Dialogue on Biblical Views Re Following Jesus & Riches

Dialogue on Biblical Views Re Following Jesus & Riches November 21, 2020

vs. Dr. Steven DiMattei 

Dr. Steven DiMattei is a biblical scholar and author, formally trained in the New Testament and early Christianity, with M.A degrees in Classics and Comparative Literature as well. Rumor has it that he is an atheist, but I haven’t been able to confirm that on his site. He put up a website called Contradictions in the Bible. It seems inactive now (or he has lost interest or moved onto other things: who knows?), but the themes are things I really enjoy discussing and debating, and his articles are still online for all to see; thus fair game for critique — and stimulating food for thought, too. There is almost nothing I like to discuss and think about more than the interpretation of the Bible. Steven wrote in a post dated 5-7-16:

One of my reasons in choosing the word “defend” to describe my aims as a biblical scholar and author was in part to attract Christian apologists to my work and hopefully to get them to read these ancient texts on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts and to create a conversation around the biblical texts, their authors, and their competing beliefs, messages, worldviews, theologies, etc. As you can imagine this has proven quite difficult, nay impossible. Many Christian apologists and fundamentalists just cannot read, or simply identify, the text on its own terms separate from the beliefs and assumptions about the text handed-down through this collection of ancient literature’s title, “the Holy Book.”

Here  I am: an apologist quite willing to engage in conversation. It takes two. So we’ll see if Steven is willing to follow through on his stated desire. I have had my own long history (in almost 40 years of apologetics) ofdifficult, nay impossible” attempts to discuss matters with many people who tend to be of a few particular belief-systems, though I have no problem talking with anyone who is civil and can stick to a topic. I don’t just say this, I have a demonstrable record of doing it, which is evident on my blog, with its 1000+ dialogues. But as I said, dialogue takes two, and I would add that it also requires a degree of at least minimal mutual respect. Steven’s words will be in blue.

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This is a response to his very thought-provoking article, “In Defense of Jesus: A Challenge To Those Claiming To ‘Follow Jesus’ (part I)” (10-27-18).

Like many, I have grown tired of hearing overzealous Christian apologists and fundamentalists claim that they “follow Jesus” or are “followers of Jesus.”

As a professional Catholic and general Christian apologist myself, I would simply note that apologists and “fundamentalists” (real or imagined) do not have a monopoly on either ignorance or misguided zeal. But let’s hear the man out and see how strong his case is.

I’m tired of people glibly using soundbites and catchphrases to justify and promote their own agendas and beliefs with no accountability, especially when this irresponsibleness misrepresents and defames the biblical texts, or Jesus himself and what he stood for, at least according to the extant traditions about him.

Yeah, me, too. We’re very much in agreement on this general principle, but I suspect that it works itself out in very different ways from our two differing perspectives.

So I ask anew: What does it actually mean to “follow Jesus”? What does Jesus himself, or the extant traditions about him, say about this matter? Do Christian apologists even know?

I think I do, after 43 years of intense study of the Bible and defending it and Christianity.

And more importantly, are they being honest to Jesus?

I believe I am (to speak just for myself, as a representative of one of the groups Steven is focusing on). I know I have always sought to be an honest, committed, non-hypocritical, and knowledgeable follower of Jesus, but we all fall short, of course, in many ways, because it’s such a sublime and lofty ideal. But at least to truly and honestly seek this from the very depths of one’s heart and soul — all by virtue of God’s boundless mercy and grace always — is a good start.

Some of the first words Jesus speaks in the gospels to his disciples are “Follow me!” (Mk 1:16, 2:14; Matt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9; Lk 5:11, 5:27, 9:59-62; Jn 1:43).

At heart these words express an imminent socioeconomic imperative: immediately stop what you’re doing, leave your job, your livelihood, and even your family, and “follow me!” And indeed, this is what the disciples are depicted doing in every account—immediately leaving behind jobs, possessions, social status, family, and even social and familial obligations.

Well, to start with (a very important consideration), we need to consider whom Jesus’ words apply to in this instance. I deny that it is required of every Christian to leave their families, or to be single and celibate. That is the higher calling of what Catholics call the “evangelical counsels.” Some are called to that; most of us are not. St. Paul makes these distinctions clear in 1 Corinthians 7.

I contend that what is being referred to in the passages above is the “above and beyond” discipleship of those who are apostles: a select group of individuals that were present and required only during the period of the very early Church. Not all disciples are apostles. In fact, 99.99999999999999% are not. The Bible repeatedly refers to the initial group of the disciples of Jesus, as “the twelve”.

Even this select group was not necessarily required to completely forsake their families. Peter is still caring for his mother-in-law (for whom he sought healing (Mt 8:14; Mk 1:30; Lk 4:38). Paul is still contending about “apostles”: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5: RSV, as throughout). If it’s not an absolute break even for them, it’s certainly no universal requirement of every Christian follower.

The initial disciples (of the twelve) who were fishermen indeed “left their nets” (Mt 4:20; Mk 1:18) and concentrated on a radical faith-led Christian ministry. But Peter and several other disciples were fishing again after the death of Jesus. Indeed, in one of His post-Resurrection appearances, this is how Jesus found them (Jn 21:1-11). Jesus not only did not chastise them for returning to their previous work (as if this violated being His “follower”); He asked them, “Children, have you any fish?” (Jn 21:5).

