The story of the rich young ruler and Jesus’ commands concerning wealth and possessions have long since fascinated people around the world, both in ancient and modern times. In the last article of this blog series, we gained additional insight into these subjects through examining key passages in Luke and Acts. In this final article, I will offer some pointers toward what a faithful reading of these ancient texts might look like in the 21st century global West, the place where I and many of you readers are situated.
Just as the biblical texts are situated in historical, literary, and theological contexts, we are likewise situated as readers and hearers. All hearing is contextualized or situated. A contextualized hearing is not necessarily a compromised or lessened one; it can be, but the act of contextualization into a new culture by itself does not necessitate a loss of meaning. Meaning is application applied in particular times and places and cultures.
As the theologian John Frame points out in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, good theology is something that is new in every generation and place; it is the faithful reading and application of scripture in the here and now. The Word of God was not only alive in its origins but continues to speak into our now. With this knowledge, how do we correctly apply the Word and what we have learned regarding wealth and possessions to our lives in the now? Let us begin with some observation.
An Honest Evaluation
The first observation is that in the preceding analysis of these three biblical texts, it was necessary to make strong arguments against literalistic readings; but this approach can begin to feel like special pleading. That is, at every turn the argument was that these high and strong commands of Jesus don’t mean what they seem to say and don’t really apply to us.
Stepping back from a place of relative economic ease and luxury, and aware that I personally don’t want to sell all my possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, we should at least consider that our counter-desires may color our interpretation. The constant refrain that these commands do not apply can begin to sound like Gertrude’s line in Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” In other words, non-literalistic readings appear as overly convenient ways to avoid the commands of Jesus.
This is a fair concern and gets at an important application for today’s readers. While I believe the interpretations offered above are good and wise readings which correctly interpret Jesus’ focus on the heart over external actions, we are always in danger of muting and enervating these texts, taming them to our own will instead of God’s. Instead, we should feel the pinch and push and pull of these commands just as much as the people who originally heard them, even if the application to our bank accounts differs from theirs.
After all, the point of Jesus’ commands is that our hearts can and often are deceived regarding our possessions, with deadly effect. Even if we understand that the solution is not necessarily selling all of our possessions, we must still be willing to face any application that is just as radical (at its root) and which feels just as heart-surgical and shocking. This requires an honest evaluation of our lives, including our finances and possessions, to detect how we may fall into the same heart-treasure-traps as the rich young ruler and other would-be disciples.
We must not forget that the Bible talks a lot about money and that it is not treated as merely adiaphora, or completely indifferent or neutral. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, as Paul told us (1 Tim. 6:10). We cannot substitute any other noun for “money” and speak the same truth. Money, wealth, and possessions have special power that other things in the world do not, precisely because they promise to meet our most basic needs as well as some of our loftiest desires.
After all, Jesus reminded us in the parable of the sower that fruit is often choked out in soil that is thorn-infested. He explained that “the deceitfulness of riches chokes the word” in our lives, resulting in a failed crop (Matt. 13:22). While it is important to properly hear Jesus’ commands and recognize that not every believer is required to sell one’s possessions to become a disciple, we should not swing the pendulum so far the opposite direction that we deceive ourselves into thinking wealth and possessions are outside the realm of God’s commands and correction in our lives.
Ways to Utilize Wealth & Possessions
Balancing these thoughts with a more positive counterpart, I will offer two ways in which we should consider and utilize whatever wealth and possessions God gives us. These two ways can be summed up as viewing our wealth (1) for employment, and (2) for enjoyment.
By employment I mean the mindset that God gives his creatures wealth and possessions so that they might employ them for the good of the world, including those in need. The scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, speak much about the importance of care for the poor and those in need (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 15:11; Ps. 82:4; Prov. 19:17; Isa. 1:17; Matt. 5:42; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 1:17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). While Jesus’ commands do not require each individual to sell everything to be a disciple, they still reflect a positive aspect of Christian discipleship: caring for those in need.
In this way, all Christians are called to employ whatever goods they have for the good of others. The practical outworking is a matter of wisdom, not a matter of rules and regulations. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7) and Christians are under no compulsion to meet every need that presents itself. Even giving up all of one’s wealth and possessions would not meet all the needs of the world!
But Christians are under obligation to be motivated by a heart of love and compassion for others. This fulfills the second greatest commandment, that we love one another. Therefore, followers of Christ today should intentionally adopt a mindset that what we own is a gift given to be employed for the good. This is summed up in parable form in Jesus’ teachings about the talents (Matt. 25:14-30; Lk. 19:12-28). Each person has been given a gift and must choose how to employ it.
By enjoyment I mean that Christians should exercise wisdom regarding wealth and possessions by recognizing that God gives his creatures all things for their enjoyment. This can be a difficult concept for many Christians to embrace, especially those who are serious about helping the poor and aware of the great needs of the world. It is always easier to fall off one or the other side of the knife-edge of truth than to walk on it. It is much easier to treat money and possessions as adiaphora on the one side or as evil on the other.
But the truth is that God is a God of pleasure and enjoyment. All the good of creation is from God; there is nothing good that does not come from him. We must not become ascetics, denying the goodness of creation either in principle or by practices that treat wealth and possessions and their pleasures as evil.
We will always have the poor with us, and we should care for them. But as author Joe Rigney shares in his book, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, caring for the poor is not the opposite of enjoying all that God has created for our good. Moreover, we know that if you are heeding God’s call for your life and accumulate wealth in the process, your wealth is a signal of good stewardship and the good employment of your time, treasure, and talents.
The Pursuit of Wisdom
As with the employment of our wealth, so too with its enjoyment; we must pursue wisdom. There are no clear rules and regulations and laws about how much the Christian can enjoy the world or how to balance enjoyment with sacrificing to help others. Rather, Christians are called to a life of heart-examining wisdom.
We have come full circle back to our biblical texts and their interpretation. The call of discipleship is a call to hear Jesus’ commands, examine our hearts, and follow after him. For some, this will mean giving up much of this world; for others, not. But in all things, the call is to heart-level hearing.
Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, “Sell Your Possessions And Give To The Poor” A Theological Reflection On Jesus’ Teaching Regarding Personal Wealth And Charity, by Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington. Read the full paper here.