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In Matthew 19:21, Jesus says to the rich young man/ruler (NRSV):

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

The linguistic reference to perfection has sometimes been interpreted as saying that selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor is supererogatory: virtuous, but not mandatory. There are two other verses in the synoptic gospels that appear to me to be particular relevant to interpreting "if you wish to be perfect", and I'd like to find any examples of theologians considering how they affect the interpretation of Matthew 19:21 as supererogatory or not.

The first is Matthew 5:48, from the Sermon on the Mount (NRSV):

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The relevance to Matthew 19:21 is that if we combine the categorial imperative "Be perfect" with the hypothetical imperative "If you want to be perfect, take action A", then (naively) their logical implication is the categorial imperative "Take action A".

The second is Luke 18:22, the verse in Luke corresponding to Matthew 19:21:

There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

This language of "lacking" (λείπει in the Septuagint) would imply that the rich young man is falling short of a standard, not that he has yet to perform a supererogatory action.

Have these arguments about the interpretation of Matthew 19:21 been previously considered? If so, could somebody provide references?

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    – Dottard
    Apr 18 at 23:25
  • God told Abraham to be perfect, before there was a law. It is a matter of being consistent to oneself, as God is. Even Shakespeare advocates it This above all, to thine own self be true. True to one's own present level of understanding. True to one's own profession of faith. Consistent. Up-voted +1. Good question.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 19 at 7:34

3 Answers 3

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If surrendering all wealth were a prerequisite for achieving perfect followership of Jesus, why is this concept only mentioned once in this account, and not emphasized elsewhere?

In the account involving the young man, Jesus was not primarily addressing how to attain perfection, or affirming the young man's near perfection. Rather, Jesus was addressing the issue of 'pride', which hindered the young man from embracing the grace of God fully.

In Matthew 19:16-20, the young man came forward to Jesus, believing he had faithfully adhered to the law since childhood. His pride in his accomplishments was palpable in his dialogue with Jesus. However, Jesus subtly illuminated his deficiency in "Love" for helping the poor. In fact, nowhere else in the Bible does it explicitly demand individuals to prove their 'Love' by forfeiting all wealth. Such an act would provide momentary relief for the poor but lacks sustainability. It seems that Jesus was challenging the young man with exaggeration to confront his attachments.

Regrettably, the disciples became anxious and queried Jesus in Matthew 19:25, "Who then can be saved?". Jesus, in response (perhaps indicating disbelief at their question), looking at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Allow me to cite a profound statement from Micah 6:8 NIV

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

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The OP states, “The linguistic reference to perfection has sometimes been interpreted as saying that selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor is supererogatory: virtuous, but not mandatory.” Such a delineation, I think, risks missing the point of Jesus’ teaching, which involves a major paradigm shift in the way we think about what God desires of us.

The concepts of mandatory and supererogatory apply to actions, such as those that are required by the law. If the focus is just on our actions, some things may be deemed mandatory while others, supererogatory. But if what we desire is true spiritual growth and transformation, such categories lose relevance. Between the two points of view there is a shift in focus from what we should do or should not do, to the state of our spiritual progress set against the standard of God’s perfection.

To sell one’s possessions and give the proceeds to the poor is therefore not seen as a commandment. Nor is it merely a virtuous thing to do. Rather, it reflects the sticking point of this particular individual and how his attachment to worldly possessions prevents him from following Jesus. Commentators generally agree that this is not something that is commanded of all men (e.g., Ellicott, Gill). Some view it as representative of a higher precept (e.g., Barnes, Matthew Poole).

Commentary on Matthew 19:21

Go and sell that thou hast.—It would be altogether a mistake to see in this either an obligation binding on all seekers after eternal life, or even what has been called a “counsel of perfection,” a precept laying down an indispensable condition for all who aim at its higher forms and powers. It was strictly a remedy for the special evil which hindered the young ruler’s progress to perfection, applicable to others so far only as their cases are analogous. – Ellicott

Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: not that either the law of God, or Gospel of Christ, require this to be done of all men, and at all times; for though it is a duty binding upon all, and always, to relieve the poor and the needy, yet a man is not obliged to give all that he has to them; see 2 Corinthians 8:11 nor does either legal or Christian perfection lie in doing this: a man may give all his goods to the poor and yet be destitute of the grace of God, 1 Corinthians 13:3 much less can such an action merit the heavenly treasure of eternal life. Nevertheless of some persons, and in some cases, it has been required, that they part with all their worldly substance, for the sake of Christ and his Gospel; as the apostles were called to leave all and follow Christ, as this man was also – Gill