Moreover, Paul was still making tents for a living after becoming an apostle (“they worked, for by trade they were tentmakers”: Acts 18:3), even though he argued that he had the right to be supported by other Christians in his work of evangelism (1 Cor 9:1-15). He himself renounced these rights (9:12, 15, 18), but it doesn’t follow that all Christians must do so.

When Jesus encountered the Roman centurion who asked that He heal his servant, He said about him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:10). But He didn’t require him to forsake his military assignment in order to (implied) be His follower, who had great faith. He said nothing about that, just as John the Baptist didn’t tell Roman soldiers to cease being soldiers. He merely told them, when they specifically asked: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk 3:14).

The message is clear: Following Jesus means to immediately “forsake all” and “leave everything behind.”

It’s a total commitment, but not necessarily a complete forsaking of all existing familial and employment situations, as just shown.

this is what ‘having faith’ truly means in these ancient texts—abandon one’s job, bank account(s), future plans, social stability and status, familial and social obligations, entitlements, etc. 

Why is Paul still making tents, then? Why were several of the twelve initial disciples still fishing after Jesus died? Why does Paul say that apostles have a right to be accompanied by wives? Just a few of the questions I would ask . . .

1. “Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth.” (Mat 6:19; Lk 12:21, 33) . . . Or, in a modern sense: Do not save anything on earth!

It’s a general principle: don’t live for money; don’t idolatrously place your allegiance to it higher than your allegiance to Me.” But it’s not against all money, or else Jesus couldn’t have taught the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14–30); which was specifically about not only having money but making interest and profit in investing it.

All of the gospels’ “Sell as much as you have . . . and come follow me” stories (Mk 10:17-25; Matt 19:16-24; Lk 18:18-30)

Again, we have to look at who this applies to. These are all the same story: of the rich young ruler who asked what he must to do obtain eternal life. There is no indication whatsoever that what Jesus required of him is required of every Christian believer (to literally sell all they have or own). This man had made money his idol, and so he was required to give it up.  So we go back to Paul making tents again. He wasn’t living solely on faith, like the birds of the air. He was providing for himself. That’s fine. We can have money and jobs and even be wealthy, as long as we don’t place them above God.

Joseph of Arimathea is casually referred to as a “rich man” without the slightest hint of condemnation (Mt 27:57) and is even called in the same passage “a disciple of Jesus.” Therefore, a rich person can be a disciple. There is no contradiction. Period. End of story. Jesus was buried in his tomb, that he wouldn’t have owned if he wasn’t rich. I’ve been in it. Praise God for Joseph of Arimathea and his riches and generosity! The Bible condemns the “delight in riches” (Mk 4:19), not all riches per se. Paul didn’t condemn riches, but only wrong use or view of riches:

1 Timothy 6:17-18 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. [18] They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous,

And the same Jesus Who told the disciples, going out preaching, to “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” (Lk 10:4) later said, ” ‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one’ ” (Lk 22:35-36).

3 & 4. “You cannot serve God and money/wealth [mamona]!” 

This saying, found in both Matthew and Luke (Matt 6:21; Lk 16:13), means exactly what it says, and is yet another requirement for following Jesus that demands one to denounce and abandon a life conceived, built, and valued upon socioeconomic principles.

Well, yes: if by this one mans that we must not make money our idol. It doesn’t mean that we have no money at all, or jobs or insurance or savings or investments, etc. The view that we must not have any of those things is what is “fundamentalism” . . .

Jesus’ followers are to abandon any and all means of procuring a socio-economic livelihood, or more accurately conceiving of a livelihood in socio-economic terms. Matters of clothing, food, drink, shelter, etc. are not to be sought out.

Really? Why did Paul make tents? Why did John the Baptist tell Roman soldiers to be content with their wages? Why did the disciples start fishing again after Jesus’ death, and why didn’t Jesus condemn them for doing so? Why is the rich man Joseph of Arimathea commended in the Bible with no slightest hint of any condemnation? Why would Jesus’ disciples consent to His being laid in a rich man’s grave? After all, He said He had nowhere to lay His head. Why did Paul not tell all rich people to give up all they owned (1 Tim 6:17-18)? Why did Jesus tell His disciples to carry a purse and buy a sword? How in the world could Jesus teach the parable of the talents, if all these claims are true? Lots of questions . . .

[O]ur goal as modern readers of these ancient texts—all of us—is to set modern beliefs aside and to enter into the worldview and messages conveyed in these ancient text, to listen and acknowledge their messages and even competing beliefs to those of our own, and lastly to understand the world from which the Jesus movement emerged and Jesus’ reaction to that­­—not to hypocritically claim that we believe the same or are followers of Jesus, because we need to justify our own guilt and fragility in accepting a world where we are all servants of mammon. Being honest to these ancient texts, and here being honest to Jesus, means listening to his counter-cultural message, acknowledging it, and grappling with it, and attempting to historically understand it­—not to feign allegiance to it, or unabashedly manipulate Jesus’ saying so that they conform to our own socioeconomic beliefs and lifestyle. 

Amen! This is all good and true except for the legalistic slant put on it: that no one can even seek a job or plan for the future, etc. People served mammon in Jesus’ time, and they massively do so today. They ought not do so. It’s idolatry. But we still have to make a living and provide for loved ones. Nothing whatsoever in the Bible condemns any of that. It condemns serving money — the god of mammon — and making it one’s idol.

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Photo credit: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), by Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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