“Give everything you have to the poor”–wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Q. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”  If we as his followers actually did that, wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Your question illustrates the value of an important principle of biblical interpretation: “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  In other words, just because a character in a biblical narrative—even Jesus—says or does something, that doesn’t necessarily set an example or precedent that everyone who wants to follow Jesus has to imitate.  Instead, we need to see what (if anything) the narrative itself says explicitly about whether the statement or action is meant to be imitated, what more implicit indications there may be about this in the immediate context, and how this particular passage compares with others in the Bible.

In this case, we may observe that Jesus doesn’t tell everyone he meets to give everything they have to the poor.  In fact, only a little bit after the incident in the gospel of Luke where Jesus meets this “rich young ruler,” he meets another rich, but corrupt, man named Zacchaeus.  Convicted by Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance of the need to change his life, Zacchaeus announces, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus doesn’t respond, “Only half?  Cough up the rest, you slacker, if you really want to follow me!”  Instead he declares, “Today salvation has come to this house”—in other words, Zacchaeus has shown true signs of repentance and devotion.

Elsewhere in the Bible people are told to make good use of their wealth, administering it wisely and generously, rather than simply giving it all away at once.  Regarding the wealthy members of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, for example, Paul told Timothy, after warning strongly against the love of money: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  Note that this is another way to have “treasure in heaven”!

So why the difference?  The narrative makes no explicit statement that limits the instructions Jesus gave the “rich young ruler” to his case alone.  But there is an implicit statement in Matthew’s version of the incident that helps explain why Jesus spoke to him the way he did: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  In other words, having to give up his wealth was a “deal breaker” for him when it came to following Jesus.  Sensing this, and seeing how devoted he was otherwise, Jesus challenged him to let go of the one thing that was holding him back from joining wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God.

Wealth does not pose the same obstacle for everyone, and that is why Jesus’ words here should not be universalized.  However, there is still a universal quality about them, because in any given person’s life, there may be something that holds them back from wholehearted kingdom service, and they must be willing to part freely with it if they are to “follow Jesus” in the truest sense.

For example, in my work with students and other young adults over many years, I’ve seen that a romantic relationship with someone who isn’t interested in following Jesus often presents such an obstacle for a person who would otherwise make a tremendous contribution to the kingdom.  The obstacle might also be an indulgence someone doesn’t want to give up, or the approval of other people, or a comfortable life (even if not a wealthy one).

So while we might not all be called to sell everything we have and give the money away, we are all called to forsake anything that would keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Jesus and the rich young ruler. Unknown artist, Beijing, 1879.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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