Look, I get the pendulum swing away from the social gospel movement. I'm learning more and more that this is how we humans work. We shift from one extreme to the other. But when we realize this tendency and recognize where we have swung to extremes, it provides us with a valuable opportunity to evaluate our position and adjust accordingly. That's exactly what I want to do today. I want to take an extreme story from the ministry of Jesus and evaluate it with fresh eyes. I want to take a look at how this extreme story is often neutered, and provide you with a push towards the other extreme, so hopefully you may land further towards the middle than you currently are.
I was reading my Bible the other day and came across the story of the rich young ruler. This is one of Jesus's most famous interactions in the gospels, and I knew the story well. Nevertheless, I was particularly attentive this time around and picked up on something I had never noticed before. Go ahead and read it for yourself before we continue.
18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. 21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. 22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. 23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. 24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? 27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. 28 Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee. 29 And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, 30 Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.
The first thing I want you to notice is that when Jesus tells the rich man what to do to be saved, Jesus goes directly to the law. But this isn't some haphazard selection of laws. It's pretty specific. Take a look.
7th commandment: Do not commit adultery
6th commandment: Do not kill
8th commandment: Do not steal
9th commandment: Do not bear false witness
5th commandment: Honour thy father and thy mother.
*10th commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself / Defraud not
For the purposes of my argument here, I am also going to draw on Matthew 19 and Mark 10's accounts of this story respectively, which includes the "love thy neighbor" or "defraud not" command. Due to the context of all the other commandments being listed out, and due to how the sin of covetousness can explicitly play out in its objectification of others, I'm going to list the 10th commandment as a part of this story. But you are free to push back on that if you'd like.
So Jesus tells the rich man to fulfill commandments 5-10. Elsewhere in the gospels when Jesus was asked what the most important commandments were, he said that the second most important commandment is to "love your neighbor as yourself." Commandments 5-10 summarize this concept. They are all about love for our neighbor. It seems odd, however, that Jesus brought up that the rich young ruler was to love his neighbors, while not telling him to complete the most important commandment - "love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind." Now, it is of course possible that Jesus leaves out the concept of loving God with the rich young ruler. Maybe Jesus's point with the ruler is to try to show him that he hasn't even done these secondary things, so they can't even move on to discussing the primary issues. But I don't think that's it. I think Jesus covers all the bases here. Let's dig in a little deeper and explain why I think that's the case.
Right after the rich man says he has adhered to commandments 5-10, Jesus gives him another commandment. The rich man is to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Now, I have always taken this as a specific command to the rich young ruler. Jesus is telling him, and only him, in order to show him his specific idol and the sin to which he is personally blind. The rich man thinks he is perfect, and Jesus is just trying to show him that he is unwilling to give everything up to God. But I think the text leads to something far deeper and far more applicable to us all. I want to argue that selling the possessions and giving to the poor is Jesus finishing out with commandments 1-4, and is more broadly applicable to all of us.
I understand that giving to the poor might seem more like loving one's neighbor as oneself, and it is, in a sense. We could lump the command in with commandments 5-10 which Jesus already covered, but that doesn't seem to carry the thrust of the conversation. It's not a climax and just seems to be lacking force. I don't think this is a stretch either. Elsewhere we get glimpses of how treating the poor and the mistreated is like loving God. Matthew 25 shows the King as saying his true followers were those who helped the poor and imprisoned. Proverbs 19 shows that lending money to the poor is lending to God. Proverbs 14 says that if we mistreat the poor, we're insulting God. The Bible talks so much about the treatment of the poor and oppressed and their unique concern to God. In that way, I think that Jesus is filling out the ten commandments here. Jesus is telling the rich man that the one thing he has left to do is to love God (commandments 1-4), which looks like self-sacrificial love for the oppressed.
I want to hit this point home a little harder, as I know some may view it as a little bit of a stretch here. So let's take a look at how the first four specific commandments are seen at certain times in the ministry of Christ.
The first two commandments in Exodus 20 are to avoid having any other gods before God, and to avoid creating graven images. This reminds me of the words of Jesus when he said that we can't love both God and money. While one may argue that we can have a lot of money without loving it, and this might be true, the Bible over and over, in both Old and New testaments, warns against wealth and comfort as corrupting influences. It may be theoretically possible to love God while having much wealth, without loving our wealth, but the truth of this odd coupling working out is not present in the mere assertion of its possibility, but is rather only visible in its demonstration in how wealth and comfort are used. I would argue that most of us, myself included, fail that test. Our refusal to give more of our resources to those in need condemns our breaking of the first two commandments, as we worship and fear our wallets, and as we erect our graven gods in our houses, cars, clothing, comforts, and entertainment.
The third commandment is the command to not take the name of God in vain. This commandment doesn't mean, as we like to think, that we shouldn't curse, though we could argue that this may be one small component of it. Rather, this command is much more complex and all encompassing. Since it is so complex, I don't want to take the time here to explain different interpretations, but would ask that you do some follow-up research on this. In the light of that great void, I will offer up one example from the life of Christ which I believe won't be too controversial in its application to this specific command.
In Mark 7, we see that Jesus calls the Pharisees out for their failure to love God by actually dedicating things to God (Corban). They would essentially encourage people to donate their wealth in the name of God even if they knew this would leave their parents unprovided for. So in the name of God they would fail to do justice. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for a similar sort of thing in (or maybe even the same thing) in Matthew 23. To have wealth, status, power, or privilege but not use that to do justice, cannot be said to be done in God's name. When we do injustice in God's name, we are using his name in vain for evil.
The fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, is also seen as bucking up against institutional religion and sentiments of Jesus's day. Whereas the religious leaders thought they did well to adhere to strict observances of law, Jesus showed them how far they were from God. He did this by healing on the Sabbath. When Jesus did this, many of the leaders were incensed, and chastised Jesus for healing on the day of rest. Yet Jesus pushed back and declared that humanity was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for humanity. A day which is centered around the worship of God, Jesus acknowledged as being a day that was for the thriving of humanity. The Sabbath was a day which was supposed to point the people to their provision of needs and the way things ought to be. The temple in which they worshiped was infused with symbolic depictions of the garden and perfection which God intended for humanity. For Jesus to restore the health of an individual was for him to honor the Sabbath and enact it, just as the Jubilee years were depictions of this greater Sabbath as well. To feed the poor, clothe the naked, and heal the lame is not just something done to other, it's something done to God, as it is done to an image bearer of him. Generosity provides Sabbath rest and ultimate Sabbath symbolism for those to whom such gospel is especially good news. Providing peace and rest for those not at peace and rest is to embody the Sabbath of our eternally communal God.
The aforementioned examples only touch on the explicit ministry of Jesus, and are but a small sampling of examples I could give. But to add even more to the weight of the case at hand, we could easily talk about Paul's exhortation to make our goal equality of resources, Luke's account in Acts as the church being communal, I John's emphasis on active love, or James's condemnation of those who have faith without tangible works. To serve those in need and to love the destitute is to love God and to serve him directly. To serve the poor and destitute is to be a sheep, while to deny them service is to be a goat (Mt. 25:31-46). Such declarations and condemnations ought to shake us to our core. They shake me on an almost daily basis, as I reflect upon my life and find my actions, and by implication, my faith, wanting.
We now come back to our original line of questioning. Is the story of the rich young ruler one which only applies to him, or one which is more broadly applicable to us? It seems like Jesus's broad reference to the Mosaic law in his representation of at least commandments 5-10, and maybe even commandments 1-4 as well, indicates that a proof of true faith is our willingness to sell everything and give it away. Reading beyond the ruler and into the disciples' responses seems to further this notion, as they prove their faith through their actions. The disciples have sold their possessions and followed Jesus, a fact to which Peter attests after the rich ruler walks away dejected. Furthermore, as we look at the rest of the Bible and how it speaks about wealth and comfort, we see a fairly clear line of thinking. The Bible not only speaks to wealth, but it screams out about it. There are approximately 2,350 Bible verses on wealth/giving/money/comfort, so we definitely haven't exhausted them all in this short piece. Quite clearly, wealth and comfort are a key focus of the Bible, and while elevated at times, they are also often warned against sharply.
The pushback, of course, besides calling me names like Marxist or Socialist (despite not having gotten into applying this politically or coercively), is that we are unique. We're not the rich young ruler who fulfilled five of Jesus's six commands. We recognize we have failed at each of the laws of Moses. Yet like the rich young ruler, we have somehow done the impossible. While we recognize what the ruler doesn't, that commandments 5-10 were impossible to fulfill, we have somehow made peace with the lie that we have fulfilled the command that even the arrogant young ruler knew he couldn't. We believe our wealth and comfort aren't idols because we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that in our hearts we have sold all of our possessions and given the proceeds to the poor. We aren't in love with comfort. We can handle all of the wealth we have. God warns us about wealth, but he doesn't ask us to do anything objective about it other than fulfill our subjective consciences to the level of generosity it requires of us. We're special.
Beyond all of the other passages in the Bible dealing with wealth, I am going to focus on just one more to close out my case - Luke 12:22-34.
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[b]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? 27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If you're like me, the Matthew version is probably the one stuck in your head. But after being keyed in to the Bible's discussion of wealth, something jumped out at me this time. Notice verse 33. "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys." We take every other aspect of this passage as prescriptive for us: do not worry, have faith, seek the Kingdom and not material goods, don't be afraid, and store up treasures in heaven. But quite conveniently, in this whole passage which applies to us universally and completely, we throw out the first half of verse 33, and the first half only. Why is that? And why is it that Paul's exhortation to NT believers - an exhortation drawn from an OT principle - doesn't apply to us as well? "The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little [2 Cor. 8:14-15]."
It seems to me that our pendulum has swung way too far towards the side of personal, independent wealth and comfort. We are steeped in excess - an excess which comes at the huge price of injustice to laborers around the world, not to mention those around us from whom we "steal" by having two coats, when only in need of one, as St. Francis would say. However, crazy, ascetic monks, like Francis, aren't the only one who says this. John says it as well in Luke 3. "'The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.' 'What should we do then?' the crowd asked. John answered, 'Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.'" Those are some harsh words about what true fruit, action, and repentance look like. From a more modern and respected voice, we can also hear what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to say about this whole thing from his book, "The Cost of Discipleship."
If, as we read our Bibles, we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way today we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: “It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.” Jesus may have said: “Sell thy goods,” but he meant: “Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.”—We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience “in faith.” The difference between ourselves and the rich young man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: “Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.” But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe. In this the young man was quite honest. He went away from Jesus and indeed this honesty had more promise than any apparent communion with Jesus based on disobedience.
Yes, our dilution of Jesus in regard to justice and our subsequent justification of such actions seems to me to be one of the greatest travesties of our day, and one which I anticipate will lead to a much deserved exile of sorts, barring my repentance, and our repentance as a whole. Our community loves to point out what it believes are the egregious sins of our culture, which is always so conveniently "out there," and not any of us. At the same time, we refuse to learn from exiled Israel and their flirtation with perpetuating a system of injustice through their actions, silence, and complicity. But if Israel isn't a potent enough example for us, perhaps we should learn our lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah - one of the most nefarious cities in the Bible, and one which, in Ezekiel, was destroyed primarily for its greed and selfishness, contrary to what other passages may choose to emphasize. So I will close with the sins of Sodom, which are the very sins of my heart and my community, the church in the West.
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.