I am a would-be disciple of Jesus. I say “would-be” because there are some aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings that are beyond me, that I don’t even pretend to aim toward. Consider Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus says,
“Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)
Let’s be honest, most of us will never seriously attempt to live out this teaching. There is no indication Jesus is employing hyperbole here. It’s a direct, clear injunction that I will never aspire to obey (and most of you won’t either). I’m not going to give “to everyone” who asks, and if someone takes away my possessions I’m calling the cops.
Jesus also says,
“Sell your possessions, and give alms.” (Luke 12:33)
When I ask, “How much am I supposed to sell and give away?” I am already headed down the opposite path. If I am as kingdom centered as Jesus was, then I would be asking: How much can I give away and still thrive? Jesus told at least one very wealthy man to give it all away (Luke 18:18-25).
In Luke’s portrayal of the expansion of the church in the book of Acts, he describes a church that took Jesus’ teaching on possessions seriously. There are some commentators who think this is an idealistic portrait rather than a historical reflection. Either way, here’s Luke’s portrayal of the church taking Jesus’ teaching on possessions seriously:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
What do you make of this? I love to quote this passage to Christians who think that somehow capitalism is God ordained and socialism is of the Devil. The text says that everything they owned was held in common. How many Jesus followers live like this? I don’t. You probably don’t. We don’t even aspire to live like this, do we? We want our own stuff. I am not about to give my super duty Lew’s wide spool reel and heavy, fast action, 7’ 11’ Shamano swimbait rod to some common pool. I will let you borrow it, but you better have it back before my next fishing trip. I remember my dad saying to me one time right after I was married when I asked to borrow some tools, “What is mine is yours.” I have said that to my own kids. But I wouldn’t say that to just anyone. I’m just not that radical.
Consider Jesus’ parable about the man who stored up goods:
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
If I read another commentator pointing out how selfish this man is, I might just tear the pages out. Perhaps we should heed what Jesus says about trying to pluck out a speck in someone else’s eye while not seeing the log in our own. This man in the story is me (and probably you too). We are the fools. The only difference between us and the guy in the parable is that we don’t tear down barns and build bigger ones, we just switch out our 401k’s so we get more return on our investment. We are all fools. All of us. I feel rather sorry for the man in the story because he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement.
Of course, Jesus’ teachings are not just about giving stuff away; they are about centering our lives on the kingdom (Luke 12:31), loving others the way we love ourselves (Luke 6:31), and being “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Giving stuff away is the way we demonstrate the love, compassion, and generosity of God. Many of us would like to claim to be rich toward God while keeping our stuff for ourselves, but the radical Jesus calls us out and says, “You fool.”
I will never be as radical as Jesus, but in my struggle with these sayings I have learned this: The more my heart is rich toward God and filled with God’s love and grace, the more joy and happiness I discover in giving stuff away.
Do I have the right to call Jesus my Lord? I’m not sure. What do you think? He certainly is my brother and companion on my spiritual journey.
The only thing I know for sure is that the more I am able to receive and share divine love, the more generous I become and the more delight I take in being able to give money and possessions to those in need.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of several books on progressive Christian faith, including his most recent, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, has contributed to the blog Faith Forward and is a monthly columnist for Baptist News Global.