Question about the Rich Man Passage

Hello, I’ve been struggling with this passage from the Bible Matthew 19:21 where the rich man is told to sell all of his possession give the money to the poor, and to go and follow Jesus in order to enter the Kingdom of God. This passage and His commandment seem clear and literal to me, so why do many people seem to treat it otherwise? Don’t we literally need to give up and sell everything that we have, give the money to the poor, and go and follow Jesus or we will end up like the rich man did? Didn’t Jesus say not to worry about what you will eat or what you will wear but to seek first the Kingdom of God?

I think we run into trouble taking passages literally, disregarding the element of hyperbole. Do we cut off our hands to avoid eating too much ice cream? Decapitate ourselves to stop smoking? Blind ourselves with acid to avoid lustful gazes/thoughts? Turn the other cheek when our husband/boyfriend/relative engages in domestic violence, puts us and the kids in the hospital? Refuse to go to war when millions are being gassed to death, genocide (thou shalt not kill)?

To compound the problem, every faction in the Church takes their favorite verses literally/fundamentally and sees the other factions’ as subject to conscience, modification. The conservatives say you can’t divorce your wife but you can own three houses and four cars. The liberals say you have to be a socialist with no borders and a climate pact, terrorists everywhere, no jobs, but you can marry your same sex partner and have children by three parents.

forgive the hyperbole - trying to make a point

As for this statement, I take it to mean prioritize God in your life - live according to the values of Christ. Do not make money or materials items the ‘treasure of your heart.’ This is not to say you have to live on the street in a box. Practice charity as a primary value in the context of your station in life. Be that rich or poor. The poor you will always have with you. Oh, and support reasonable social programs and pay your taxes. Maybe even get on board for a little border control, who knows.

There are good reasons to take the passage as applying literally to some people but not to all. A good way to begin understanding this passage is to look at people who do take the passage literally: monks. Whenever a person joins a religious order, they have to first give all their earthly possessions away. You take nothing with you into a religious order but the habit you receive from them. This is part of the vow of poverty. They also take a vow of continence, based on Matthew 19:12, and a vow of obedience, based on Hebrews 13:17.

Collectively, these three vows are part of the “way of perfection” which is discussed in early Catholic literature. Eusebius of Caesarea, speaking of monastic life, says: “Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. …the other [way is] more humble, more human, [and] permits men to join in pure nuptials and to produce children…it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion…so that all men, whether Greeks or barbarians, have their part in the coming of salvation, and profit by the teaching of the Gospel.” (Proof of the Gospel Chapter 8)

Notice that: the “perfect” way of Christian life is the life of the monastic, who gives up all his property, gives up marriage, and renders daily obedience to a religious superior. The “more humble, more human” way of Christian life is the life of the ordinary person, who keeps his job, marries his bride, and lives most of his life “in the world,” with its ordinary duties.

In the passage about the Rich Young Man, Jesus first proposes to him the more humble, more human way: all he needs to do is keep the Commandments. Then the young man says “I have done all that from my youth!” which is not something most people can say. So Jesus looks at him “with great love” (a detail provided only by Mark 10:21), knowing he is called to something higher, and tells him what that entails: “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” He proposes the “way of perfection,” the life of the apostles, the life of a missionary, not for all, but for this young man and others who are called to it.

So we as Catholics do take the passage literally. But we acknowledge that there is evidence that it was not a command to Everybody, but only to those for whom it is given, like with the other vows, the vow of continence and the vow of obedience.

Also, there is very good evidence that Jesus did not intend All of his followers to give up every possession, because some of his followers were wealthy and had His blessing. Think of the Centurion who had a hundred men at his command, or Nicodemus, or Zaccheus, and think of the “rich” people who were under the care of St. Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:17, the proconsul of Acts 13:12, the city treasurer of Romans 16:23, and Cornelius of Acts 10:1. The Scriptures describe all these people in ways that suggest they were rich, yet none of the apostles told them that they had to give up all their possessions. Did they “not take Jesus literally”? Or did they know that this was a command to some and not all, as the verse itself suggests? I think the evidence is in favor of the Catholic view: some people are called to give away all their possessions, but not everyone, and for the former class, the verse about the rich young man is quite literal.

I hope that helps. Please let me know.

I personally don’t believe we are to take all of the Bible literally…but this is a passage that I do have a hard time with, and if I combine it with todays’ reading from Matthew 6:24-34 about not having two masters and not worrying about tomorrow, it makes me feel ungenerous and petty…I give to many charities but do worry about my future retirement…I know we are to trust God and not worry, but it’s hard not to…sorry for rambling :slight_smile:

The point of the story, is that it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of God by yourself. That it’s is only possible with God’s help !