Go and sell that thou hast ... - The young man declared that he had kept the law. That law required, among other things, that he should love his neighbor as himself. It required, also, that he should love the Lord his God supremely; that is, more than all other objects. If he had that true love to God and man - if he loved his Maker and fellow-creatures more than he did his property, he would be willing to give up his wealth to the service of God and of man – Barnes

The worldly attachments that prevent us from embarking on the path of perfection are not the same for every person. Likewise the test of our devotion would be different for each. For this man, it is his possessions. For others, it might be something else, like vanity, pride, power or position (cf 1 Jn 2:15-16, Rom 12:2, Jam 1:27). Because they stand in the way of our spiritual growth, it is imperative that we overcome these obstacles. The question for each of us is whether we can relinquish the things that keep us from following Jesus.

Jesus loves this young man for the sincerity with which he seeks holiness. While the invitation is likewise sincere, Jesus knows what the man’s answer would be. In setting a condition that he knew the man could not meet, Jesus is planting the seed of self-knowledge that will, I believe, bring about spiritual growth in time.

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This is another "old chestnut" that has consumed far to much theological ink and debate. The troublesome word at the heart of this debate is the adjective, τέλειος (teleios). The meaning for this is given by BDAG as:

  1. pertaining to meeting the highest standard
  • (a) of things: perfect, eg, James 1:4a, 17, 25, 1 John 4:18, Heb 9:11, Rom 12:2, 1 Cor 13:10, etc
  • (b) as acme of badness
  • (c) of persons who are fully up to standard in certain a respect and not satisfied with half-way measures, perfect, complete, expert,
  1. pertaining to being mature, full-grown, adult, Eph 4:13, 1 Cor 14:20, Heb 5:14, 1 Cor 2:6, etc
  2. pertaining to being a cult initiate, initiated, eg, Phil 3:15, Col 1:28.
  3. pertaining to being fully developed in a moral sense:
  • (a) of humans, perfect, fully developed, eg, James 1:4b, 3:2, Matt 19:21, 5:48a, Col 4:12.
  • (b) of God, perfect, Matt 5:48b (ie, God is a role-model for unlimited display of beneficence ...)

The meaning of Matt 5:48 is further explained by the parallel record in Luke 6:35, 36 -

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

This and the exhortation in Matt 19:21 is instructing Jesus' disciples to be as kind, generous and loving as God is (Eph 5:1). Compare, John 13:34, 35, 2 Peter 1:4, Luke 6:34, 1 Tim 1:16.

Indeed, the instruction in Matt 5:48 is part of a series of such commands in Jesus' sermon on the mount telling His disciples to imitate Jesus and God in all things such as to be forgiving, Matt 6:12, 14, 15, 18:35, Eph 4:32, Col 3:13.

Matt 5:48, 19:21

First note that in Matt 19:21, none of verbs "to be perfect" in these two verses are imperative/commands. Only the verb "to sell" is imperative, but that is modified by the previous clause, "if you desire to be complete"; thus, the verb "to sell" cannot be taken as an unconditional command.

The verb in Matt 5:48 is much more interesting - here is my literal translation

Therefore, you shall be perfect as your Father who is heavenly is perfect.

This verse concludes the series of instructions about being kind and generous even to the undeserving in the previous verse and thus is exactly parallel to the record in Luke 6. If we are kind and generous, even to the undeserving, then we will be complete/perfect/mature Christians.

Jesus emphasized this same teaching in Matt 25:31-46 in His parable about the sheep and goats.

Note the helpful (historically speaking) remarks of the Cambridge commentary on Matt 5:48

48 Be ye Lit. Ye shall be perfect. Either

  1. in reference to a future state, “if ye have this true love or charity ye shall be perfect hereafter;” or
  2. the future has an imperative force, and perfect is limited by the preceding words = perfect in respect of love, i. e. “love your enemies as well as your neighbours,” because your Father being perfect in respect of love does this.

This shows that at least some commentators believe Jesus prediction of a state of perfection applies either to this world or only the world to come 9in heaven) as the father is in heaven. But this is another discussion.

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