Chapter 9: The Call to Dispossession (Matthew 19:16-22)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 9: The Call to Dispossession (Matthew 19:16-22)

And behold, one came up to him, saying "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.

-Matthew 19.16-22

Jesus holds a first mortgage on all that you and I possess. We own it and we have the use of it, just as we possess and inhabit houses on which the bank or savings and loan holds a first mortgage. But at any moment Jesus may call us to dispose of our possessions in order to benefit some person or cause that needs our support. Just as the bank may choose to foreclose, so Jesus has a claim on all we possess. To be called to be a disciple of Jesus is to acknowledge this claim on our money, houses, barns, lands, silver, clothes, cars, stocks, jewels, antiques, and collectibles. Such is the teaching of Jesus' encounter with the rich young man. Let us examine the story in some detail.

The meeting comes about because the man has evidently heard that Jesus teaches a new way of life. The man reminds us of people in our society; he has discovered that having a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean that one feels fulfilled and right with God. Either that or he is testing Jesus' new movement, to see what kind of demands it makes. A well-placed Jew, certainly he knows the teachings of the Pharisees (keep the Law), of the Essenes (be an ascetic and wait for the Coming), of the Saduccees (follow the tradition), and of the Zealots (join the revolution against Rome). Like modern folk with more money than joy, he has a cafeteria of ideologies from which to choose. And so he comes to this new teacher to see what lifestyle or piety Jesus is offering. Whether the man is a serious seeker of truth and righteousness or merely a dilettante, we do not know or care. Something moves him to be open to what Jesus might say. And so he asks, "What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" He assumes the life pleasing to God and likely to be rewarded by God depends upon one's behavior.

We can imagine a modern seeker going to a noted philosopher, or Zen Master, or Indian guru, or the writer of a popular book on psychology and asking a similar question. It is not a frivolous inquiry. Would not any of us gladly change places with that man and have the chance to ask Jesus, once and for all, What good deed must I do, to have eternal life? Shall I go as a foreign missionary? Shall I sell all that I possess? Shall I take a vow of chastity? Shall I commit myself to full-time Christian service? Shall I vow never to drink, smoke, commit fornication, swear, or steal? Shall I promise to speak the gospel to anyone and everyone that I meet? Shall I go and be with the poor?

These are but some of the answers that contemporary religious leaders offer to those who want to know the good deed that is essential to eternal life. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard tells of meeting for the first time a neighbor boy of nine and his young mother. Each is on pins and needles until Annie is asked, Have you accepted the Lord Jesus as your personal Savior? The mother tells Annie that she has joined Rev. Jerry FaIwell's congregation, and Annie knows that the young woman has made a commitment to ask everyone she meets if that person has been saved. That is the one good deed she must do.

The young man in Matthew's narrative asks Jesus about his good deed; he would settle at one stroke all doubts about being in or out of God's favor. He is in good company. As a young monk Martin Luther wrestled with this question year after year until he finally wrung from scripture his answer: Put your whole trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and you will have eternal life. John Wesley searched for years until, sitting in a Moravian meeting, he had his heart "strangely warmed." The history of the Western world has been greatly affected by young people who have asked and asked, "What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?" and have lived out the answer they found.

Jesus' response is not what we expect. Instead of giving a pious or even profound answer, he seems to brush aside the question. He says, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." It is an old trick of religious leaders to frame the answer to serious questions in such a way that the burden is immediately put back on the asker. A cardinal rule of spiritual teachers seems to be: Don't let the seeker put you on the spot; put the monkey on his back.

The young man doesn't want the monkey on his back. He tries to pass the responsibility back to Jesus, asking, "Which [commandment]?" There were some six hundred commandments that the pious Jew felt obliged to obey. The young man wants Jesus to pick out the few he thinks are special. We may suppose that Jesus is greatly tempted to lay on the young man his summary of the commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.... You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31). What great religious leader is not ready with his special agenda?

However, Jesus is not playing that game; he puts the monkey back on the young man. He reviews the commandments of God as they are given in the Decalogue: "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother." Then Jesus adds the summary statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

here, it's all laid down. The young man has been told what he already knows! It is said that you cannot teach anyone what they do not know already; and Jesus, being a good teacher, has reached back into the tradition that he shares with the young man and pointed out what both of them know: If you would be like a tree planted by rivers of water, learn to know, love, and obey the Law of God.

