One of the assignments I give my students is called “Three Worlds.” Most students don’t read the example in the syllabus, and thus to assure understanding (and my own sanity when grading), we go over it in class.
The assignment asks students to select a text from Matthew’s gospel and run it through the three worlds: historical, literary, and contemporary.
The historical world is the “world behind the text.” It’s the cultural, political, social, and religious happenings going on in both Jesus’ day and the author’s (in this case, Matthew).
The literary world is the “world in the text.” It’s the story the text tells—the characters, the words, the images, the dialogue, and the narrative flow.
The contemporary world is the “world in front of the text.” It’s our world present day. It’s how the text speaks to our lives in the 21st century.*
For the in-class example, I selected Matthew 19.16-22.
Historical Highlights: Judaism at this time affirmed that the Torah contained God’s absolute and unquestionable will. It was the source of all truth, and obeying this truth was integral to being an observant Jew. All of these laws were fundamental to first century Jewish culture, and thus, like most Jewish boys of this time period, the young man in the text was well versed in them. In their exchange, Jesus cites 5 of the 10 commandments from Exodus 20.12-16 and Deuteronomy 5.16-20, and at the end, throws in the love commandment from Leviticus 19.18. Considering Matthew includes this story in his gospel, it’s possible that the surrender of wealth and status is a problem facing his first century community. **
Literary Highlights: The young man’s question was a common one addressed to teachers in the first century. In asking what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life, he’s essentially asking what he must do to enter God’s kingdom. From verses 13-15 we learn that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and that in order to enter it, we must become like them—reliant, dependent, and obedient. Yet, through the proceeding dialogue, we discover this is the young man’s problem—he’s reliant upon himself, dependent upon his riches, obedient to his wealth.
Jesus, like a good rabbi, continues the exchange by asking a question, before answering the young man’s inquiry with a list of commandments. From a typical Jewish understanding, following these commandments was the “good” thing one did to show fidelity to God’s covenant, and indeed, the young man has kept these. However, Jesus both challenges and reframes this. In commanding the young man to go, sell his possessions, and give the money to the poor, Jesus raises the bar by showing what true obedience looks like. In doing so, he confronts the young man’s willingness to relinquish everything to follow him. At the end of the pericope (the unit of text) we discover that the young man leaves grieving, for he had many possessions.
Contemporary Highlights: This text addresses qualifications for entering God’s kingdom by emphasizing that following Jesus is more than just adhering to commandments. Discipleship involves absolute commitment which comes from an inward submission. It’s a recognition that Christ is King, and that we are to submit our identity, possessions, and life to him, recognizing that God will provide for our needs.*** This may look different for everyone. Perhaps it’s tithing more than 10%, surrendering the plans for our children to God, relying upon God to plan our futures, or giving up our comfortable home to live in a lower class neighborhood.
As part of the contemporary world, I shared my own story about struggling to give up my job, and worldly security, to embrace God’s calling on my life. In the middle of this, one of my students frantically commented, “I can’t sell everything or just give up my job! I need my benefits! I need an income! I have kids!”
I quickly and calmly reassured her (and the rest of the class) that this was not prescriptive, but merely illustrative. I explained that Jesus doesn’t request this of everyone he encounters, nor is it a blanket requirement for discipleship. However, in this particular instance, Jesus uses this story to demonstrate the difficulty of entering God’s kingdom when we’re constantly keeping tabs on our bank account, finding security in it rather than him.
However, as I was driving home that night, I couldn’t help but think that while the selling of all possessions is not prescriptive, the notion of giving something up to enter God’s kingdom absolutely is.
The idea of surrendering worldly gain, letting go of our security, and submitting our lives to God’s authority, is replete throughout Scripture (cf. Matthew 6.19, Mark 8.36, Luke 17.33). The last time I checked, amassing a nest egg, self-aggrandizement, and obeying my will, were not among the Bible’s parables.
We must recognize that in staking citizenship in God’s kingdom, we’re choosing to say no to the way the world does things; we’re proclaiming there’s an alternative way. In choosing to follow Jesus, we may be asked to sacrifice personal happiness, time, honor, and prestige. We may be called to give up our wealth, entitlements, and creature comforts.
While this sounds like a massive downer, for those of us who claim Jesus as Lord, it is in fact the reverse. When we allow God to redefine what happiness, wealth, and comfort means, we witness transformation and redemption within ourselves, relationships, and communities. In this redefinition, we experience something the world does not, and cannot, offer.
And so, we can rejoice in this surrender, recognizing the unfathomable riches that await us in God’s kingdom, or like the young man, we can leave downtrodden. We can rejoice at Jesus’ request or feel dismayed, squeezing onto something that was never ours to begin with. We can exult in what we’re gaining or fixate on what we’re loosing.
The choice is ours.
*Hauer, Christian E. and Young, William A. An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds, pp. 3-5. Pearson, 2012.
**Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp 473-476. Eerdmans, 1999.