On Wealth and the Wealthy (Matthew 19, 16-26) [1]

5 September 2022

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about a rich young man who was unwilling to share his wealth and thus become an heir to the kingdom of heaven. The Lord then told his disciples that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Before we give any interpretation of the words spoken by Christ to the rich young man, let’s hear what the Apostle Saint James has to about the wealthy: ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail over the miseries that are approaching you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh. What you have stored for the last days is as fire. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you deprived them of, cry out, and the loud complaints of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and extravagance; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous, who was not against you’ (James 5, 1-6).

You see what dread words Saint James had for the rich and how roundly he condemned them? And what can be more terrible than the words of the Lord Jesus Christ who says that it’s very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Why is it difficult? At the time of Christ, the prevailing view among the people of Israel was that riches were a blessing from God, which is why the rich were well-respected and much-admired.

When the Lord said that riches were an obstacle preventing people from entering the kingdom of heaven, his astonished disciples asked him: ‘Who, then, can be saved?’. They, too, were of the opinion that the rich were blessed by God, so if they wouldn’t be saved, who could be? The Lord’s answer is: ‘What is impossible for people is possible for God’ (Luke 18, 27).

Let us consider well these words. When the young man expressed his intention to follow the Lord, Jesus asked him: ‘Do you know the commandments?’. ‘Of course’, replied the other, ‘I know them and have kept them since I was little’. But the Lord showed him and the others present that it isn’t enough merely to observe the commandments of the old law, that is the ten commandments with which you’re also familiar.

Why isn’t it enough? The Jews were certain that the commandments were everything, that those who kept them were pure and holy, and that they would inherit the kingdom of God. But the Lord said that this is not at all the way things are.

What do the commandments of the old law demand of people? The first commandment teaches people to worship the one and only God. They are to honor him and have no other gods except him. The second commandment prohibits people from worshipping idols. What does this mean? That all those who don’t worship idols automatically become pure and holy? We all worship the one God. Are we then all holy?

The law instructs us to honor our father and mother. Does this mean that we’re holy because we respect our parents and don’t throw them out onto the streets when they get old? Does this in itself make us righteous before God?

The commandments tell us not to commit adultery, not to murder, not to steal, not to envy our neighbors, not to desire anything belonging to them and not to harbor feelings for married women.  And what does this mean? So long as we’re not murderers, thieves, fornicators or perjurers, so long as we don’t seize the property of other people, then we’re pure and holy in the eyes of God?

All the commandments of the old law are negative and tell us not to be such and such. But they don’t tell us what we should be. All they do is prohibit us from committing the most gross, most horrible sins. These commandments were directed at a harsh people who were taking the first, simple steps towards their betterment.

The Lord Jesus Christ said that he didn’t want to abolish the old law, but to ‘perfect’ it, that is both to execute it fully and also to complement it.

The Lord gave us a new law, which is more perfect in comparison to the old law of Moses. He gave us the nine saving commandments of the Beatitudes. He said that the people who are pure and holy in the sight of God aren’t those who don’t steal and don’t murder, who observe the commandments of the law of Sinai, but those who are spiritually perfect. Those who are full of humility, who weep copious tears over their sins and the injustice they see in the world. Those who look upon Christ’s Cross with a broken heart. These are the people who will see the kingdom of heaven.

The people he calls blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for the truth, those who give alms and those who bring peace. He promises the kingdom of heaven to those who are persecuted for the sake of the truth, to those who are mocked and reviled by others for his name’s sake.

So, those who are pure and holy are the spiritually perfect and the Lord requires all of us to be spiritually perfect, as our Father in heaven is.

In his sermon on the mount, the Lord gave us commandments that are enough to make our hearts tremble. That we should take no care for the morrow, that we should forgive and love our enemies, that we should give others the shirt off our back. But this is what we have to do if we wish to be perfect.