First, let us consider the rich young ruler who asks: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 NRSV). Notice incidentally that he is looking for only one thing to do! But notice especially what he is not asking: “Teacher, what must I do to see God’s name honoured? Teacher, what must I do to see your Kingdom come? Teacher, what must I do to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven? Teacher, how can I be of help?” Instead his question is very self focused. He may as well be asking “What about me? What’s in this for me?” Being rich, he would have had the resources to be helpful to Jesus in His ministry, being young he would have had the energy, and being a ruler, his influence also might of been of help. But helping himself is the only thing on his mind at this time.
A short conversation between Jesus and the young man ensues, but there is something notable about Jesus’ response as to which commands the man should focus on:
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 19:18-19 NRSV)
Do you notice anything about this list? These are all commands that focus on relationships. Jesus is here looking to wean the young man off his self-focus and instead to focus on others. Jesus takes this focus on others a step further:
“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 (Matthew 19:21 NRSV)
The young man walks away grieved for being rich now he cannot fathom becoming poor and trusting the Lord with his treasures in heaven. He cannot focus on others. He cannot get beyond his self-focus.
Jesus takes the opportunity to teach, as we read 19:23-26 , about the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom Heaven but things quickly get back to the theme of self-focus: “Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”” (Matthew 19:27 NRSV). Peter here is comparing himself and the other disciples to the rich young ruler. They had left everything to follow, the young man had not. Is there reward for that? Yes, great will be their reward according to Jesus in verses 28-29. However, notice how Peter’s question is very much like the rich young man’s? He may as well be saying “What about me? What’s in this for me?” It is a self-centred question.
The next parable in 20:1-16 develops this. Some labourers are hired to put in a full twelve hour day, while others are hired for less, some even for only one hour. But at the end of the day they all get the same amount, and understandably the workers who worked the longest are upset. But to this the master responds:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:13-16 NRSV)
That we are to take this parable as furthering the thoughts of reward in the previous chapter is made clear by the repeating of “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” in both 19:30 and 20:16. To summarize those two passages: “First; yes you will be rewarded. Second; do not focus on your reward.” Someone who has fully surrendered to the Master will trust Him with the final outcome of all things. Someone who has a self focus, however, will focus in on the rewards and make comparisons with others receive. Though we may leave all to follow Jesus, we may still be self-centred rather than fully surrendered. Self-sacrifice may not be sacrificial at all if it is an attempt to come out on top.
Keep reading and we will keep seeing this lesson on self focus. Next up, Jesus speaks of His own death in 20:17-19, which of course has its focus on you and me. Right after that in 20:2-,21 the mother of James and John, with both of them along, asks Jesus to give her sons the best places in the Kingdom. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on others. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on God. They didn’t get the lesson on being focused on the Kingdom. They had left everything to follow Jesus. But they had not yet left their self focus. Have you?