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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Sell all your possessions" Revisited

My all-time most read entry was way back in October of 2006. As long ago as that was, I'm still getting comments and it's still being read. (As of this writing the counter says there have been 25505 views and 161 comments on this one alone.) The title: Hard Sayings - "Sell all your possessions". You understand, of course, why that's so popular, right? On one hand, genuine believers read something like that and say, "Hey, am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing here?" On the other, skeptics seize on it as "proof" that Christians aren't following Christ. That, at least, accounts for the largest number of readers. I have no answers for the skeptics. Skeptics are gonna skept, you know? Okay, too hip. Skeptics aren't looking for answers; they're being skeptical. But for the genuine believer wondering, "What, exactly, did Jesus mean and what, exactly, am I supposed to be doing?", I thought I'd look at it again.

My first answer was, basically, this. We know Jesus did not mean "If you want to be My follower, it is mandatory that you sell everything you own and live in abject poverty." We know this because Jesus Himself didn't do it and because His followers didn't do it. No, they weren't rich folk, but Jesus, at His death, owned an expensive cloak and we know the disciples continued to own things like boats (fishing boats) without a correction from their Master. So it cannot mean that. What, then? I understood it to mean "Own nothing. It all belongs to Christ. You are just a steward. Do with it as Christ would have you do." Again, that's the short answer.

Now the revisit. I was looking at the instances that Jesus made the statement.
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matt 19:21) (See also Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:23, the parallel stories.)

"Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)
Surprised? He said it, actually, only twice. Seems like He said it a lot more, but it was only twice. But, of course, the number of times He said it doesn't tell us much. We need more context.

The first time (carried in three of the four Gospels) Jesus was talking to the rich young ruler. Seeking eternal life, the man asked Him what he had to do. Jesus told him, in essence, to be good to people. "I have been," he basically answered. But Jesus had left out another aspect of the commandments -- the "vertical". He had listed the ones that fall under "Love your neighbor" and skipped the "Love God" one. So He asked the rich guy to sell his possessions. "Who do you love? God or your riches?" "But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property." (Mark 10:22) Greed, according to Scripture, is idolatry (Col 3:5). The man demonstrated himself to be an unrepentant idolater.

The other reference was in a discourse Jesus was having with His disciples (Luke 12:22-34). He was telling them not to worry about life or food or clothes, that God would take care of them. Their job was to seek the kingdom (Luke 12:31). In that vein, then, He told them to "Sell your possessions and give to charity." (Luke 12:34) And He told them why. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:34)

It seems to me, then, that this is a lot of concern over a couple of statements of Christ generally taken out of context. The first one was a specific statement to a specific man at a specific time for a specific reason. (Note, also, that it is the only one that required "Sell all your possessions.") Think about a parallel. God commanded Israel to kill the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:1-3). Now, regardless of what we think of this command, one thing is abundantly clear. It was a one-time command to the people of that day. It wasn't for all time. It wasn't for all believers. It was then and there. It looks to me that this command of Jesus to the rich man was this kind of command. It was for a specific guy -- a rich man -- for a specific reason -- to highlight his idolatry. There is every reason to believe Jesus meant it when He said it to the man, but there is no reason to think it is applicable to all believers for all time. In context that just doesn't make sense.

And the second one does apply to believers. It was a general discourse of Christ to His followers. But He tells them what they're shooting for. "Don't worry about money. Make Christ, not money, your treasure." Kind of like what I said the first time. If our treasure is in Christ and our aim is God's kingdom, money and stuff will not mean anything to us beyond being useful tools for God's kingdom. That would be the proper perspective on possessions.

I don't think I'm being circuitous. I think I'm reading the text and the context. Based on what we see Jesus and His disciples doing and based on the text and the context, I don't see a blanket command to all Christians for all time to live in poverty and own nothing ... nothing at all. Maybe you do. If you do, by all means carry out that plan, because "Whatever is not from faith is sin." (Rom 14:23) As for me, until someone comes up with a compelling reason to believe that Jesus and His disciples failed to keep His commands, I'm going to have to go with this. And, trust me, this isn't easy, either.


Marshall Art said...

I don't see this as all that difficult a concept to understand. I would love to have more money than I could ever need. I'm not willing to do absolutely anything to achieve that possibility. I do not want to do anything that I believe will be displeasing to God in order that I can acquire more money than I could ever need. Here's an example: pot stocks. It's all the rage now that some states have legalized possession for even the purpose of just enjoying a high. While I have a history of having enjoyed a doob now and then (not since I became a truck driver with a license I could lose if I test positive), I'm not willing to say that being faced is in any way glorifying to God, and as such, to invest in an industry that is based on being faced also does not seem to me to be glorifying to God. As such, I have a hard time believing that the pot industry is a worthy place for my investing dollars, anymore than would be investing in a whore house in Nevada.

But acquiring wealth in a manner in that aligns with Christian principles of honesty and integrity? Not a problem, and what's more, a worthy goal if I can find such a way that works for me.

Stan said...

In your thinking, how is this not "greed"? How is this not "self-serving"? It would appear that the argument is, "As long as you don't do anything bad to get it, getting all you can for yourself is perfectly okay."