This doesn't satisfy the young man. He lets Jesus know that he is dead serious; he is not playing some kind of religious game. He counters with, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" He has a spiritual hunger that goes beyond the ordinary. He has kept the commandments; he has not committed adultery, has not killed or stolen, has honored his parents, and has tried, to the best of his ability, to deal fairly and justly with his neighbor. And yet all this has not brought him peace of mind. Like the young Luther, who gave up studying law to become a monk in hopes of finding God's favor, this young man has tried his best to please God. His question, "What do I still lack?" is haunting.

Now he and Jesus are no longer talking -- if they ever were -- about philosophy or theology or ethics. They are talking about this man's existence. Each has, in a sense, played out his language game; now the games are over. The man's life is on the line. He is asking Jesus, in effect, If you are sent from God, share with me the life you have with God; tell me your secret.

Jesus lays it right out: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Jesus might have said, "Follow me, and I will make you [a fisher] of men." Or, "Take up [your] cross and follow me." Or, "Go... and make disciples of all nations." We have heard these put forward, in Jesus' own name, as that which we must do if we truly would receive the gift of eternal life. But Jesus says none of those things. He says, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

Key Words

What are the key words in Jesus' invitation? "If you would be perfect"? "Go, sell what you possess"? "Give to the poor"? "Come, follow me"? A model of Christian discipleship could be fashioned from each of those phrases. In truth, that has already happened.

There are members of Holiness sects that would very likely seize on Jesus' invitation to perfection as the critical point in the encounter. They hold to an ethic of Christian perfection, a belief in a second blessing of the Spirit, which leads the believer beyond ordinary morality. I was once involved with members of a Holiness congregation from Los Angeles in a cooperative youth work project. On a Maundy Thursday we agreed that the kids should have an outing. The lay leaders of the Holiness group ruled out anything as secular as a picnic. We took the kids to visit Forest Lawn Cemetery!

Others would see the key words in Jesus' invitation to be "Go, sell what you possess." They believe it is crucial to get rid of the encumbrance of worldly possessions. There is the story that Francis of Assisi, having decided to follow Christ, met a beggar and stripped off his fine clothes and gave them away.

Some would emphasize the giving of money to the poor, as though solidarity with the poor were the key to eternal life. In his 1987 TV series, God and Politics, Bill Moyers interviewed a Methodist minister from the United States who had sold everything and gone to live with the poor in Nicaragua. In his conversation with Bill, the man quoted from the Gospel story of Jesus and the rich young man as a rationale for his actions.

Still others would say that selling and giving away were means to the true deed that procures eternal life, which is following after Jesus. Thomas a Kempis wrote a devotional classic called The Imitation of Christ. That one may literally go and do what Christ did is a notion that will not die.

Which of these phrases is the keystone of Jesus' invitation? None, and yet all. If we take the whole narrative seriously, as we have tried to do, then no single phrase is more important than any other, anymore than one of the commandments is more important than another. The entire invitation to the young man is important, every part. The sum of the parts is what matters.

Are we to believe, then, that Jesus makes the same invitation to each of us? If we would be perfect -- as our Father in heaven is perfect -- must we sell all, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus? Each of our commentators would answer those questions in a slightly different way.

John Meier writes (p. 220): "[Matthew], with his OT background, understands [perfect] in terms of whole-hearted, complete dedication to God.... 'If you wish to be perfect' is parallel to 'if you wish to enter life' . . . and means the same thing.... On this 'perfection,' this whole-hearted dedication to doing justice (5:20), to doing God's will completely, hangs every disciple's salvation."

Eduard Schweizer writes (p. 388): "Jesus did not demand of all people that they literally follow him, giving up home and possessions.... All one can say is that a special form of service is required of some and to them it is granted, giving them greater responsibility and a richer ministry."

Jack Dean Kingsbury writes (p. 92): "Matthew defines the greater righteousness [perfection] as doing the will of God.. . . But what is the hallmark...? Love: love toward God, and love toward the neighbor."

