This e-teaching is another follow-up to April’s e-teaching titled, Five Modern Myths about Jesus’ Conversation with the Rich Young Ruler. I would strongly encourage you not to read this e-teaching unless you’ve first read that one, otherwise you will likely be confused. In that e-teaching, I presented compelling biblical evidence that Jesus’ words to the rich ruler have application to all of us, contrary to what so many professing Christians think. I made a very strong case, and I wish that I could persuade every professing Christian in the world to read that e-teaching and the two that followed (The True Grace of God and All Christians Believe “Works” are Essential for Salvation), because neglecting the poor, according to Jesus, is a barricade to eternal life. If you are shocked by that statement, then I beg you to read Five Modern Myths about Jesus’ Conversation with the Rich Young Ruler.
The most common question that I received in response to my April e-teaching could be summed up by the following paraphrase: “Jesus required the rich ruler to sell all of his possessions. Does He require the same of us? If not, to what degree does He expect us to dispossess?”
Those are challenging questions, and our concern over the correct answers reflects how much we are like the rich ruler. As long as we assume that He isn’t requiring such a sacrifice of us, it is so easy to say, “If the Lord wanted me to give up all my possessions, I’d do it in a second.” But as soon as we are faced with the possibility that He might actually be requiring such a sacrifice, we start looking for a way out!
That being said, let us consider what Jesus was truly requiring of the rich ruler.
Streakers for Christ?
Although there can be no doubt that the Lord was requiring of the rich ruler a significant dispossession, it would seem unlikely that Jesus was requiring a total dispossession to the degree that the rich man would be left homeless, naked, and without enough food for the day, poorer than the people whom he would help by his charity. (If he was married, such a total dispossession would also have left his wife and children in the same homeless and naked state, hardly an act of love towards them.)
It is also seems unlikely, in fact, that the rich ruler ever thought that Jesus was requiring such a total dispossession of him, as he could plainly see that Jesus Himself had not totally dispossessed, since He was wearing clothes! (And we happen to know that Jesus’ group carried money for purchasing food—see John 13:29).
One of the most dangerous ways of interpreting Bible verses is to ignore their context within the entire Bible. If Jesus was requiring a total dispossession by the rich ruler in order for him to obtain eternal life, we’d have to wonder why he never made such a requirement of anyone else. For example, although it is clear from reading the book of Acts that significant dispossession was a practice of the early Christians, they did not dispossess to the degree that they were all sleeping on the ground under the stars each night or walking around naked in the daytime. Jesus, in fact, promised that our Father would clothe us like He clothes the lilies of the field (see Matt. 6:28). Which is why you’ve never heard the old hymn, They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Nudity.
So let this be our first point of understanding. When Jesus told the rich ruler to sell all his possessions, he did not mean “every single solitary thing” any more than He meant—when He told His disciples to go into “all the world”—that each of them should visit every square foot of land and sea on the planet.
Having established this point, we then naturally wonder to what specific degree Jesus did expect the rich ruler to dispossess, and then to what degree He expects us to dispossess. And so we will explore that subject. But first, I need to address three theories that are sometimes offered to explain why Jesus required of the rich ruler what He allegedly does not require of any of us.
A First Theory Considered
Some suggest that the rich ruler may have gained his wealth unethically, which would then explain why Jesus (allegedly) uniquely required him to relinquish all of it in order to obtain eternal life. His dispossession would have validated his repentance of thievery.
Against that theory is the fact that the rich man claimed that he had kept the commandment forbidding thievery since his childhood (see Luke 18:20-21), and Jesus did not refute him. Rather, Jesus affirmed the rich man’s claim when He told him that he lacked one thing, and that one thing was not thievery, but dispossession on behalf of the poor.
Moreover, if the rich ruler had gained his wealth unethically, I would doubt that Jesus would have instructed him to give it to the poor rather than return it to those from whom he had unethically gained it. I also question if Jesus would have told him that, by giving his ill-gotten gains to the poor, he would effectively lay up treasure in heaven. In such a case, God would be rewarding thievery.
All that being so, I’m assuming that the rich ruler gained his wealth ethically, either through inheritance or by his own efforts. Still, Jesus expected him to dispossess to a significant degree.
A Second Theory Considered
Some suggest that the reason Jesus (allegedly) uniquely required the rich ruler to dispossess is because his possessions would otherwise prevent him from literally “following Jesus” around Israel, which was part of what Jesus told him to do:
And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mark 10:21).
Since none of us can literally follow Jesus around Israel and are only expected to follow Him in the keeping of His commandments, and since our possessions don’t prevent us from following Him in that sense, there is no need for us to dispossess as there was for the rich ruler, some say.
Against this idea is the fact that it requires an assumption that the rich man’s possessions required his daily attention, so much so that they would have prevented him from literally following Jesus around Israel. But it would seem unlikely that an “extremely rich” (Luke 18:23) man would have no stewards or trusted people working for him who could not at least temporarily handle his affairs.
