Throughout the centuries, there has been a great debate on what Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler meant and how this generally applies to subjects like wealth, possessions, and Christian stewardship. In the first article of this blog series, we focused on what this command was, in Jesus’ words as recounted in the Book of Matthew. Now, we will explore the various historical interpretations of this command by influential leaders in the early church.
Despite the boldness of the claim that it is difficult for the rich to enter eternal life, as philosopher Ernst Bloch wryly notes, throughout most of Christian history the church has “widened the aperture considerably.” Professor Ulrich Luz, who quotes Bloch, offers a helpful summary of the history of interpretation of Matthew 19 in his commentary. The goal of this widening of the aperture is to make it easier for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven and for the church to live with this text.
One Command, Many Interpretations
In the earliest church, many assumed that Jesus’ command to sell one’s possessions applied to everyone in a straightforward way, especially in light of the common belief that Jesus’ final return from heaven was imminent. Many considered that to possess anything beyond the basics of life was to be wealthy. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to take nothing extra on their missionary journeys (Matt. 10:9-10 and parallels) seemed to support this view. As the years rolled by, however, a greater variety of applications understandably arose.
As John O’Keefe and Russell Reno attest to in their book, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, an allegorical way of reading this story was very common throughout the earliest centuries of the church. This was mostly based on the interpretive practices widespread through the ancient world. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, gave a salvation-historical reading of this story, with the rich man equaling Judaism in its attempt to hold on to the Law. Jesus confronted this attempt and also challenged Judaism to share its wealth with the poor, meaning the Gentiles who should also be recipients of divine blessings. Other allegorical readings abound, all of which make the issue of personal wealth less directly applicable to the Christian reader.
Origen (ca. 184-254) and Chrysostom (ca. 349-407), two of the most influential teachers of the early church, who otherwise tended to approach thorny problems differently, offered a remarkably similar explanation: Jesus’ radical command means that one should give some of one’s possessions to the poor, but not all. As the church evolved and became more established, the idea of itinerant, Spirit-led missionaries who owned nothing became less common and was certainly not the norm. Indeed, the same shift can already be seen within the pages of the New Testament. The Book of Acts shows a variety of faithful people who owned possessions, and the Epistles address those who apparently lived and worked in one place and often had wealth. These issues will be explored further below.
A Statement About the Soul
Ancient teachers of the church began to emphasize that the issue in the story of the rich young ruler was not wealth itself but the right attitude toward one’s possessions. Many theologians and pastors (such as Jerome, Ephraem, Euthymius, and Hilary of Poitiers) emphasized that Jesus did not say it is impossible, but only very difficult, for the rich to enter the kingdom. Christians sin when they are greedy or when they use their possessions to hurt or oppress others, but there is nothing wrong with wealth itself.
Probably the most positive example of this approach can be found in the influential pastor-theologian, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215). The purpose of his homily on Matthew 19 was to demonstrate that the rich can indeed be saved. He argued that it is superficial to read the text as an external command to give away all one’s possessions, instead of as a statement about the soul. It is in the soul that love of possessions, anxiety, and worries occur, and that is what this text is teaching. As Clement said, “the real threat to salvation does not depend on externals.” The rich man who is a slave of possessions in his soul can be far from the kingdom, but so can the poor man with his passions. According to Clement, one should aspire to poverty of spirit, not financial poverty (Matt. 5:3). Wealth itself is neutral, neither good nor bad. Instead of abandoning wealth, Luz argues in his commentary, one should make of it an instrument of righteousness.
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at how these verses were interpreted through the Reformation and post-Reformation era.
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.