[September 30, 2012] What I said on this passage four years ago in “Our Possessions in Light of the Kingdom” is probably adequate. What I would like to add or reinforce today is the Biblical and New Testament ecclesial (church) context.
Before that can be addressed, however, we need to begin with an appeal to Christians to open their minds. There is a Christian culture in North America that seems obsessed with private property as if it were a sacred right—and there is a global Christian culture (primarily in the global south) that associates material prosperity with spiritual blessing. Both notions are dangerously off and are indicative of the deceitfulness of riches. The first is peculiarly cultural, and has to do with the North American fixation on Pelagianism; the second is also cultural, usually being a response to poverty in a situation where upward mobility through personal discipline is a possibility. Both appeal to a misperception of the Old Testament.
In fact, even in the Torah, under the intended federation of tribes, the Year of Jubilee required a radical redistribution of the economy. In the Promised Land the nation would subsist on the basis of an agricultural economy, obviously based on land ownership, in which the land would be distributed back to its original family ownership every fifty years, and all other debts would be forgiven. If followed, it would mean that no one could permanently accumulate farms to him or herself. Moreover, one was not stuck in poverty: a family’s land would be returned to it and its debts would be forgiven every fifty years; they could begin afresh. Moreover, a tithe went to the poor, and one’s agricultural surplus, the margin’s of one’s fields and orchards and the gleanings of one’s harvest, was to be left for the poor. In other words, under the Law of Moses Israel was meant to practice a kind of socialism and even a kind of redistribution of wealth. There was a competitive private market, but there were limits to it. The rights of the individual did not supersede the welfare of the community.
Later, when Israel did not practice the Year of Jubilee but pursued their self-interest according to the hardness of their hearts, when individuals possessed a large measure of wealth, they were still expected and required to use that wealth for others and for the benefit of the community (including the relief of the poor), and when they did not, the prophets severely condemned them, whether they were Jews or gentiles.
Modern day free enterprise (the free pursuit of financial self-interest) and capitalism (where those who possess more capital than others have proportionately more rights than they, and an exclusive right to the benefits of that capital) are concepts that bear no relation to Biblical values, even if one can find their existence here or there (either without comment or cast in a negative light). As economic systems they are modern and did not exist in the ancient world. In Christian culture avarice has always been a sin. Under these secular systems (whether we regard them as pagan or post-or anti-Christian), avarice is christened as “enlightened self-interest” and considered a virtue.
Nevertheless, wealth does acquire a typological significance in the Old Testament. Solomon’s wealth was seen this way, even though its social recklessness was also harshly exposed and criticized. Wealth could symbolize spiritual abundance (even when the spiritual reality is lacking), but even when it does, it is not the idea of privately possessed wealth that is accentuated but rather the benefits of wealth to the community (as in Deuteronomy).
In the New Testament we see a radical change. Now that the Messiah has come, the judgment of God can no longer overlook the times of selfishness and hardness of heart. The kingdom of the heavens does not make a concession for it. It is true, it is only the children of God (those born of God) who are under the governmental discipline of the Father; but the kingdom of the heavens will eventually bear on the world and will overcome it. Even now, it judges the affairs of societies and nations, but when it is manifested their day will be over and the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Revelation 11:15).
So while a different “law” seems to apply to the church than to the secular society, this is only because the society is temporarily allowed to go its own way, not because it ought to. There really is no separate ethic for society, not in terms of the divine judgment, though the New Testament understood that the society, the present evil “age,” is under the power of the evil one. We cannot simply reform society by forcefully imposing a standard on it externally (though society may—ineffectively—attempt to do this to itself) when we know that it is the human being that it the problem. Until the human being’s alienation and resistance and hostility to reality is overcome by the grace of God, through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the new birth, and the patient bearing of the cross, society itself will continue to suffer by attempting to do on its own what it cannot accomplish. The world is an artificial construct, the collective human soul as it were, that attempts to artificially keep itself insulated from the reality of the divine, and therefore from the reality of creation too. The church in the society can bring healing to the roots of the society by its participation in the same, but it cannot change the nature of the world. Only as people are individually liberated from its power can the society be truly renewed.
What background does Matthew 19:16-30 reflect? In other words, Matthew records these words as an eyewitness account of something that happened when he and the other of the Twelve were with Jesus. In telling of this incident, however, he places it in a particular context which lends it to its proper interpretation. That context, as we have shown, is the life of the church as it takes the way of the cross; or, in other words, the life of the church in the light of the kingdom. The revelation of Jesus creates the church and is its foundation and the measure and means of its growth. However, that revelation can only be embodied in the church when the church follows Jesus on the way to the cross; that is, as the believers deny themselves and take up the cross and lose their soul (chapter 16). Jesus first applied this way to the relation of believers to each other (chapter 18). Then in chapter 19 He begins to apply it to the households of the believers, or rather to the church that exists in the households of the believers, in how we live as married and single people and in the regard that we have for all children. He continues this application with regard to the church’s material wealth and property and possessions.
