Formations 03.29.2020: Things or Experiences?

Matthew 19:16-26

New research from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that some purchases are better than others at providing happiness.

Lead author Amit Kumar and his research team recruited over 2,600 adults and assigned them randomly to either a “material” or an “experiential” group. They were then sent random texts during the day to monitor their emotions and their purchasing behavior.

Those in the “material” group bought things such as jewelry, clothing, or furniture while those in the “experiential” group spent their money on sporting events, dining out, or other experiences. The experiment concluded that “Happiness was higher for participants who consumed experiential purchases versus material ones in every category, regardless of the cost of the item.”

The researchers then conducted a second study with twice as many participants in which they attempted to account for differences in the size of expenditure. “It would be unfair to compare a shirt to a trip,” Kumar explains, “but when we account for price, we still see this result where experiences are associated with more happiness.”

He concludes: “If you want to be happier, it might be wise to shift some of your consumption away from material goods and a bit more toward experiences. That would likely lead to greater well-being.”

The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 is familiar to Bible readers. He asks about the most important topic there is, how to attain eternal life. He doesn’t like Jesus’ answer—sell your possessions and follow me—so he goes away grieving. Jesus then warns his disciples about how hard it will be for the rich to enter God’s kingdom. It is, in fact, a miracle that only God can perform.

According to Matthew, this man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (v. 22). In the language of Kumar and his team, he had spent his money on material things when he would likely have found greater satisfaction spending them on experiences. I don’t know if I’d say that the experience of using one’s money to meet the needs of the poor would have provided what was lacking in this man’s life. Then again, Jesus seems to think that doing so would have given him heavenly treasure.

“Spending on Experiences versus Possessions Advances More Immediate Happiness,” UT News, 9 Mar 2020 <>.


• Are you more likely to find pleasure in a new material possession or a new experience: a trip, a dinner out, tickets to a concert or sporting event, etc.? Why?
• How can the experience of sharing what you have with the poor bring joy and satisfaction?
• What effects does wealth have on our presence or participation in God’s kingdom?
• Is it the amount of wealth we possess that’s the problem, or is it the amount of time we spend fretting about it? Or is it both?
• What kind of power does our wealth afford us, and what would it mean for us to give that power up?

Reference Shelf

Wealth in the Bible

“Wealth, a blessing; poverty, a punishment” was a general belief in early times, but wise persons and psalmists mourned the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked (Job 21:7-16; Pss 37, 49, 73). The righteous were so mistreated that “poor” became a synonym for “godly.” Still, the rich could also be righteous. People like Zaccheus and Joseph of Arimathea could enter the kingdom of God (Luke 19:2; Matt 27:57). The NT cautions special care, for even moderate wealth must be administered faithfully, or else true wealth will never be given to disciples of Jesus (James 5:1-6; Luke 16:11).

Eddie I. Ruddick, “Wealth,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 955.

The Demands of Discipleship

The story begins with v. 16 when a man comes up to Jesus, calls him “Teacher,” and then asks, “What good thing must I do to obtain eternal life?” Notice also the form of the question asked— “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” Verse 17 provides Jesus’ reply, namely, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” This may be Jesus’ attempt to make clear to the inquirer that human achievement cannot make a person good, and only God is categorically good. Perhaps we are meant to think this man believed he and Jesus were good men because of their deeds, and notice how Jesus responds in terms of deeds. Verse 18 says the man asked which commandments he should obey.

Jesus lists some of the commandments—prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false testimony and, on the positive side, honoring parents and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It is perhaps most significant what he does not list—namely the Sabbath commandment. This deliberate omission may reflect Jesus’ view that now that the eschatological age was dawning, keeping a particular day as the Sabbath was no longer obligatory, for all days would now be holy unto the Lord. The young man replies that he has kept these commandments, and then he asks, “What do I still lack?” But Jesus apparently knows there is one major obstacle to his offering total devotion to God—his many possessions. Thus Jesus says at v. 21 that if the young man wants to be complete/perfect, he should go sell his possessions and give to the poor. Instead of such possessions the man is to have treasure in heaven and to come and follow Jesus. It appears that the young man may have thought that as long as he lived a good life and obeyed the major commandments, he was in good shape so far as eternal life was concerned. But keeping commandments can lead to a false sense of security, a sense that God owes one something. There is no substitute for obedience when God calls one to do something more than obeying the Ten Commandments. The First Evangelist is making clear that the demands of discipleship to Jesus go beyond the demands of the Law.

Jesus’ disciples, it will be remembered, were called in Matthew 5:48 to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, and so the young man is called to that high standard. The ultimate test of obedience then is seen as the willingness to assume the yoke of discipleship to Jesus. There may have been many early Jews in the position of Saul of Tarsus who claims that in regard to obedience to the Law he was “blameless,” which must mean having committed no willful violations of a known Mosaic Law, so that he could not be accused of being a lawbreaker (see Phil 3:6). Perhaps this young man fell into the same category. But not having broken a known law and being innocent or faultless are of course two different things, and then again going on to perfection is also another matter entirely. It is to perfection/completion of all God expects and requires that Jesus calls the young man.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 369–70.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. Yes, these are difficult days.
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