pharisees were frequently concerned with their own political and religious power (John 11:48); others properly hoped for the arrival of the kingdom promised to David (cf. Matthew 21:9); but this man hopes for something more—eternal life. That is a concern that was rarely expressed in the crowds that surrounded Jesus, whatever their private anxieties. This man, however, runs to ask just that question. His query is unashamedly public: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 21:16).
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At this point, readers will note how the Lord answers the question: Jesus recites several of the ten commandments (Matthew 19:18-19). That fact understandably causes some to wonder what the Lord meant by his answer. Many have understood this scene as describing the Lord’s effort to educate the young ruler unto to his sinfulness. There is obviously something to this, for the young ruler does not leave with same confidence with which he came. He is initially convinced of his own righteousness, possessing a legal spirit which this encounter would soon destroy. To achieve this, the Lord first mentions the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments (verses 18-19), recalling the fifth commandment last and out of its order. When the ruler first confesses his obedience to these commandments, the Lord himself places something more before the young man. Jesus then calls him to sell his belongings and follow him:
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.Matthew 19:21-22
When the ruler refuses that invitation, readers understand that he is then in violation of the tenth commandment, which regards covetousness. The ruler was unwilling to part with his many possessions (verse 22). This is instructive for the reader; it was apparently instructive for the ruler, as well, for he soon walked away sorrowful, returning the same way that he came. At this point, an interesting contrast is apparent: Mark records how that the Lord had called the ruler to follow him: beholding him, loving him (Mark 10:21). Unfortunately, the ruler loved his riches—nor had he understood what else he had just heard.
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It is at this point, that the reader is instructed to the finer point of the passage, the point missed by the young man. The passage does not merely regard the ruler’s instruction to the young man’s sinfulness; something else is also intended. To demonstrate this, we first recognize something about the commandments repeated here. Altogether, the Lord will recall the last six of the ten commandments. Initially, he mentions five of them. These last six commandments have sometimes been called, the “second table of the law,” a phrase that recalls the occasion upon which Moses delivered the ten commandments to Israel upon two tables of stone (Exodus 34:1).
The phrase allows people a convenient and helpful way to summarize a difference between the first four commandments (Exodus 20:1-11) and the last six of them (Exodus 20: 12-17). After all, the first four commandments regard a man’s duty to God, and the last six regard obligations to men. Importantly, this is not an imposed division. Places like Matthew 22:37-38 recall how Jesus himself understood and also affirmed that the ten commandments are summarized in two commandments: 1) to love God wholly; and 2) to love men as he loves himself. This is not merely a New Testament teaching; the Lord repeated the very summaries contained in the Law, itself (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18).
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But this distinction may be carried further, for it is central to the point here. This story recalls the same division of the Law, but then relates that division in a way that also confirms the deity of Jesus Christ. And it seems that, whatever is also given to us in regard to the sinfulness of the Rich Young Ruler, this is the often-missed point of the passage. The point is not easily seen, but it is present. It is actually embedded in the conversation itself; and so, it may be helpful to review the conversation’s structure by arranging its phrases in a way that demonstrates their relationships.
Consider the section this way:
- There is none good but God (verse 17)
If thou will enter into life (verse 17)
Keep the commandments (verse 17)
Which? (verse 18)
No murder, adultery, stealing, false witness; honor mother & father.
Love thy neighbor as thyself (verse 18-19)
What lack I yet? (verse 20)
Go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor (verse 21)
And thou shalt have treasure in heaven (verse 21)
And come and follow me (verse 21)
The text above is merely an abbreviated form of Matthew 19:17-21. The phrases maintain the important words of each sentence; the order of the sentences is also maintained. That said, the reader will also see how that these phrases have been situated, so that the reader can discover how that a phrase at the beginning of the section has a correspondence to another phrase at later part of the same section. These pairs correspond together in subject, until the reader arrives at its center, which is a recollection of the Law’s second table, minus the tenth commandment.
In this way, the reader sees an evident relationship in various parts of the one section. By this fairly simple diagram, the reader (I think) better understands what the Lord was also telling the Rich Young Ruler: Jesus was not merely revealing to the young man how that he was guilty of covetousness, but the Jesus was also showing the young ruler that he, himself, was God.
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This revelation is initiated by the Lord himself. He returns the ruler’s question with another question, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God,” This does not seem to be a sarcastic rebuttal to the young man, as some may suppose—especially since the ruler has approached the Lord with such honor. It does, however, show how the Lord himself initiates the revelation to come. It is not an incidental exchange that follows, but takes on the form that the Lord begins with his own question.
Accordingly, the conversation takes on an apparent order: Each phrase has its corresponding phrase. Importantly, the first phrase—there is none good but God—has its remarkable counterpart in the last statement in verse 21, “and come and follow me.” In short, when the Lord called the ruler to follow him, he also confirmed his own identity as God. The Lord was not merely confirming the young man’s sinfulness, but he also answered the young man’s question regarding eternal life. But to the point, the Lord Jesus made himself God, and the worthy object of the ruler’s faith, saying, “come and follow me” (verse 21).
In the passage then, both tables of the Law obtain their summary. (Note the diagram above.) Obviously, the commandments associated with the “the second table of the law” are stated in verses 18-19, and then summarized in verse 19, “and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” But it is also the case that the ruler’s obligation to love God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, is also summarized here in the person of Jesus Christ.
But there is more than this, still, for when Jesus highlights the ruler’s covetousness, he then also highlights the only remedy to that disobedience: “and come and follow me” (verse 21). That kind of discipleship would lead to treasure in heaven (verse 21), and the eternal life which the ruler first sought by running to Jesus. From what we then read in verses 23-26, that mercy was still uncomprehended by the disciples.
More to the point, when the rich young ruler turned and walked away from the Lord, he was not merely guilty of an enduring covetousness and disregard for the Law, he was also foreshadowing and predicting a New Covenant offense: disobedience to the gospel (cf. Romans 10:16), the refusal of God’s mercy through Jesus Christ, who is God.