Matthew 19:16-22 Self-serving Morality

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “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.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Self-serving Morality

Jesus,  I wouldn’t have spoken to the rich, young ruler this way.  I would have probably accepted his statement about the ‘good’ as fairly innocent.  However, I think that it betrays the heart of many of our problems.  We think that we are good and forget that we need a saviour.  We have a moment when we know we aren’t right with God and we come to you for repentance, but we don’t see the depth of our corruption at any time.  I don’t think we can cope with the horror of what is within us.  You are teaching that we are not good without you.

People think that because they keep most of the commandments and are ‘moral’ compared to their neighbour, they are ‘good’.  You don’t think that.  Also, the real sign of the evil in us is the realisation that we are not living lives of worship for God but we serve ourselves, even by the moral choices that we make.

I just met Michelle Reyes who is teacher of German here at Moody.  She is doing a dissertation on how Goethe writes in the style of the religious works that predate him, but writes secular biographies which aggrandize the self.  It seemed to fit with my thoughts on this passage.  We can use high-sounding religious language and ideas to hide the fact that we are raising up a self that is self-obsessed, self-focused and self-serving.  Help us not to disguise our selfish schemes in religious language.  Help us not to serve ourselves by being moral, but help us to serve you.


  1. What did the young ruler ask Jesus?
  2. What was his motive in asking?
  3. Why did Jesus turn the tables on him?
  4. Why do you do good things?
  5. How is it possible to be moral and miss the point behind our good acts?

About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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3 Responses to Matthew 19:16-22 Self-serving Morality

  1. antlong86 says:

    If that man walked into our churches today, we would bend over backwards to make sure he felt right at home. Good respectable professional church member and could only be good for the offerings!

    And if perhaps he had heard our message and walked away, we would have chased after and said that we had been a bit harsh and there was no need for him to take our words to literally.

    Why was Jesus so harsh on this guy? It must be that he knew the man’s motives were impure. As we were reminded at Spring Harvest recently it is all about us recognising our brokenness. That’s when we can come to Jesus.

    If we actually think we’ve got it completely together, then perhaps that is when God cannot touch us.

  2. antlong86 says:

    Just finished reading a chapter on this story in Timothy Keller’s “King’s Cross”. In that he calls Jesus the Rich Young Ruler. He had compassion on the man because he saw something of himself in him. But Jesus who was rich became poor. He gave everything away. But the young man would not do so. If we truly recognise the magnitude of what Jesus the Rich Young Ruler has done for us then it will affect our attitudes to money and those other things we hold on to.

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