Do We Have to be Poor to Follow Jesus?
- The Good Book Blog Talbot School of Theology at Biola University
- 2015 19 Aug
There is a well-known story in the Gospels where a rich man asks Jesus about the requirements to inherit eternal life. Luke recounts the story in this way:
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 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. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:18–27; ESV)
A question that naturally surfaces in this reading is whether Jesus considers wealth to be compatible with a life of faithful discipleship. Some interpret this story to say that material things and following Jesus do not mix well. This interpretation is sometimes based on a plain reading of passages like this, but it can also be motivated by material excesses in Christianity that make us uncomfortable. Too much focus on material blessing as a necessary indicator of God’s approval can stifle efforts at legitimate Christian disciplines, such as frugality, generosity, and financial sacrifice. As such, divesting material wealth is sometimes seen as a corrective to bad prosperity theology.
So, what then is Jesus saying about material wealth? Is it better to be poor than to be rich? Does one have to give up everything in order to follow Jesus? Does wealth itself ever keep people out of the kingdom of God? These are important questions, as they have implications for one’s personal call to discipleship and also for the ability of the Church to address social issues that require financial resources.
To provide context for interpreting this passage, it is helpful that Luke has a lot to say about material wealth throughout Luke-Acts. One of Jesus’ woes is against those who are rich (Luke 6:24), and it is intentionally contrasted to the blessed poor who inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). There is the story of the rich fool who stores up material wealth to the point that his life is found forfeit by God (Luke 12:13–21). There is the parable of a rich man who finds himself in Hades, while poor Lazarus looks on from comfort in the afterlife (Luke 16:19–31). We are told about Ananias and Sapphira who die because they lie to the Apostles about the status of their possessions (Acts 5:1–11). Our things, it seems, can certainly get in the way of the right kind of life in the kingdom of God.
However, it is also clear that Luke does not condemn material things outright. We are told that while Jesus’ lifestyle was sparse (Luke 9:58), there were women who contributed to the needs of his ministry through financial means (Luke 8:1–3). Joseph of Arimathea had significant social prominence and was able to afford a private tomb for Jesus at his death. He was considered “good and upright… himself waiting for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:50–53). There were also those in the early church who used significant financial resources to support the advances of the gospel. Lydia of Thyatira, for example, was an early convert of the Apostle Paul and was a “dealer of purple,” a lucrative enterprise that made her wealthy. As such, she was able to provide a location for the first house church in Europe from her resources. This community became the church in Philippi that Paul wrote to in one of his New Testament letters with much affection (cf. Acts 16:13–15, 40). As such, it is clear that material resources were used in the early church to benefit the gospel, without requiring every individual to divest themselves of all possessions in order to be in right standing before God.
How then might we reconcile these various perspectives in Luke? It is a question that scholars of Luke have considered for awhile. A helpful model for framing Luke’s teaching on wealth is one that Christopher M. Hays promotes in his study Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character. It is a technical work and a comprehensive research project that seeks to reconcile passages on money and possessions that sometimes seem to be in tension throughout Luke-Acts. For example, does Luke’s understanding of wealth require us to give up all things, or is there a legitimate place for having some (or even significant) material resources? Why did the early church pool its resources communally in Acts, and to what extent is that model required of others? Why do we see some people condemned in the handling and keeping of their possessions, while other wealthy people are commended as being righteous? We will not answer all of these questions here, but part of the solution, Hays says, is to see the moral directive as not one that necessarily requires individuals to divest themselves of all possessions, but rather one that renounces everything in service to God’s purposes. Depending on vocation and social location, this can have various means of expression that are specific to individuals, vocations, or communities.
Coming back to the story of the rich ruler, there are two things to notice. First, Jesus does not say that it is not possible to enter the kingdom of heaven and have riches, but rather that riches can provide a significant kind of difficulty in doing so. Additionally, when Jesus addresses the issue of wealth with the rich ruler, he switches from God’s universal expectations in the law to something more personally directed: “You still lack one thing.” Apparently for the rich ruler, wealth encouraged a specific type of vice that, while not a guaranteed pitfall for all who have much money, was not uncommon, either.
It is not a coincidence that Luke immediately precedes this story with another one that talks about entrance to the kingdom of God. Here is the story:
People were even bringing babies to Jesus for him to touch them. When the disciples saw this, they spoke harshly to the people. But Jesus called the little ones to himself and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. I tell you the truth, anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will in no way enter into it.” (Luke 18:15–17; translation mine)
There have been various opinions regarding what it is about little children that models the trait that allows entrance to God’s kingdom. Humility is perhaps the most common suggestion, and as such, it is often recommended that we should humble ourselves before God, as do children.
Although humility is commendable, in this case the children who were initially brought to Jesus were quite small, literally “babies” (Greek brephos). It is the same word used by Luke to describe children yet unborn (cf. Luke 1:41, 44) and also Jesus in his swaddled state (cf. Luke 2:12, 16). As such, they were probably not yet overtly exemplifying commendable models of biblical virtue. What is it that we might discern about very young children, then, that could possibly be held up as a model for adults? If we imagine little bundled children being brought to Jesus, there is perhaps one thing that we do know for certain that all children naturally affirm, not as a virtue but as a brute fact of reality: they are utterly dependent on resources outside of themselves for their well being. As an adult, this trait is not generally considered commendable, perhaps even less so to those who have acquired significant material resources. However, if we are honest, it is often an inflated sense of self-sufficiency that prevents us from responding in trust to God regarding our deepest spiritual needs.
Jesus called the rich ruler to recognize an utter lack of self-sufficiency in himself before God, just as very young children naturally recognize their dependence on others. To enter the kingdom of God, the man needed to put his trust in God to do something that he could not do for himself, namely be spiritually well before God. Spiritual realities can seem a step removed from our material possessions. However, significant financial resources can isolate many from the existential concerns of a fallen world that mirror our spiritual lostness and can thus discourage a trust in God that is spiritually transformative. As such, Jesus asked the rich man to renounce his wealth in a very specific way (i.e., full divestiture) that was specific to his need, such that he redirect his trust to God instead. In this case, it was a radical antidote to the most pressing spiritual need of the man. That the rich ruler insisted that he had done perfectly well on all of the other legal requirements suggests that self-sufficiency was at the heart of his specific need, and about which his significant financial resources served to obfuscate.
We can learn something from this episode and from Luke-Acts more broadly about the relationship between our possessions and the kingdom of God. For one thing, it may be a good thing that more of us are not significantly wealthy, as it can encourage a common problem in the spiritual life that Jesus describes. However, we should also be grateful that there are those with spiritual sensitivity who have been blessed by God with material resources, as it can serve the Church in significant ways, as it did the early church.
God is ultimately concerned with the condition of the heart in relation to our possessions, as we have simply been given temporary stewardship over material things that can be used in his service. God is also concerned that our things do not create barriers to the kind of transformative work that he wants to do in our lives, either for entrance into the kingdom of God or in service within it. The kind of trust that provides an initial entry into God’s kingdom is the same kind of trust that sustains us within it as well.
It leads us to pointed questions about our own possessions and God’s kingdom, just as it required of the rich ruler. Do I trust significantly in my own ability to take care of myself, or do I trust in God for my ultimate well-being? As such, in what ways does God ask me to loosen my grip on my possessions for the kingdom of God? Does this require full divestiture of certain things, or reappropriation of them towards other ends? The questions of wealth that pressed those in Jesus’ day are the same ones that press us now, not only as we seek to be faithful with the things we have been given, but as we develop hearts of trust that are sensitive to the work of God in the world.