Today’s reader of these strong commandments of Jesus, especially in the global West, cannot help but react in some way:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Luke 12:33
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Luke 14:33
That reaction may be guilt over not obeying, like a low-grade fever that spikes up when these commands are heard anew. Or the reaction may be guardedness or defensiveness, offering reasons why these statements don’t mean what they seem to say. Or, least likely but still possible, some readers may immediately drop everything and sell all that they have so as to be true disciples of Jesus.
Each reaction is understandable and has adherents in the Church today as well as throughout Church history. What is clear is that Jesus’ teachings are strong and stark and must be addressed one way or another.
Any Christian reader of Holy Scripture will want to understand and obey what Jesus teaches. This willingness to hear and follow is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It is necessary in that a posture of receptivity is the precursor to faithful reading and application. But it is not sufficient in that the question of what exactly Jesus commands his disciples to do is not solved merely by reading the text. Although the text may seem straightforward and obvious, closer reading of these commandments in their context requires a more thoughtful and nuanced interpretation and application.
This blog series will seek to provide just such a thoughtful and nuanced interpretation. We will proceed with a number of steps, first seeking to hear from the history of interpretation of these commands, how various parts and members of the Church have understood and applied their meaning. We will then to turn to a close analysis of Jesus’ statements in their context in the Gospels. Finally, we will reflect theologically and practically on how these commands can be faithfully followed in today’s culture in the West.
Hearing from History
The commands of Jesus quoted above are not the only places in the Gospels where the connection between wealth and discipleship arises, but they are some of the clearest and most influential. Of special note is the memorable and weighty story of the rich young ruler, which appears at length in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 19:16-26; Mk. 10:17-27; Lk. 18:18-27). Examining how various readers have interpreted this passage provides an important line of sight into the Church’s various ways of understanding wealth and poverty as part of the life of the Christian.
Therefore, for our survey of the history of interpretation, we will focus on this particular story, especially in its Matthean form, which was the most dominant and influential of the Synoptic Gospels. Hearing how various readers throughout Church history have dealt with the story of the rich young ruler will provide solid ground to understand the assorted teachings of Jesus about wealth and poverty in the Gospels, including Luke 12:33 and 14:33 quoted above.
Navigating Jesus’ Command to the Rich Young Ruler
Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler resulted in the command for him to sell all that he had so that he might be “complete” or “fulfilled.” The gist of this famous story is clear: wealth can be a hindrance to entering into eternal life or God’s kingdom. This can be seen by Matthew’s comment that the young man went away grieving because he had so many possessions (Matt. 19:22).
Moreover, Jesus made the meaning even more explicit: that it is very difficult for the wealthy to enter into God’s kingdom, apparently because of this heart issue (Matt. 19:23-24). The disciples were shocked by this statement and turn of events (Matt. 19:25). Here we have a godly man, a faithful Jew, one who is apparently blessed by God with wealth and possessions, yet he fails to enter the kingdom. This weighty truth hangs heavily on the mind and heart of any subsequent reader.
In my next article, we’ll begin our survey of the various ways Christians from the early church through the Reformation have interpreted this command.
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.