Matthew has already given us some of Jesus' teaching on adultery and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (5:27-32). As opposition builds up, the Pharisees now ask a tricky question about divorce. They had heard his view that divorce was always an adulteration of the intended purpose of marriage (see note on 5:32 and 19:9). So they now opposed Jesus' high view of marriage with a current idea that a man had the right to divorce his wife just by saying "I divorce you, I divorce you," for the most trivial of reasons.
Jesus' answer on the one hand states God's intended perfection of two persons joined permanently in marriage. On the other hand he recognized that provision for a legal divorce is needed because of human sinfulness.
19:1-2 Jesus had on previous occasions crossed the Sea of Galilee to an area the other side to the east (see 8:28; 14:13). Now he came eighty miles south, either through Samaria (see Luke 9:51-53; 17:11), or having crossed the Jordan down the east side which was considered part of Judea (perhaps near the area mentioned in John 3:22-23; 4:3; 10:40). The crowd that followed him came from Galilee, perhaps with the intention of attending one of the annual feasts in Jerusalem.
19:3 The word "test" indicates that this is a trick question. And the words "for any cause" refer to a discussion among the rabbis as to whether a man could divorce his wife for trivial reasons. This was based on the interpretation of a Jewish civil law. "Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house" (Deuteronomy 24:1).
19:4 As we saw in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said "But I say to you" concerning Jewish law and culture. We also noted that we have to apply his "But I say to you" concerning God's kind of love to every item of our own country's laws, customs, and attitudes. Here Jesus goes back to words about humans from the first chapter of Genesis. "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26). This shows that women have the same dignity and freedom as men, and from God's point of view divorce is not an exclusively male prerogative. The equal rights of women is stated expressly when Mark includes the words "and if she divorces her husband and marries another" (Mark 10:12).
In the following verses Matthew records Jesus' point in male terms. After all it was only men who thought they had a right to divorce when they chose.
19:5 Jesus then quotes the "one flesh" nature of marriage (based on Genesis 2:24). It is interesting that this verse says nothing about a marriage contract or ceremony, and there is not one reference in the Bible to priests or judges or rabbis performing weddings. Whenever a man joins a woman in forming a new family unit, they become "one flesh." By that definition common law partners are already into a marriage.
Paul is true to Jesus' interpretation when he says that among the baptized "there is no longer male and female" (Galatians 3:28). And he defines Christian marriage as a tenfold total mutuality between a man and his wife (1 Corinthians 7:1-16).
19:6 Except in the case of porneia (the New Testament Greek word for illicit sex) most couples enter sexual union with some ideal of the oneness they hope to enjoy. The vision of a perfect marriage is what God has in mind, and a divorce for whatever reasons is inevitably an adulteration (19:9; Jesus had already given this deeper metaphorical meaning to the word "adultery" in 5:12). Here the "let no one separate" is therefore a spiritual ideal, not a legal concept, for both men and women in the Messianic community.
19:7 What then of Moses' ruling that a divorce certificate must be given to the woman (Deuteronomy 24:1)? At least this Jewish law meant that a woman could prove that her previous marriage (however it had been begun) was terminated, and she was now free if she chose to marry again. In western countries both the man and the woman are entitled to such a document if they were legally married. And we can sense the inhumanity of a man or a woman walking out on a partner without so much as an acknowledgment that the relationship is now dead.
19:8 Jesus explains that divorce is always an adulteration of what was intended (19:9), but if it has to happen there should be a law to effect the closure properly. In Western countries where living together common law is treated as setting up a contract with rights on both sides, a legal way to terminate a relationship is also needed.
19:9 A man should realize that by divorcing his wife (for minor or even for serious reasons) he inevitably causes the adulteration of her hopes for a happy marriage. An obvious exception is if the woman has already adulterated the marriage by unfaithfulness.
19:10-11 Jesus' high view of marriage adulteration suggests that his followers would be better to remain celibate. Jesus explains that celibacy is a gift that only God can give. And here again Paul picks up Jesus' teaching exactly (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).
19:12 Some are made celibate by their genes. Some men are castrated for service in a harem, and we might add that some women are also denied marriage for a variety of reasons. But messianic service for the kingdom will need the costly gift of celibacy at least for shorter periods, and for some in a lifetime commitment.
In any kind of kingdom or political system or culture there are values which are unwritten but taken for granted. The values of the Messianic kingdom are stated for all to read in the Gospels. Here Matthew's references to Jesus' words about children makes clear that we are to be childlike in our faith (18:2,3) and children are to be welcomed (18:5) valued and protected (18:6-7). He now adds that Jesus laid his hands on children and prayed for them (19:13), they should not be excluded from our fellowship, and the Messianic kingdom is for children and childlike persons (19:14).
The Messianic kingdom is also based on the ten categories of moral judgment (see comment on 5:21, 27) as interpreted by the perfection of God's kind of love (5:43-48). A third important value is that the kingdom should not be controlled by the rich. The kingdom will in fact turn the world's values upside down.
