16 And behold, one came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" 17 And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 He said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property.Of course it's a "hard saying". Even the disciples were baffled. But the part I want to look at is verse 21. Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." "Yeah, yeah," you might counter, "but Jesus was only talking to this guy. He didn't say it to everyone." Oh?
23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 25 And when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" 26 And looking upon them Jesus said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:16-26).
"Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:33-34).Oops! So it isn't just to the rich young ruler. In fact, it's an imperative without which we cannot be His disciple.
"No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions" (Luke 14:33).
What does He mean? Well, let's take it at face value (always a good idea if possible). It would appear as if He is commanding us to sell all we have. What would that mean? Well if "sell all your possessions" is taken purely literally, then I would need to sell off this computer, get rid of the house, the car, the furniture, stove, refrigerator, etc., my clothing, anything I possess. If this is the case, then the command is to become a homeless person with nothing of your own. Well, perhaps you could rent a place, but it couldn't have any furnishings or the like. Is this the command? Maybe. Jesus had no place of His own. And others have taken it quite literally. The first disciples appeared to do so. Some monks have taken vows of poverty. Saint Antony of the Egyptian Desert took it quite at face value, sold everything, and went to live in the desert. It was these passages that started the Monasticism movement.
Others suggest a different understanding. One site's interpretation says, "Jesus does want us to ask this question: where does my ultimate loyalty lie?" Carl Rohlfs, in a sermon preached in the University United Methodist Church says, "He does not say 'Sell ALL your possessions'; just 'sell your possessions.' Sell those things available for sale. Don’t hang the weight of excess wealth and accumulation as the millstone holding you down." Tracy Lesan of the Berean Bible Society suggests that the command was for a particular time, and that God isn't doing that anymore.
We are at an impasse here. If we are to take the Bible at face value, then nothing less than abject poverty is the command for all Christians anywhere. We need to sell everything we own or we aren't "Bible-believing Christians". On the other hand, there are rational approaches to these passages that suggest that "sell all your possessions" was not really in mind here at all, and it is not necessary to do so.
Allow me a few observations. First, what is in view? Is it God's intention that His own be people of poverty? I don't think so. What is His intention? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34). The goal isn't poverty, but rather love. What do you love? If it is your possessions, you're in trouble. Clearly the problem with the rich, young ruler was an inordinate love for his possessions. That's why Jesus said it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom.
Second, consider the parallel:
34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:34-38).It seems quite obvious that Jesus isn't commanding us to hate our families, or this would contradict too many other Scriptures. What He is saying is that there will be a conflict between earthly loves and a heart for God. What He is saying is that love for Him must clearly outweigh love for even family. In like manner, the point of the command to "sell possessions" isn't poverty, but the question of "Where is your heart?"
Third, note that it is true that only one passage mentions "all", and that one doesn't say to sell all, but to "give up". The ESV says "renounce". This doesn't mean "divest yourself", but "surrender ownership". When you hear yourself say, "That's mine", you haven't surrendered ownership.
Finally, notice the first century church. According to Acts, they "were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:45). Some have said, "See? Sell all you have! They did." But this isn't an accurate representation. First, it wasn't compulsory; it was voluntary. Second, we have the example of Ananias and Sapphira. In their example, they sold what they had, then lied about the price. What did Peter tell them? "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?" (Acts 5:4). You see, keeping the property, or even retaining part of the price was not a sin. Their sin was not in withholding something for themselves, but in lying about it. So Peter was not mandating that they sell all they possessed. That was not required.
On one hand, it appears to be a mandate for all Christians to live in abject poverty. On the other hand, there appears to be viable alternatives to this "face value" concept. Which is right? I'll leave that up to you. One thing that is inescapable here. Jesus called for radical disciples who would cling to nothing here on Earth and who would follow Him at all costs. This isn't the vision of the American Christian. We tend to be comfortable, accumulating wealth if possible, certainly not giving to charity as we could and should. Indeed, we worship comfort. Perhaps Jesus didn't mean a literal "sell everything", but He unavoidably commanded that we should not be materialists ... and for the most part, we are.