Jesus' statement follows the continued exchange between the man who wanted to know what "good" (better translated to "excellent" or "distinguished") thing he could do to get eternal life. Jesus replied that he should follow the commandments of Moses.
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Then the young man replied:
“All these [commandments] I have kept. What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20)
Should we all sell our possessions and give to the poor?Does Jesus' reply mean that all of us must sell our possessions and give the money to the poor?
Remember what Jesus said a few verses earlier, with regard to his instruction on marriage:
"Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it has been given." (Matt. 19:11)This clearly illustrates that Jesus gave specific instructions to specific people sometimes, and general instructions when he spoke to larger crowds. The representative of God speaks according to the time, the place, and the audience.
For example, elsewhere during Jesus' life, we find that he went to stay at some of his students' houses and ate with them. During those occasions, he did not instruct them to sell their house and possessions, and they were already following him.
He also ate at a tax collector's house who was "wealthy" according to Luke 19:2. The tax collector also said that he gave away half of his possessions to the poor. Yet Jesus still said:
"Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." (Luke 19:9)So we know that Jesus did not extend this instruction to everyone.
Did Jesus demand a vow of poverty?We also find that some of Jesus' students - such as Joseph of Arimathea who provided Jesus' tomb, did indeed possess great wealth.
Matthew was a tax collector who owned a house, and he retained that house. We also know Levy owned a house and was a tax collector.
We also find that Jesus' disciples carried money. We find that some of his other followers such as Martha, Matthew (a tax collector) and Joseph, owned houses. And we know that Jesus possessed clothing. These possessions were all utilized directly or indirectly in the service of God. Houses were used for eating, preaching and sleeping. Clothes were used to wear for travel. Money was used to buy food and other necessities.
Indeed, some of the Prophets, such as David and Solomon, possessed wealth beyond imagination.
Many have interpreted this exchange in Matthew 19 to mean that one must take a vow of poverty in order to go to heaven.
But what is poverty? Is a person with $100 wealthy? A person with $1,000 would probably think the person with $100 was poor, while a person with no money would feel that the person with $100 was wealthy.
In other words, wealth is relative. And it is based upon whether a person feels they own that which they are in possession of.
The reality is that we live within these temporary physical bodies for a few decades only. Then our bodies die. At the time of death we - the eternal spirit-person - will leave our physical body and leave behind anything the body had possession over.
So how can we own these material things if we cannot take them with us?
Do we own anything in this world?Ownership requires control. If we can't control something, we cannot truly own it.
Rather, the Supreme Being owns everything. He controls the physical and the spiritual realm. This means that He also owns all matter - including wealth and all money. So the issue is not what we currently possess: it is that we do not own what we currently possess.
This means we are already poor. Some of us just don't realize it yet.
At the time of death, we leave everything behind: We will leave our bank account, our house, our clothes, our family, our children, and even our body. Therefore, we own nothing, None of these belong to us. Everything here is on loan to us.
Therefore, those who feel they are wealthy are in fact in illusion.
It is like being in a dream. In a dream, we think that we are really living that reality. But then when we wake up we realize it was all a dream.
Since God owns everything, to live in reality means to utilize whatever possessions we have as belonging to the Supreme Being and therefore meant to be used in His service. This means to keep the body alive, and then use the body and those resources He has provided to please Him.
Is a person who has none of these possessions necessarily more advanced spiritually? Of course not. Advancing spiritually means accepting that God owns everything - including all our temporary material possessions.
Was there another reason for Jesus asking him to sell his possessions?Yes. Here the man Jesus was speaking to said he wanted to get to heaven, but as we find in the next verse, the man was more attached to his wealth than he was in returning home to God:
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:22)We can thus conclude that Jesus meant this to teach the 'young man' something specific.
The takeaway is that our relationship with the Supreme Being is more important than any of our temporary possessions. We cannot take any of our physical possessions with us when we die. But we will take with us whatever spiritual advancement we make at the time of death.
And if we have redeveloped our loving service relationship with the Supreme Being, we will return to Him:
"... and you will have treasure in heaven."