For Sale: EVERYTHING !!
There are several passages of scripture that leave us with the dilemma of either having to take them at face value, or find creative ways to maneuver around them so as not to have to cope with what they actually say.
We have become pretty good at this “maneuvering” as American Christians. We have needed to.
A couple of these passages keep coming up in conversations with people, and I am continually amazed at the lengths that people will go to in order for them to mean anything other than what they actually say.
One example that continues to perplex me is the parable of the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus, who is approached by this young man of notable wealth, is asked by the man what he must do to inherit eternal life.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. – Mark 10: 17-22
I don’t intend to exegete this passage, so for a fantastic commentary on this I would strongly encourage you to read Tim Keller’s recent book – The Kings Cross. He does a fantastic job of discussing the young mans misguided heart and fatal misconceptions.
Lets not be too literal….
I would guess that most of us aren’t too amazed at Jesus’ response to this man… I think we all understand that Jesus was pointing out a clear issue in his heart, and his unwillingness to give up something that had a place in his heart before God. Money was his god, and although he had followed Gods commands his entire life, he was unwilling to dethrone the one god that took precedence over the One True God.
Fair enough. Touche Jesus.
What does amaze me however, is how it appears that people within the church respond to this passage today.
The common response to this passage is to suggest that Jesus was speaking particularly to this young man, because he had a particular sin issue with money. In other words, WE are not directed to sell everything we have and give it to the poor, because this passage was specific to this mans heart issue, and therefore only applies to him
You can find dozens of commentaries and hundreds of articles online about this issue (try it – Google “Sell your possessions and give to the poor) explaining how Jesus didn’t really mean that people have to sell their possessions and give them to the poor. After all, that would be self defeating because then we would be poor too… right?
But didn’t Jesus ask his disciples to do the same?
But…..how do we approach the fact that Jesus gave the same command to all of his disciples in Luke 12?
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. – Luke 12:32-34
Was this merely dispensational?
Did it only apply to these particular disciples? (and of course the rich young ruler)
Or perhaps it is only for the super wealthy, you know, Bill Gates and the likes.
But that doesn’t make sense, because all the disciples weren’t wealthy.
So who then was this directive aimed at?
If the Shoe Fits…
I am amazed at our inability to see that we are by all counts exactly who this passage is directed at.
Lets just be honest for one moment…
If there is one thing….just one thing…that is the most likely thing to have gained a place in our hearts as American Evangelical Christians, what would you say that is?
I think the answer is obvious. We are the wealthiest nation in history. We have more stuff than any people group in history. We are a capitalist society obsessed with money and things. And we earn on average 100 times more than over 50% of the worlds population. The answer is – Money.
Not convinced? Lets test it out….
Lets say a poor man, say one of the African men in the village in Ogoloi were confronted by Jesus and was told by Him to sell everything he had to follow him, do you think he would struggle to do so? I doubt it. For one thing, he has very little to sell. Very little to lose. The life he lives is not one worth clinging to. Jesus is a sanctuary, and His kingdom has great appeal. He will follow.
But how about you or me? If we were asked to sell everything we had in order to provide for people we had never met before so that they could eat a meal tonight, would we?
Or… would we come up with a string of reasons why it might not be a good idea? Would we explain away that Jesus never really meant it, or that selling our possessions would not help in the end because we would then be poor too? Would we explain that our particular spiritual gift is not giving, but something else? Would we explain that we don’t really have a lot of money and aren’t really in a position to give at this time. Or perhaps we might explain that our church already gives generously to missions. Maybe we would just pretend he was really talking to someone else in the crowd – you know, maybe the rich young ruler. But surely not us.
Unfortunately, I believe that the answer to the question of how we would likely respond is clear. After all, our response to this directive by our King is pretty evident in our lives today. Everyone is working to find a way to hang on to their possessions, while still retaining their righteous standing before God.
And why? Why would we be so much more likely to find issue with this command. Why would be need to defend against the idea that Jesus’ words might be best read at face value?
Again, the answer is simple…..its because we HAVE SO MUCH!
On Camels and Needles….
Which is why Jesus immediately after the encounter with the rich man turns to his disciples and offers up another passage of scripture so vehemently danced around by us as wealthy American Christians.
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, not with God; all things are possible with God.” – Mark 10:24-27
We certainly work hard to explain this one away!
And we dance peculiarly around the obvious inference of this passage.
But it is peculiar only until you consider what is at stake. After all, if this passage is taken at face value it would indicate that the rich of this world cannot be right with God (that is, so long as they are clinging to their riches), and in the context of the preceding passage, that the rich should therefor sell all their possessions to provide for others. And that’s us. We are the rich of this world. So….we need to dance around this one too.
I’ve heard explanations of this text whereby the eye of the needle is actually the name for one of the gates to the city. And in order for a camel to pass through the gate its baggage would need to be offloaded.
I’ve heard versions where the camel would need to kneel in order for the rider and his cargo to clear under the gate, insinuating that Jesus really meant that the wealthy need not sell everything but would have to bow down or submit to Jesus in order to be saved….you know, like a metaphor. A camel metaphor.
|dancing around the issue|
But this is just dancing.
Its not that complex.
Its actually quite straight forward.
The eye of a needle would have been clearly understood by Jesus’ audience. It was something small. A camel too was not a difficult concept to grasp. It is something big. In fact it was likely the biggest animal in Jerusalem (they didn’t have elephants or dinosaurs there at this time).
The application – huge animals cant fit through tiny holes, and men who trust in their wealth cant enter the kingdom of heaven. Its impossible. As impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. That’s what it says, dance all you like. That’s what it says.
