Matthew 19:16-22: Becoming Perfect?

By Eric Johnson

Many Latter-day Saints have pointed to the story of the rich young ruler to show that perfection is required in order to obtain salvation. The passage reads:

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,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

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.

In the 2000 gospel manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Lee is quoted this way:

“The rich young ruler did not need to be taught repentance from murder nor from murderous thoughts. He did not have to be schooled in how to repent from adultery, nor from stealing, lying, defrauding, or failing to honor his mother. All these he said he had observed from his youth; but his question was, ‘What lack I yet?’ The Master, with His keen discernment and the power of a Great Teacher, diagnosed the young man’s case perfectly: His need and his lack were to overcome his love for worldly things, his tendency to trust in riches. And then Jesus prescribed the effective remedy: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

Jesus does tell the rich young ruler to keep the commandments, which excites the man. After all, he pridefully claims that he had done everything he was supposed to do. He claimed to be a commandment keeper. Jesus takes him down the primrose path and says that this individual should sell all he has and follow Him. This makes the young man sad. In effect, Jesus pointed out that the ruler was not even able to keep the First Commandment since he obviously had other gods before God. This man’s money was apparently more important than following God. It was this same analysis that angered the Pharisees–those who were called sons of their father the Devil and white-washed tombs–because their legalistic mannerisms completely missed the ability to understand God’s way. It’s not about what a person does that justifies him or her before an all-righteous God; it’s about what He did on the cross. This is what John 3:16 is all about!

Jesus told His disciples in the following two verses: “Truly, I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The method Jesus chose utilizes shock value. Was Jesus literally saying here that everyone with money ought to sell everything they have in order to follow Him? Of course not. We can prove that because there were rich people who followed Jesus but did not sell everything, including Nicodemeus and Joseph of Arimathea. As Paul explains in 1 Timothy 6:10, it’s the love of money that is the root for all kinds of evil.

In the manual, Lee misses the point, as do the LDS editors. The subheading on page 196 asks, “How does an understanding of what we lack help us become perfect?” The answer is having an understanding that, no matter how hard we try, we can never become perfect. All of our righteous acts are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Is. 64:6). There is noone who does good, not even one (Rom. 3:10-12). This is because all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Good works, while important, will never justify any individual.

If a Mormon wants to take Jesus’s words about becoming “perfect” in a literal fashion and apply them to all people, then the context demands that the words about selling one’s possessions in order to obtain this “gift” must also be accomplished. Does the LDS Church require its membership to do this? No, they don’t–the only issue with money is that a person must tithe if he/she wants a temple recommend. To take half the words of Jesus and make them applicable to everyone without applying the second half is selective eisegesis (reading into the text); faulty interpretation ought to be rejected.

The section in the church manual closes with this:

“Every one of us, if we would reach perfection, must one time ask ourselves this question, ‘What lack I yet?; if we would commence our climb upward on the highway to perfection.”

There is no upward climb to perfection because perfection can never be reached, even one step at a time. Responding to the question “What lack I yet?” the Christian believer shouts, “Everything!” Only the work of Jesus can make a person complete through no works of the individual.

For a two-part podcast series on the “Perils of Perfectionism,” go to  Part 1 and Part 2