Simply put, the private property of the believer is no longer so private. It is his or her private possession (Acts 5:4), but one’s conversion is not complete until it has been released and given up. Until we let go of it, the world has a certain measure of mastery over us. We are redeemed, but we still cling to our old master. Jesus told the young man (verse 22) to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. In the Acts of the Apostles, the money is given to the church which—through the deacons—distributes its excess to the poor (though the poor of the church were taken care of first). In this way, there was no need and no one considered anything that they had as their own but held all things in common. A church such as this could get on with its business—of doing good and sharing the Gospel with others, and of building up the spiritual life of the church through worship, catechesis, the ministry of the Spirit, and the teaching ministry of the apostolate. The personal business of accumulating property and wealth for oneself and one’s family was an agenda that a person (and a household) gave up when they became a believer. From now on all that—the making of money and the generation of capital—was to be dedicated to the church and the ministry (including its ministry of caring for the poor). No believer could then be exempt from serving the Lord on the grounds that he or she was too poor, or too wealthy.
What this assumes, what Jesus and the apostles assume, is that a person when they became a believer no longer lived for themselves. They became a disciple of Jesus and lived for God by living for Him: Jesus is the Form and Vehicle of our living for God. A Christian no longer has a life of their own, a life exempt from discipleship, a life outside of the church. I do not mean that they no longer have personal privacy or that anyone should monitor them. I only mean that our life is consecrated, entirely, to Christ. Nor do I mean that we no longer have personal enjoyments and interests. I mean rather that they come under question: are they a form of enslavement to the world, or are they a true expression of our creatureliness, of our created humanity? If so, then we have them not apart from Christ but in Him and with Him, and not apart from the church but for the church’s enrichment. There should be a sense of the Holy Spirit moving within us, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit that creates the church. What enjoyments and interests the Holy Spirit will bring life to may surprise us, but apart from this enlivening, what are these enjoyments and interests? Probably we are being fooled by them, enticed by a promise it cannot keep; or our interest may be an obsession that in fact makes us unhappy. In our greed and lust and avarice we pursue images that have no reality, that once grasped leaves us empty, and perhaps frenzied for more.
This raises another issue. The existence of someone like Francis of Assisi, if he really heard the call of Christ, should make us question the most fundamental assumptions of modern society. He heard the call of Christ to give up everything and became absolutely and joyfully poor in solidarity with those struggling in the misery of poverty. For Francis God was absolutely real, and the provision of God—which Jesus tells us about in Matthew 6:19-34—was to be completely relied on. The brothers and sisters (Clare also heard this call) who accompanied him on this way discovered a spiritual freedom and joy that radiated the grace of God in Christ. This attitude resonates with the New Testament far more than the prosperity teachings of many pulpits and those American churches that treat the pursuit of wealth as though it were a divine right. Material wealth is not a divine right. If a believer pursues it, it cannot be for personal gain but only for the good of others “that he may have something to share with him who has need.”
Yet absolute poverty cannot be the calling of every Christian, not even of apostles and their coworkers. Jesus worked to care for His mother and siblings until He was old enough to leave home (assuming the absence of Joseph), and might have had a house in Capernaum. Peter certainly did, and kept it after he became a disciple. He also kept his boat and fishing gear. Matthew gave up his occupation but probably kept his table and writing equipment (so we could have the gospel that he wrote, for which we owe thanks). Moreover, the apostles assumed that the believers kept their homes, for they were to meet in them. Jesus received patronage from others for the ministry as did Paul (Paul took up tent-making when he lost his funds in a shipwreck and was waiting for help which was to come from Macedonia). Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 makes it clear that apostles and their coworkers were to be supported by the churches. Even local elders, when they worked fulltime, were supported by the churches (1 Timothy 5:17; implied in 1 Peter 5:2). If they were to receive patronage and support, others had to work and make money to support them. So, apart from those called to fulltime work, all believers are expected to work for the living of their household and for the living of the church (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12; see 1 Timothy 5:4). Therefore, there is a balance. Ordinarily one must work for income (the exception being those whom Christ calls to His own work). What one does with that income is the question. If you belong to Christ, that income does not belong to you. It belongs to your lord (whether that master is Satan or He who redeemed you, Christ). Therefore, it belongs first to His church and His work; secondarily it belongs to the poor and those in most need. One takes care of oneself (one’s household) along with taking care of others. Unless we are generous with our money, our money has a grip on us.
Hospitality and generosity are both marks and demands of discipleship. The church cannot be the church without both. Hospitality is necessary both for evangelism and for housing the gatherings of the church and the visiting apostolic workers. Generosity is necessary to care for the members of the church and for the apostolate and for the poor in society.
If the church is to have an authentic expression in the world, however, it cannot simply pool its resources to make itself rich. Though it need not reduce itself to abject poverty, it must express a certain material humility. It behooves the disciple not to shame the poor but to live simply and humbly, not lavishly.
The apostles and their coworkers also and especially are called to live simply, perhaps even in a certain voluntary poverty, in imitation of Jesus. Jesus portrays the life of the workers whom He sends out when He tells them not to be concerned about treasures on earth, mammon, or even food or drink or clothing, and to go without gold or silver or copper in their belts, nor a bag, nor an extra tunic or a pair of shoes or a walking stick, “for the worker is worthy of his food” (i.e., they would be provided for along the way). The hungry and thirsty and naked and sick, the stranger and the one in prison in Matthew 25 apparently are a description of the workers in chapter 10. Paul also portrays the life of a worker as one subject to hunger and thirst and being buffeted and wandering with a home (1 Corinthians 4), of being filled and abounding at times and lacking at other times (Philippians 4). The churches are supposed to take care of the workers, but they often do not, and they are left in hardship, relying only on the support of God’s providence (and at times “tent-making”). The call that Francis heard was a call to this kind of poverty. In no case, however, do we find the apostles and their workers using their ministry as an opportunity for gain, to make themselves wealthy. “Aspiring after money [leads people] away from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:10).