And in the context of the passage he is obviously saying that the Rich man who just walked away from Jesus did so because he was unwilling to give up his wealth. Pretty clear. Jesus says sell what you have. The man says no. And for this reason Jesus explains that it is impossible for a rich man to enter Gods Kingdom.
Is being poor Being Holy?
So whats this all about? Is Jesus just inherently against money?
Is there something innately good about not having wealth?
Well no, I presume money is a-moral. When used for good its good. When used for bad its bad. But, when it becomes the object of our affection, so much so that we would rather keep it (and the comforts it provides) than feed starving people, or provide medicine for the deadly ill, or care for lonely orphans….then yes, its a bad thing. And we should give it all away.
That’s why Jesus addresses the rich ruler this way.
And its why He would address anyone who might place their things (money, possessions) ahead of their allegiance to Him in the same way.
Wealthy American Evangelicals?
Now, if we take an honest look at the world around us…just who might fall into this category today? Who might be in danger of working to follow Jesus in all his commands from our youth (weekly church attendance, bible study or small group membership, tithing, avoiding adultery and immorality etc) but unwilling to give up the comforts and security that their wealth affords them? Who might be trusting more in their money, or be devoted more to their possessions than the King to whom they claim allegiance?
I think the answer is obvious. How on earth are we not in the same position today as the rich young ruler was then? How are we not a people trusting in the security and comfort that only the riches of the American lifestyle can afford us? How are we not trusting more in our jobs and IRA’s and savings accounts and emergency funds and ……
Honestly….What would you give up for Jesus, and what wont you?
I would like to suggest that for most people, the answer is…they would not sell everything they have!
That’s where we would draw the line, or at least weasel our way out of the discussion by suggesting that Jesus isn’t actually asking us for this.
He is asking us for this…because just like the man in Mark 10, our god is our Money, our stuff, our comforts and our security. And the True King will not settle for second place. That’s why Jesus was so clear on this issue…..
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” – Matthew 6:24
I believe that the American Church has fallen into a terrible trap. We have been blessed (or cursed) with great wealth. And with great wealth comes great responsibility….and a great conflict.
And because of this Jesus is calling us, just like the rich young ruler…to lay our possessions (or our god) at Gods feet. But I fear that we have become too skilled at misrepresenting what He said to even have a real conversation about what is being asked of us.
You see, if you are willing to read these passages at face value I believe this issue becomes quite plain. Painful….but plain.
You can only serve one master. And we all must choose.
Serve money, and the comfort, possessions, safety and joys within this world that it can afford you.Or serve the servant King, who gave up everything he had for others, by doing the same.
Ok, so now what?
I’m not sure what this looks like in the lives of those around me?
I’m not 100% sure I know how it is going to look in my own life.
But I know this….my orientation has shifted.
For too long I think that I have desired happiness in all its forms.
Possessions, Money, Security, Safety, Health, Fun…and even Salvation.
And God has been a means to these ends. That’s right….if I am honest with myself I was really just using God as a means to avoid damnation and “get” heaven. In the end the one thing that was common in all my endeavors…..was me…or SELF. And in order to retain my lifestyle, for my SELF, I could certainly not entertain the idea of literally giving not only my heart to Jesus, but also my wallet.
But something has shifted.
And although I don’t know where it takes us yet, or how much of the “stuff” we have or the money we earn we get to retain and how much of it we will need to give away, the truth is I just don’t care. It just doesn’t matter.
We would gladly move to Africa tomorrow it it meant that was how we could best be used, and if living in this 1100 s.f. town-home is the best place for us to be used that’s OK too. And I am sincere when I say this. Our orientation has shifted. How much I get to retain is no longer the issue. I’m in love with a King, who told me to Love others as much as I love myself -for those of you that know me – that’s a lot :). I certainly love myself to know that I don’t want to starve to death, or lose my child to malaria…so I guess I am supposed to love other people enough to not want to same for them.
Where we live, how much we earn, and how much we can retain or not retain is not the issue. I’m guessing it will be very little of it…and that’s quite OK.
Too often when I discuss the above passages of scripture with people, the question that comes up is about the specifics of how much we get to keep, and how simple our lives are supposed to actually be if we took this literally.
“So are we literally to sell everything we have?” – kind of thing.
The answer – I don’t know. Maybe.
How far would you go for your own child?
If your child was taken from you and sold as a sex slave in northern Uganda, or was literally dying in your arms….how much would you sell…to what lengths would you go….to make him well, or to recover her from her captors?
I’d give everything. Wouldn’t you?
I’d be OK with it. I would gladly live in a cardboard box for the rest of my life if I had to, if it meant that my child would live. I know you would too.
But consider what Jesus meant when he was asked what the greatest command was,and responded by telling us that all of the prophets and all of the law were summed up in the following:
LOVE God, and LOVE others as yourself – Matthew 22:39
And again….“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – Matthew 7:12
So, how about somebody else’s child?
So, taking this passage literally (if you dare), it would seem that we are asked to offer the same level of love for those around us as we would to ourselves. Presumably then, we ought to offer the same level of love to someone whose child was dying as we would to ourselves if it was our child in the same circumstances.
So, would we go to the same lengths for somebody else’s child as we would for our own?
Would we gladly give up the comfort of this life, by giving up the possessions we have been given, in order to save the life of another?
Or perhaps a better question might be….are we doing this?
Is the American Evangelical Church living out this command to Love others?
Well, today 29,000 children died of hunger and preventable disease. Today.
The same was true yesterday and will be true tomorrow.
And so, I think we are being asked if we Love them enough to do something about it. I think it is possible that we are being asked if we love them, or our stuff more. I think we are encountering the King…and he is suggesting that there might be one thing we are lacking….
Would you sell your possessions and give them to the poor?
“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
“But with God this is possible!”