Part 1 of our dialog ended with me asking Biola Philosophy Professor Thomas Crisp an important question about what Jesus was asking us as His followers to give up and how far we should take this idea. Before we get around to discussing that, Thomas and I took a tangent first.**
KEITH: Before we get into that, I wanted to first touch on something that you and I talked about a few months ago about what happened in the early church. In Acts chapter two we see thousands of people who have not only taken Jesus as their promised Messiah, but they’ve embraced the idea of God’s Kingdom as coming today and they’re living in a community of true Shalom. So, people who didn’t even know one another a few days ago are now loving each other enough to sell property and share it with these former strangers because they are now joyously citizens of a Kingdom community of Shalom on Earth.
Because of their full acceptance of Jesus and their understanding that the Kingdom of God was being established within their actual lives, they were able to fulfill the Great Commandments to Love God and Love One Another with complete integrity.
What’s also fascinating about that is the idea that their response to the poor around them was to risk their own poverty and identify themselves with those who were suffering. Whereas in our culture we see ministry to the poor as finding ways to lift the poor up to identify with our wealth.
In contrast, we’re not so quick to repent of our affluence in order to bless the poor. We’re more interested in staying where we are economically and working to improve the standard of living of the poor in our community.
To go down, to humble ourselves in order to risk our own poverty so that the poor might have enough isn’t very popular. We’d rather “eradicate poverty” and find a way to give every homeless person a job, a nice car, a cozy apartment, a big screen television, etc. That’s our goal. Our compassion doesn’t include letting go of our stuff. To be fair, I haven’t embraced this myself.
THOMAS: It’s not just economic. It’s also social. When Jesus says, “when you have a banquet don’t invite your rich friends and relatives because they could pay you back” Pay you back in what? It’s not just that they might invite you to their house, it’s that they raise your social status. Instead, Jesus says we are to invite the poor, the blind, the lame, and others who would only lower your social status.
KEITH: That’s why you got kicked out of McDonalds.
THOMAS: (laughs) Yes!
KEITH: “No, you can’t speak to the manager” (laughs)
THOMAS: Yes, that’s the very first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that. (Thomas was recently kicked out of McDonald’s by an employee for sitting and talking to his homeless friend over coffee just before this interview).
KEITH: You should rejoice over that, my friend.
THOMAS: I know. It occurred to me, why am I so upset about this? I should be rejoicing. I’m actually living the Gospel here!
KEITH: That’s never happened to me. I’m jealous.
THOMAS: I was so indignant. It just shows you what’s in my heart. I was just holding on to my social status there.
KEITH: Of course. You and I know that people wouldn’t treat us that way.
THOMAS: I’m a Biola Professor for goodness sakes! I even said that to the manager.
KEITH: Don’t you know who I am? You can’t help but pull in your clout.
KEITH: You don’t treat ME that way.
THOMAS: That’s exactly it. But then it was crystal clear to me later that this is what I’m supposed to do – to give up social status in order to love the poor. So, yeah, I think what you’re saying is exactly right. I think we’re called to move in the direction of economic simplicity and insecurity and give up our social status to love others.
KEITH: It’s one thing if sometimes the homeless people at Isaiah House mistake you for a homeless person. Because those people are loved at Isaiah House. It’s perfectly acceptable to be homeless there. Because that mistaken identity and that solidarity with them becomes a sign of your being welcomed in that place by those people. You’re one of them. But if you’re treated as a homeless person outside of that context it’s very different. Suddenly our pride wells up and we feel the need to defend our honor or something.
THOMAS: It was really degrading. I’ve never been kicked out of a restaurant before.
KEITH: And a McDonald’s of all things! It’s not like a four star restaurant where you’re not wearing a tie or using the wrong fork or something. It’s McDonald’s!
KEITH: I love it. (laughs)
Let’s get back to the article and talk more about how far we take these implications. I mean, if I were a single college student, if I were Shane Claiborne or something, I think I might be more eager to say “screw it” and sell all my stuff, go stay over at the Salvation Army or sleep at the Civic Center or whatever. I mean, I think I would do that. I’m not sure. But, being that I’m not single, I’m married, I’ve got two teenage sons who depend on me. I don’t want to drag my family into poverty. The reality of following Jesus into this kind of radical love and sharing is scary. It seems kind of impossible to be honest.
I know people who aren’t married and they’re still asking these questions. How close to poverty do I go before maybe I’m in sin because I’m not taking care of my own children? Do I seek the Shalom of others until I become a burden on the community myself?
THOMAS: The way that I read it is, the call to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to pursue the Shalom of your neighbor the way you seek it for yourself. Or, to put his Shalom on par with your own Shalom. But notice that’s not a call to put the pursuit of your neighbor’s Shalom above your own or your wife and kids. We’re not called to starve so that others can know Shalom. Maybe sometimes that would be appropriate, to fast for a time to share with someone who had nothing, but that’s not the norm.
KEITH: The early church did do that actually. Quite often a stranger would come into town after the weekly distribution of food and they would eagerly fast for the week in order to give their food to the person in need. That’s astounding to me. Frankly because it would have never occurred to me to do that.
THOMAS: Or for Christians to go into plague-ridden towns to minister to the sick, knowing that they themselves would get the plague and die as well.
KEITH: Or that they could die.
THOMAS: Yes, I love reading about people walking out of a plague-ridden city to escape it as the Christians were walking into the city to offer mercy to those who were dying.