19:13-14 Matthew carefully balances the preceding verse about the value of celibacy for the kingdom with Jesus' love and prayer for little children. We might contrast the philosopher or ascetic who thinks children are an interference with higher things. The welcoming of children to our services is an important characteristic of Messianic worship. And it is hard to imagine Jesus refusing to have children at the family table.
Matthew has recorded how Jesus touched sick persons such as a leper, a disciple's mother in law, the daughter of a synagogue leader (8:3, 15, 9; 9:18). Now he notes that children also need the laying on of hands and prayer. And Messianic churches should consist of children and child-like persons (which reinforces the words in the previous chapter, 18:1-5).
19:15 The parallel verse in Mark's Gospel says "He took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them" (Mark 10:16; see Luke 2:28). Cuddling a child is no longer politically correct, and can result in being sued for child abuse. Blessing is viewed as a religious act which some school boards say is illegal. Hopefully we can still lay a hand on a child's head with a silent prayer.
19:16 Turning from the value of children we look at the question of someone who is left anonymous. His question about eternal life suggests that he was a devout Pharisee. Luke identifies him as a ruler, which could indicate he was a member of the Sanhedrin or governing body of the Jewish people. It is tempting to identify this rich young man (19:22) with Lazarus, but better leave silent what Matthew did not want us to know.
19:17-19 The man's question was about goodness, or the good, or the good thing to do. Jesus reminds him that only God can define that for us. And the definition is already given in the commandments which the young man knows already. Jesus lists for example five commandments which can be summed up as "Love your neighbor as yourself."
As we have seen, the commandments are given to us without specific content. They are more like categories of moral judgment which have to be filled in by looking to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in the particular problem we are facing. We are not given a definition of murder or adultery, so Jesus explained some of their implications in the Sermon on the Mount (see comments on 5:21-22, 27-30). These implications are at the heart of the moral values of the Messianic kingdom.
19:20 We cannot fault the young man for his devotion. Mark says that he "ran up and knelt before" Jesus (Mark 10:17). And Jesus certainly loved him (Mark 10:21). "I have kept all these" may reflect the idea that one can reduce morality to some manageable rules which can be obeyed.
19:21-22 The man had far more by way of possessions (19:22) than he could possibly use. So looking to the Holy Spirit (as in 10:20; 12:18, 28) would certainly have resulted in him wondering how best to use his resources for those in need. And if he did not know how to do that he could come and learn as a disciple. This would have been very upsetting for someone who was rich and important, and imagined he was already as good as could be expected.
19:23-24 Jesus does not say that rich people are not welcome in the Messianic kingdom. The saying about the camel is a typical Middle Eastern metaphor or proverb. Jesus is not making a rule but using an extreme metaphor to point up a fact. It is very hard in any culture for someone like the rich ruler to move out of the comfort and security of relying on wealth into Messianic service.
Some have explained that the term "eye of the needle" might have been used of the little gate for pedestrians next to the main city gate used by camels. By unloading the camel it might be possible to force it through on its knees. This wrongly suggests that we need to unload a dependance on riches in order to enjoy the kingdom. A rich person is not saved by unloading his or her riches.
19:25-26 The disciples wonder if the demands of Messianic service are unrealistically difficult. And Jesus again reminds them that all aspects of kingdom life are totally impossible by our unaided human strength (Paul uses the term 'flesh' to explain this in Romans 7:18-23; 8:8). But Paul's good news is that all that is needed for our perfecting in love is possible by the power of God (called the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:2, 4, 11). By way of comment on "for God all things are possible" Paul says that it was the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11). That power is more than sufficient for any challenges we might face.
19:27-28 The word translated "the renewal of all things" is palingenesia or new birth. This is used to describe baptism (in Titus 3:5). But here it refers to the new birth for God's people out of the birth pangs (tribulation) connected with the destruction of the temple (24:2, 8). For Matthew the seating of the Son of Man on the throne of glory had already taken place (28:18) and the reign would become visible during the lifetime of the disciples (16:27-28; 24:29-31, 34; see Daniel 7:14).
When that occurs the apostles will become known as the founders of the world-wide church, and through them people of all nations will enter the gates of the kingdom (see Revelation 12:14). Their judging is not a question of deciding people's eternal destiny but of leading God's people (like the judges of the Book of Judges) by teaching and writing all that the Messiah has told them (28:19-20).
19:29 The variants in other Gospels show that "for my name's sake" is another way of speaking of goodnewsing (Mark 10:29) or of "for the sake of the kingdom" (Luke 18:29). Those who do this experience the hundredfold of great joy in doing it (as Paul did, Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20; see also 1 Peter 1:8).
It is interesting that Jesus gave his tough priorities for the man who wanted to stay at home till his father had grown old and died (8:21-22). In this list of family members who may be left to go on kingdom service one's wife or husband is not included as it is in Luke's account (Luke 18:29).
"Will inherit eternal life" does not mean that we earn our place in heaven by costly service. Rather we should remember that whatever we suffer now, for whatever reason, is insignificant compared with the joys that God has in mind for us (Hebrews 12:1-2).
19:30 In evaluating the puny or costly labors and rewards of others it is good to remember that things will turn out very differently from the way we have imagined.