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The Rich Young Ruler, Matthew 19, and the History of Interpretation

The Rich Young Ruler: Matthew 19 and the History of Interpretation

The story of the young rich ruler has puzzled many people for generations.  Not least is the question of wealth, money, and possessions, what does Jesus mean by commanding the young ruler to sell all his possessions and give to the poor?  None of us would counter that giving to the poor and giving up some of our earthly possessions is a bad thing.  Yet, the point revolves around “all.”  Is this story a command for both the rich young ruler and us to give up all to follow Jesus or is there another way of seeing it?  The history of interpretation of this passage is quite interesting, Frederick Dale Bruner writes,

“The History of Interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler is fascinatingly laid out in Luz (Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Vol III pp. 131-136, and can be roughly summarized like this:
(a) The early church saw Jesus addressing all and took the text literally; rather, early on, however, as we see in the third century Clement of Alexandria above, an “attitude ethic” began to intrude
(Jesus wants to rid us of the attitude of covetousness, not of actual possessions)
(b)   In the post-Constantinian and early medieval periods Jesus was understood as giving counsel to some(the religious), not commands to all
(c)    Then in the late medieval period the allegorical interpretation entered, most perniciously when the Rich Man was interpreted allegorically as a representative of the Jews
(d)   In Reformation interpretation the rich man was explained as an allegory (!) or type, too – namely of the “works-righteous” person, and so our text was used to convict people spiritually, not change them economically.  Luther inverted the text so entirely that now it does not mean divestment, it means (in Wesley’s phrase) “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Luz protests, “One cannot more thoroughly misunderstand the Command of Poverty in the text.”
(e)    Post-Reformation and modern interpretation saw our text as thoroughly particular, for only certain people or special cases, and not for all disciples.

Luz comments, “We Protestants must learn anew how and why, for Jesus and original Christianity, there was clearly a fundamental tension between the kingdom of God and wealth. We must learn anew that dealing with money is a burning center of faith… The obedience of disciples must profoundly alter our dealing with our own money, because money rules the world and discipleship to Jesus is a protest of love against this government.”


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