So, there are special circumstances but that goes beyond the love command. The love command only asks us to put the Shalom of others on par with my own Shalom. It’s mainly about pursuing needless luxury while there are people suffering in my community. I see the love command calling me to a point where I no longer put my Shalom above that of others. If I divest myself of my needless luxuries I will get to a point where I’m not putting my Shalom ahead of others and I am still able to feed my family.
How far do we take that? Jesus never tells us this. I don’t think he was wanting us to treat these as precise rules. I think it’s something like, “Keep on giving until giving more wouldn’t be possible without losing joy.” Where exactly is that line? I think there’s no line, per se. It’s a principle that every individual person must discover.
KEITH: So, it’s about equally sharing the Shalom of the community. But, that’s still farther than most of us are willing to go. It’s still about coming waaayy down from what I’m comfortable with.
Just to play Devil’s Advocate; that argument seems to be a softening of Jesus’ command to sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Him. If Jesus’ specific command was to get rid of our possessions so that we would have nothing in order to be His disciple, that’s more radical isn’t it?
I mean, for those first disciples when they heard Jesus say the things we’ve already looked at, they understood it to mean an actual liquidation of everything they owned in order to walk to the next town, sleep under a tree and eat whatever they could find. Jesus was homeless and his disciples, according to Peter, gave up all they had to follow Jesus. So, are we getting off easy by saying now that what Jesus wanted was only for some kind of equilibrium in the community where everyone is content with “enough”?
Is he only saying “Sell your excess and give to the poor”?
To me, the reason that Jesus didn’t say to Nicodemus “Sell all that you have” is because that wasn’t his problem. His problem was that he needed to become like a baby and be born again. So, to me, the reason that Jesus gives different answers to that question (“What must I do to gain eternal life?”) is that he’s keying in on that specific person’s area of need. The Rich Young Ruler had a lot of money, and so Jesus saw that this was what he had to surrender to enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus needed to surrender his status in the society. Zaccheus needed to repent of his greed.
That’s how I’ve understood those verses. But, it seems like Jesus might be saying to every disciple “Sell your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me.”
David Ruis pointed out to me once that we do see that there were wealthy people among the members of the early church. We see that some owned property, some owned businesses, and the fact that James has to rebuke the church for treating the rich among them with greater respect must mean that the rich and the poor were side by side.
So, is this a universal command for every disciple to embrace poverty? If it’s not for everyone, if it’s only for some people, then what are we even talking about it for? You can either do this or not do it.
THOMAS: The way I look at it, it IS a universal command not to store up treasure for ourselves here but to share what we have with the poor. I see that Jesus warns us not to be like the Rich Man from the Parable of Lazarus who surrounded himself with luxury while people were starving outside his house. I think sometimes there’s Jewish hyperbole being employed when Jesus says, “Sell ALL that you have” to the Rich Young Ruler, but I think it’s the same teaching Jesus gives on the Sermon on the Mount. It’s consistent with his teaching to the disciples to give up all they have in order to become his disciples. I think the goal is to divest ourselves of needless wealth in order to share the community of Shalom with everyone – to the point that we would have to stop and ask ourselves if sharing this or that might be taking it too far.
The goal is not destitution. It’s not so that we should become homeless. It’s about radical simplicity. I think that’s what Jesus calls us all to.
Then we have the question, “What does that look like?” and that’s what we have to work out.
KEITH: There’s always going to be a question of how far is too far and we could ask those questions of many other scriptures.
THOMAS: The key thing is not to store up treasures here and now but to store up our treasure in heaven. That’s for everybody. We can’t love both God and money. That is a universal teaching for every disciple.
KEITH: In other words – and I agree with you – if your intention is to be a disciple of Jesus you have to work these things out for yourself. You can’t ignore it. You can’t dismiss this. If you really want to put the words of Jesus into practice in your actual life you need to ask the question and you need to have an ongoing wrestle with these questions. You and God need to have peace over these challenging ideals. Are we being obedient to Jesus in this area?
THOMAS: I see it as a constant learning to divest oneself of wealth and status. It’s a process. Like Zaccheus who says, “I’m going to give away half my possessions to anyone I’ve wronged” and Jesus says, “You got it!”
KEITH: And he only gave half of his stuff away!
THOMAS: It’s a process. Yes.
KEITH: You and I have both had to make hard decisions about how to help people that God puts in front of you. How do we help them? What do we give up or give away to bring them into Shalom with God and in the community? I think God is active in this process. If we’re willing to work it out and if we give God permission to give us the kind of heart that is willing to let go and to share whatever is needed, He will do that. He will change us in this process.
I think it’s all part of our own personal sanctification. I think God is the one who will challenge us. We don’t need to work up the courage to sell everything all at once. It’s like what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, if we could sell all that have and give it to the poor but we don’t have love to go with it, it’s pointless.
In other words, we could do the actions but have be an empty and worthless act in God’s eyes. We have to motivated by love or there’s no point.
THOMAS: I like the picture of Jesus leading us more and more in the ways of the Cross and leading us into self-giving love. We can love with our money and our possessions. If we give ourselves to Jesus then He will take us further down the road into relationships where we can let go of our possessions and embrace people who need love.
Like you say, once we open ourselves to this He starts bringing things our way and challenging us to not store up treasures for ourselves but to give it away in love.
[END OF PART 2]
Want to go on a Mission Trip with me? Let’s travel 20 minutes from your house to find people living in poverty who have never known the love of Christ before. I’ll show you how in this new online course that starts Monday, August 5th.
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Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.