Jesus proposes the generous life to a man wondering how he will inherit eternal life:
You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Lk 18:20-23)
This verse always convicted me growing up. Who has the strength to live that kind of life? We could look to the great saints like Francis of Assisi and his followers. Or we might consider John Wesley. He lived such a minimalistic life that he was audited by the Commissioners of Excise, because they gathered that he must have had at least silver dishes that he was not paying tax on. He wrote to them saying, “I have two silver tea-spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate which I have at present. And I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.” (1)
But outside of a few people every century, the majority of us don’t live up to Jesus’ demand to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. And even if we get inspired to do so, someone talks us down. I remember a good friend of mine felt convicted by this passage and shared his joy with me, just to have me talk him off the ledge. I don’t know why I did that. Jealousy, maybe? Perhaps I didn’t want him to be a better Christian than me? Regardless, even I didn’t believe the things I said to him.
So often we water down passages like this, regardless of the fact that Jesus proclaims, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24-25).
Many say that Jesus was only speaking to this guy—that he saw into his heart and knew he was a wealthy man who had a problem with money and had to be freed of it. But since when is Jesus’ command here only intimidating to rich people? Do we really think that a middle class person or poor person would have an easier time selling all their possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor? Do we think that money is a root of evil for only the rich and no one else (1 Tim 6:10)? No; the command is outrageous to everyone who reads it and that’s the point.
Also, this wasn’t the only time Jesus gave us this command in the Gospel of Luke. Earlier in Luke 12:33-34 he told us to, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This wasn’t directed at a rich man, this was just thrown out there mid-message to the crowd he was preaching to.
And if you live in America, regardless of how much you make, you’re most likely rich in comparison to the rest of the world. A Pew Research Center study showed us back in 2011 that 88% of Americans fell in the upper-middle to high income class in comparison to the global standard, while 71% of the rest of the world were living in the poor to low income class. (2) So most of we Americans qualify as rich in comparison to the rest of humanity.
Generously losing everything on earth is in reality gaining all the blessings of Heaven. We are to store up unseen treasures in Heaven, not visible treasures here on earth. Hoarding is not a mark of the Christian. When we lose on earth because we lived like Jesus, we gain in Heaven; for as Jesus said, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:35-37). Therefore it should be expected that the more you lose, the better off you are.
The other disciples did what the rich man could not. People always make the disciples out to be stupid fishermen who gave up a crappy life for something better, but you actually had to be a pretty successful (if not shrewd) businessman to survive the thriving fishing market on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus found Simon, Andrew, James and John (Mk 1:16). (3) James and John’s family business was at least doing well enough that they were able to hire in servants (Mk 1:20) and Simon and Andrew were business partners with them (Lk 5:10); so these four didn’t just leave nothing behind to follow Jesus. James and John literally left their dad in his boat with his servants while still at work!
When Jesus’ disciples mentioned that they had left their homes behind to follow Jesus, he responded, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:29-30). Again, the idea is that you store up treasure in Heaven. What you generously lose here out of the goodness of your heart—out of your agathasoyne—will be returned to you in Heaven where the first are last and the last are first (Mt 19:30).
1. Wesley, John, and George Eayrs. Letters of John Wesley. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, p. 478.
2. Kochhar, Rakesh. “How Americans Compare with the Global Middle Class.” Pew Research Center, 9 July 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/09/how-americans-compare-with-the-global-middle-class/. Accessed 28 May 2017.
3. Edwards, James R. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002, p. 49-50.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.