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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Matthew 19

On the Way Toward Jerusalem (19:1 20:34)

Jesus leaves Galilee, this time for the south, and betakes himself to Judea. He crosses the Jordan and directs his steps toward Jerusalem through Perea by way of Jericho. The crowds, Matthew tells us, continue to follow him.

Verses 1-12

The Question of Divorce (19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12)

The Pharisees brought up the problem of divorce to Jesus not so much to get light on it as to "test" him by entangling him in their casuistry. This question, in fact, was a subject of discussion among the diverse rabbinic schools: On what grounds was a man permitted to put away his wife? Certain ones considered it sufficient cause if she had burned a meal. Jesus did not enter into the game of his adversaries, but simply urged on them the law of creation as God himself had established it (Genesis 2:24).

What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder." But the Pharisees defend themselves by citing the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 24:1). Jesus replies that Moses had established this rule "for your hardness of heart." Legislation is obliged to take account of human weaknesses. In the days of Moses, as in our own, law can only put a certain bridle on the passions of men and put in order some situations which have become abnormal. But in the eyes of God the fault entirely remains. One single case of misconduct is here excepted, because in this case the break is already accomplished (see comment on Matthew 5:27-28; Matthew 5:31-32).

The disciples are alarmed at the strictness of Jesus. The obligation to consider marriage as an indissoluble bond, for life, seems to them to surpass the power of man (vs. 10). They have not grasped what the vocation of marriage is, the total giving of two persons to each other so that they are no longer two but one. They therefore raise the question of celibacy.

Jesus’ reply is expressed in very enigmatic language, and he himself underlined the fact that only they understand this saying to whom understanding is given (vss. 11-12). There is a compulsory celibacy. But celibacy may be a vocation freely accepted for the purpose of an exclusive devotion to the service of God (see Jeremiah 16:1-2).

In the history of the Church, Roman Catholicism has exalted celibacy as a more perfect state. Protestantism has reacted by exalting marriage as being the normal vocation for all men and women. Jesus recognized both vocations as gifts of God without establishing the priority of one over the other. Each person is to follow, but follow to the end, with all the renunciations which that implies, the way to which he has been called.

Verses 13-15

Jesus Blesses Little Children

(Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)

This brief scene is one of those on which Christian parents love to fix their attention: through these little ones from a Judean village, does Jesus not look on their own children and bless them? What a contrast there is between the attitude of Jesus and that of his disciples! For them, these people who press around the Master with their little ones in their arms are intruders. They interrupt some otherwise important and serious conversations! And was there not a little superstition in the desire that Jesus lay his hands on some babies for whom this gesture had no meaning? But Jesus sees things otherwise. He loves these little ones and declares that the Kingdom is for those who resemble them (Matthew 18:1-6; Matthew 18:10), He places his hands on them in blessing.

Verses 16-30

The Problem of the Rich Young Man

(Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30)

The story of the rich young man greatly disturbed the disciples. It has not ceased to disturb Christians. This man is a devout Jew. He takes the commandments of the Law seriously. He desires to do what is "good." He is anxious to inherit eternal life. The Gospel by Mark tells us that "Jesus looking upon him loved him" (Mark 10:21). According to Mark, Jesus said to him: "You lack one thing"; according to Matthew, it is the young man himself who asks: "What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him: "If you would be perfect . . ." Confronted with the demand to sell what he possessed and to follow Jesus, the young man went away "sorrowful."

Jesus has not demanded of all his disciples that they abandon their goods. If he demands it here, it is without doubt because he has discerned between this man and the Kingdom a major obstacle his possessions. Placed before the final decision, the young man does not have the courage to take the last step and "leave all" to follow Jesus. Mammon, the god of riches, gets the better of Jesus Christ in this man’s decision (Matthew 6:24).

To limit this episode to one individual case would, nevertheless, falsify its meaning, as is indicated by the conversation between Jesus and his disciples which follows it. Note first that to the question, "What good deed must I do ... ?", Jesus replies: "One there is who is good" God. That is to say that our "good works" can never satisfy the divine demand; for our best human works are tarnished by egoism, they are never pure. To take the Law seriously and Jesus takes it very seriously is to discover our limitations; it is to discover our inability to achieve the goal of the double commandment of love to God and love to our neighbor. In demanding that the rich young man leave all and follow him, Jesus made him aware of the limits of his love; but lie opened to him at the same time a way of salvation. Faith in Jesus and his word can alone break a man’s bonds and set him free for God. Where his treasure is, there will his heart be (Matthew 6:19-21).

Jesus declares how much the attachment to the treasures of this world possesses men and prevents them from giving themselves completely. How many men have renounced the joys of a life consecrated to the service of God because of anxiety over material security! The saying of verse 24 is hard in its deliberately paradoxical form: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples are greatly amazed. They understand that this judgment goes beyond the problem of material riches, for they exclaim: "Who then can be saved?" The reply of Jesus is point "blank: No one, unless God saves him.

We have seen earlier in studying the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus understands the demands of God’s Law as driving us into the corner of the impossible. It is a matter of being "born anew," of a conversion of heart which God alone can effect in us. And it is precisely to bring this about that Jesus has come. The new "righteousness" which he reveals and confers goes beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The Kingdom which he announces is open to the "little ones," to the "poor," to those who know that they are nothing and have nothing of themselves and expect everything from God and his grace.

The question of Peter is somewhat naive. He thinks that he has "left everything" (vs. 27). His denial some weeks later will show that he also is not free from human attachments. He has not measured the cross which awaits him. But Jesus knows Peter’s sincerity. He knows that the vocation directed by him to Peter will triumph over all obstacles. And he makes to his Apostles a solemn promise: in the world to come, when the Son of Man "shall sit on his glorious throne," the Apostles who shall have followed him in his earthly pilgrimage and been associated with his sufferings will participate in his reign (see 2 Timothy 2:11-12). It is they to whom it will be given to judge "the twelve tribes of Israel" (vs. 28; see Luke 22:28-30). Those who for love of Jesus "for my name’s sake" shall have left their houses, their families, or their lands will receive here below a "a hundredfold" for that which they have lost. For they will be acquainted with this new family which is the community of believers, in which each participates for the good of all and all for the good of each a fraternal communion of which the Acts and the Letters of Paul give us some examples and which remains characteristic of a church truly alive. It is still only a "sign," certainly, but already a marvelous sign of that perfect communion in the Kingdom which the disciples will one day know.

Verse 30 sounds like a warning given to disciples who are too assured of their future destiny. Those who believe themselves to be first could well be last in the Kingdom, and vice versa. This saying introduces the parable which follows and will be taken up again at its end (Matthew 20:16).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 19". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-19.html.