What does Matthew 19:21 mean?Jesus now reveals what the rich young ruler is missing to achieve salvation (Matthew 19:16). The man has asked Jesus what "good deed" he must do to be guaranteed a place in heaven. Jesus has emphasized to the man that only God is good, implying Jesus is God and ought to be listened to (Matthew 19:17). Christ has given a list of commands to keep (Matthew 19:18–19). The man has said, proudly, blindly, that he has already kept those (Matthew 19:20).
This verse, like others in the passage, is routinely torn from its context and abused by critics and well-meaning Christians alike. This is not a blanket command given to all believers. Nor is it even implying that shedding wealth is, itself, a necessary or pious thing. This is a specific remark given to a specific person, and for a specific reason. That reason was set up by everything which came before this part of the conversation.
On the surface, Jesus gives the man a task to complete to be perfectly good. He tells the rich man to give up all of his wealth and sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor and come and follow Him. In this way, Jesus says, you will have treasure in heaven.
The purpose of this comment is to expose the blindness of this wealthy young man, and his ultimate lack of sincerity. The man believed—or wanted to believe—that he had already loved his neighbor as himself. Jesus showed that was not true because the man still had great wealth, and his neighbors were still poor. The young man was not perfectly good, after all.
There are two points to this comment by Jesus. One is immediately clear, the other comes to light when the rich man reacts to Jesus' advice. First, this demonstrates that nobody is good enough to be guaranteed eternal life with God in heaven. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that He is the only one good enough both to die to pay for our sin and to cover our lack of goodness with His perfect goodness. Only by faith in Jesus and through God's grace and power can anyone be saved (Ephesians 2:1–10). As much as we might hope we've been "good enough," we can't live up to God's standard of perfection.
The second and most immediate purpose of Jesus' words in this verse is shown in the following verse. When pushed to follow God—to pursue "good"—the rich man balks. His reaction proves that he is ultimately unwilling to follow God unless God does things the rich man's way (Matthew 19:22).