What then? Is the invitation for each and all of us, or just for some? If we do not believe that Jesus makes that invitation to each of us, then presumably he made it only to that young man and we are left to squeeze some precept out of the story as best we can. However, if we believe that it applies to each of us, are we then to read the story as an invitation to some kind of first-class sainthood, of which most of us are not capable? Or are we to suppose -- believe -- that the invitation is for all, if we but had the faith and trust to accept it? Or is it a challenge to see how many of us will put Jesus to the test and follow his command and see if indeed we have treasure in heaven?

Why should we not read this narrative in the same way as we have read the other narratives in this book? Why, as we read it, should we not listen for a call? To hear in it a call to dispossession is not to make it a rule that all Christians must sell everything and give the money to the poor. To hear in it a call is to accept the creative tension between what is and what might yet be, between the life we live as human beings in this world and the life to which Jesus summons us -- without supposing that it is possible to resolve the tension in a single act or single moment.

The Call to Dispossession

If we would hear a call in this narrative, we must begin by identifying ourselves in the narrative with the rich young man. For it is our lot in life to be numbered among the "haves" of the world. If I have bread for two days and meet a man who has no bread for today, I am rich in comparison with him. He who has no bread for the day is poor indeed; and he who has bread and enough to tide him into the future is rich. We are all, at least some of the time, in the situation of the rich young man; we have more than we need, certainly more than others who are destitute and desperate. It is a generous and charitable act to give of what we have to the poor; God is pleased with that kind of generosity.

All the ethics of the Bible are on the side of sharing with the poor. We have no need to labor that point. And as Jesus himself reminded us, "The poor you have with you always," meaning that there are always persons in need of precious things that you do not need to sustain life. In any hour, on any day, there is always the possibility of taking what we do not need for the day's provision and giving it to someone who needs it more than we do. It is simply part of the human condition to be, at times, rich.

So when we talk about selling what we possess and giving to the poor, we are talking about a daily possibility --unless, of course, we take up the beggar's bowl like the holy men of India and live day by day from what others will give us. But even then, a holy man who has received a gift of rice will have next to him a holy man who has no rice for the day. Will he share? Will he give it away? He cannot, any more than we can, enter into a permanent state of poverty where he never is in the position of selling what he has and giving to the poor.

So to be one of the world's "haves" is not just a matter of being born into a First World country, into a capitalist society, into a booming economy that rewards everyone with more than his or her share of the world's goods. To a lesser or greater degree, to be rich is to be human; it means to be a creature that has more of life's necessities than another human creature. It means always to stand under the obligation to share with others.

That ought to get us past any Marxist reading of this text, in which the indictment of being rich applies only to the economic class that owns the means of production. That is not to make trivial the serious economic distinctions in this world. That would discredit the Magnificat of Mary, in which the young girl sings:

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

-Luke 1:51-53

God does indeed seem to have a bias toward the poor.

However, there does not seem to be any way -- short of some act of unimaginable self-sacrifice -- that we can commit poverty! We may elect a more simple life-style, like the Shakers of the last century or the Amish of our own. But there is a great difference between a more simple life-style and poverty. Besides, as David Hill gently reminds us (p. 283), in commenting on the story of Jesus and the rich young man, "Poverty is not a rule of universal application."

So we conclude that all our lives on earth we shall, for most of the time, be richer in possessions than others; all our lives we will be under the command of God to share with those less fortunate, with victims of our systems of distribution and production. One might try to imagine oneself an aboriginal in Australia, a member of a tribe in which all things are in common, so that none has more than the rest. But that is not something we can entertain as a serious possibility for ourselves.

It is our fate to be part of a system that divides human beings into "haves" and "have nots," the rich and the poor, those who have enough of this world's goods to live and be healthy and those who lack. There is no way we can change that.

What then is our call from Christ? How are we to live as rich Christians in a world that presents us always with the poor? If we take this story of the Rich Young Man as our paradigm, it yields this: We must be prepared at any moment to share what we have, even to the last penny, with others who are in need. Jesus Christ has a first mortgage on our possessions. If we are convinced that others need our goods more than we do, we are called to sacrifice them to that need. That does not mean that they are not truly ours, for how can you share what you do not possess? It seems clear from such an example as Jesus' Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke that the biblical steward managed the affairs of his master as though the property were indeed his own. In scripture human beings are the stewards of God's creation. The call of Jesus to "sit loose" to possessions does not mean that we are to be careless or foolish or indiscriminate in giving things away. Just as Christian marriage is a lifelong adventure of discovery, just as family life in Christ is a lifelong adventure in relationships, so is the ownership of goods a lifelong adventure in management.