There are lots of different kinds of ways to exercise charity to our neighbors, not just financial, though that is a very important one, not to be dismissed. I give to charity within my budget, but I feel like all acts of charity go into this bucket - kindness, patience, generosity, forgiveness. Self-giving, not just giving money. I think God counts it all. And expects you to be charitable to yourself so that you may preserve yourself and carry on in your path. Mother Teresa had that great saying about doing small and large things with love. It is not how much you give but how much love you give it with. Remember Paul’s if I give everything I have to the poor but lack love… I fear that too many get hung up on the material element of wealth - hating the rich, loving the poor - they see following Jesus through this lens. This in itself is a kind of materialist obsession - it can be a powerful prison of the mind too, just like wealth. Neither view is free to look and love beyond things of this world in any meaningful sense. God is not about wealth re-distribution. He is about love, selflessness. That involves giving one’s money, goods, as applicable. But don’t stop there.

Jesus knew how the man would reply. Jesus Knew that he wouldn’t sell everything and follow Him. This man’s material possessions were more important than following Jesus. And that was the point Jesus was making.

When we have something more important that Jesus in our lives, that becomes idolatry, something we regard has higher than God. In this case, the man’s possessions were more important. Again, Jesus knew this was going to be the mans answer. It is a great story in where our priorities need to be. It is not saying that we should all sell everything that we have.

Exactly how I think about it.

We are all called to give. Some are called to give everything.

Discussion of this passage is very helpful. Thank you for all of the posts.

Very good answer dmar!!! well said.

This is exactly what our pastor said. :thumbsup:

The man in question first calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher’, it was Jewish custom not to call anybody good as only God was seen as good. The man was aware and observant to a high degree of Jewish law, so also considering the question asked, it would point to the man close to believing he was addressing the Christ. Jesus addresses him particularly in His response, because his possessions were obstructing his faith from becoming fulfilled, likewise others may experience different obstructions to their faith accomplishing what it is mean to do. Like stated before, some of the apostles had money throughout Christ’s ministry, eg Judas with the moneybag, the disciple offering to buy food at the feeding of the masses and with the woman at the well. The question really is what is holding us back from the following our faith in Christ and then freeing ourselves from it. A complimentary incident in discerning our calling takes place in Luke 9.57f where three men are addressed in similar fashion.

That’s actually very helpful. Thanks Dmar and thanks all of you who have contributed to this post. I will keep you updated if something else in regards to this question comes up.

Great work dmar198.

I think we will use this exegesis in our local Catholic men’s Bible study.

Again well done.

God bless.


If we want and seek complete perfection in this life, we’ll do as Jesus instructed the rich man to do. The reason the rich man went away sad is simply because he couldn’t give up the things that enslaved him.

I have heard the explanation you both offer and it made a lot of sense to me. We are called to completely surrender to God. This rich man was very moral, but he couldn’t completely surrender. He couldn’t give up his wealth. This is why he went away sad. For others their material wealth may not be holding them back so this particular instruction doesn’t apply. At the same time, if we aren’t attached to our wealth, then we must surrender whatever it is we ourselves are attached to. The broad point is to not be attached to worldly things.

It is clearly not hyperbole.

If it was, he would not have let him interpret him literally and let him walk away thinking the literal way was the correct way when it was just hyperbole. After all, he loved him.

A good teacher NEVER leaves the student confused or walking away with the wrong idea. He makes sure it is clear to the student what is expected.

Jesus would not have let someone walk away with a false idea.

So clearly he meant it to be literal. Just like John 6, where he did the same thing - didn’t let people who took him literally, walk away because they rejected his literal teaching on the Eucharist.

Christ wants monks, nuns and clergy, who give 100% to him and gave up everything to follow him.

Laypeople are second class citizens (if lucky) in the kingdom of God. They can’t give up 100% so that’s why I’m useless to God. Not allowed to have money. Can’t serve both God and mammon.

That’s not what He said. And that’s why the Catholic Church teaches otherwise-and honors the laity now more than ever. All were not meant to be clergy-or there’d be few to support the Church, and feed the poor, and cloth the naked. The laity are also more involved than ever now in various ministries, from teaching, prison visitation, Eucharistic ministry, lectors, etc.

Jesus was asking the rich young man if he was seeking perfection, and while there is a difference in perfection achieved in this life that’s related to our willingness to give up worldly “stuff”- wealth, possessions, glory- that perfection is still* relative*, and very few, clergy and laity alike, will achieve it in the here and now-and God knows that, and allows for it.

And so the apostles asked ‘Who, then, could be saved’? And Jesus, said, “With man this is impossible but with God all things are possible.” In any case, God doesn’t punish us for being attached to worldly things; rather the attachment* is* our punishment, our source of sadness. And if we don’t let them own us, if we treat them as tools rather than ends in themselves, then we at least don’t need to suffer from their inadequacy to satisfy us.


You hit the nail on the head.

This is one of the big problems in the CC today, too many folks want the best of both worlds and want to be justified in doing so.

Ive always found it curious that so many biblical verses and stories can be ‘interpreted’ in numerous ways. Im skeptical when they tend to benefit a prosperous comfortable earthly life though.

Matthew 19:21 “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor”

falls in the same category as

Matthew 5:29 “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away”

Matthew 5:30 “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”

Matthew 5:48 “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”

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