The story of the Rich Young Man (or the Rich Young Ruler) in Matthew 19:16-22 is always a difficult passage. People ask me if Jesus really meant for the young man to sell everything before following him. Honestly, I ask the same question. The answer I give is that we are to follow Jesus so closely that following Jesus is more important than holding onto our possessions. That might look like selling everything we have to give to the poor. It might mean reprioritizing our time so that we can be involved in the work of God’s kingdom here on earth. It might look like getting rid of something that has become a little “g” god in our life.
I believe that is the real story of the young man in Matthew 16. When Jesus tells him that he must “follow the commandments” in order to have eternal life, the young man says he had followed them since his youth. What is revealing is that the commandments that Matthew records Jesus providing are the commandments about our horizontal relationship with others.
When Jesus invites the young man to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me,” it becomes abundantly clear that the young man has not, and is not, keeping the commandments. He has made his wealth and possessions his god. His life revolves around them. When given the invitation to leave these idols behind and follow the Living God, he cannot do it. His treasure was on earth and not in heaven.
Generosity helps us to prioritize our lives around Jesus. Being generous with our wealth, our time, our talents, and our gifts, we give to help those who are in need. Through generosity, we live as stewards of God’s resources (not ours) that have been given to us to do God’s work (not ours). When we give, we declare that we trust that God will provide as we give of ourselves. Generosity increases our trust in God as God continues to provide and allows us to follow Jesus more closely.
When we give of ourselves, we have less to lose- and everything to gain as Jesus promises us treasure in heaven as we invest in God’s Kingdom work on earth.