And if there is an ungodly sorrow in our lives, might it not be that we are holding too tightly to our possessions? If our lives seem too small, too cramped, too narrow, is it possible that we have measured them by the amount of this world's goods and money and artifacts that we possess? We have myths in our culture of the unhappy miser, whose hoarded gold brings him or her only misery. But might it not be that many of us are miserable directly in proportion to our reluctance to give when we are asked, to share when we find others in need, to hoard, to save against too many rainy days?

Jesus had a great deal to say about money. And in his teachings there is little about the evils of belonging to the class of the rich at the expense of the poor. But there is a lot about the sadness and destruction that fall upon those who trust in riches, who make being rich an end in itself, who hold on to their riches like grim death. Note the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Parable of the Rich Fool, the teaching that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Contrast our story of the Rich Young Man with that of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Under the spell of Jesus' friendship, Zacchaeus volunteered to give away much of his wealth. Contrast the sorrow of the Rich Young Man with the joy of the man in Jesus' Parable of the Treasure in the Field, who goes away and for joy sells all that he has to buy the field with the treasure in it -- assuming that the treasure is the kingdom of heaven, for which one joyfully gives up or gives away all that one has.

Mind you, this is not a chapter about giving generously to the church! It is about a call to a life-style in which one holds on to one's possessions with hands ready at any moment to open and give generously to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In conceivable situations, that might involve selling everything. Why not? What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeits his life?

I know a man, similar to me in age and station, who went to live in a community of caring; he handed over his assets to the group and accepted a much more simple life-style. The motto of that group is "Live simply, that others may simply live." Whether or not we all are called to join such a community is not the issue. But that is near to what this passage and story are about!

During the 1960s a number of young persons in the United States tried their hand at living in communes, where -- like the early Christian church -- "They had all things in common." Like other utopian communes in America -- the Shakers, Oneida, Brook Farm -- they didn't last. But in an affluent society one has got to be tempted, at least once, to see what it is like to be out from under the weight of so many possessions.

In C. P. Snow's novel Time of Hope, a man named Martineau, owner of a firm of lawyers, gives his practice to his partner and takes to the road as a poor itinerant preacher. Martineau's friends are baffled and one of the principal characters in the novel is greatly inconvenienced, since Martineau was his patron. Martineau is regarded by everyone, including the author of the novel, as being slightly dotty. Snow's heroes are scientists, who help develop radar and the atom bomb, university professors, lawyers, doctors, civil servants -- people who are actively engaged in trying to make society either better or less harsh. It seems impossible for contemporary people to imagine anyone finding true fulfillment in a life of abnegation. Ours is not a self-denying age. If someone wants to sell everything and give to the poor, we are more likely to turn for an explanation to Freud of Vienna or to Jung of Zurich than to Jesus of Nazareth.

Nevertheless, the import of the narrative of the Rich Young Man seems clear enough: Jesus calls those who would follow him to be prepared to dispose of their worldly goods and possessions if they become a hindrance to discipleship.

Whether or not to dispossess oneself would seem to be an individual decision: There is no implication that all Christians ought to opt for an ascetic life-style. But nevertheless, Jesus holds a first mortgage on all that we who would follow him possess. And we who are the third or fourth or fifth generation of people who sold everything in Russia or Germany or Northern Ireland or China or Korea to come to America to find a better life, should we find it impossible to understand how anyone would sell everything for a second chance, a new beginning? Not that a second chance is always a fat chance. In the nineteenth-century first-person accounts in Pioneer Women, by Joanna Stratton, are some harrowing tales of what it was like for well-brought-up women from New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio to give up everything and move to the Kansas frontier. Some were driven mad by filth, loneliness, the wind, isolation. Nevertheless, our tribal memory cherishes those forebears who sold all that they possessed in hopes of a better future. Voluntary dispossession may be an adventure, a lightening oneself for a trip into the unknown. It often seems in our society that there are few true adventures left. This may be one that some of us might yet be called upon to try.