Moreover, unless he could have delegated the tasks, it would seem that the selling of his many assets and the distribution of the proceeds to the poor would have required a considerable length of time, during which he would be unable to literally follow Jesus around Israel. So if by keeping his possessions he would have been unable to literally follow Jesus, selling them and distributing them to the poor may well have also prevented him from literally following Jesus for a considerable amount of time. How long would it take you to sell all your possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor?
Furthermore, none of the gospel writers offer any support to this idea, telling us that the reason Jesus required the rich ruler to dispossess was because he otherwise could not have literally followed Jesus.
And finally and most importantly, the reason Jesus gave for requiring the rich man’s dispossession was to help the poor, not to free up his time.
A Third Theory Considered
Some suggest that the rich ruler was ultra-wealthy, far beyond most of us, and by that we can understand why Jesus required him to dispossess, and why Jesus does not expect others, like us, to dispossess. Luke does tell us, they point out, that the rich ruler was “extremely rich” (Luke 18:23). Maybe he was like Bill Gates.
Against this theory is the fact that Jesus told all of His followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor (see Luke 12:33) and He forbade all of them to lay up treasures on earth (see Matt. 6:19).
Moreover, we read of the first Christians:
And they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:45).
All who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:34-35).
Did they believe that only folks like Bill Gates were expected to dispossess?
And don’t forget that John the Baptist instructed those who owned just two coats to give one to someone who was coatless. So we find little support in Scripture for the theory that Jesus only expects dispossession by those who are wealthier than us!
May I also point out that most people reading this are among the world’s wealthiest. In fact, the vast majority of what we own, the rich ruler could never have dreamed of owning, as those possessions had not been invented yet. The rich ruler would probably have been willing to liquidate everything he owned if by doing so he could have purchased even a used automobile. So we have to stretch the truth to justify our lack of dispossession by the claim that the rich ruler was far wealthier than most of us.
And may I also point out that the primary reason for dispossession contradicts the theory that Jesus only expects those who are richer than us to dispossess. The primary reason for dispossession is to benefit the poor, an expression of loving our neighbor as ourselves (see Luke 10:27-37). We only need to ask ourselves if there are still poor people who could benefit by our dispossession, and if God still wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The answer to both is obviously “yes.”
Furthermore, there is a secondary reason for dispossession that contradicts the theory that Jesus only expects those who are richer than us to dispossess. Once the poor have benefitted from our dispossession, we effectively lay up treasure in heaven, treasure that would not be laid up there otherwise. So we only need to ask ourselves if it would be wise for us to lay up treasure in heaven! Again, the obvious answer is “yes.”
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity
It is on this very positive note that I would like to conclude this month’s e-teaching. Jesus was not asking the rich ruler to actually give up anything. He was trying to save him from ultimately losing everything! Had the rich ruler dispossessed as Jesus instructed, he would have ensured the eternal ownership of that which he was destined to forfeit in just a few years. In one sense, Jesus was telling the rich ruler to put his wealth in the bank, specifically the Bank of Heaven, the only place it would be safe. It was really a no-brainer…for those whose brains are fixed on eternity.
Moreover, had the rich ruler transferred the large majority of his assets to heaven, he would have also had no need to worry about any future earthy lack or reversal of fortune, as Jesus has promised givers:
Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap (Luke 6:38).
And of course, what would have been true for the rich ruler would be true for any other rich person who wisely does what the rich ruler foolishly did not do. When you dispossess to give to the poor, you guarantee the preservation of what you will surely forfeit otherwise. And you meet divine conditions by which God has obligated Himself by His own promises to take care of all your temporal needs.
We need to wonder why the idea of wise eternal investment would ever be met with resistance. It is the best deal there is! God not only offers us the wonderful opportunity to find deep satisfaction by being a vessel of His blessing to the poor, but by the same act, He makes it possible for us to eternally preserve the fruit of our earthy labors, fruit that we would have surely relinquished otherwise!
To the person who is unwilling to dispossess to any degree, it is irrelevant to discuss to what degree God might want us to dispossess. So before we go any further in trying to answer the question of how much one should dispossess, we need to ask ourselves if we are truly willing to dispossess to any degree.
If you tithe, for example, a dispossession of sorts that was clearly required of those under the old covenant and practiced even before the old covenant by Abraham and other biblical patriarchs, that hopefully reveals something about your heart that is good. (I say “hopefully” because I’m afraid that many caught up in the prosperity gospel who do tithe are only motivated by selfishness rather than love of God and neighbor.) Yet you need to consider if only depositing 10% in heaven’s bank via the poor and ultimately forever forfeiting the other 90% that you “keep”—makes sense. And keep in mind that the rich ruler likely tithed all his life, and the Pharisees all scrupulously tithed, yet they were lovers of money destined for hell (see Matt. 23:15, 23; Luke 16:14).
Please ponder these things until next month, when I’ll tackle more on the same subject. And do take advantage of our free book offer below! — David