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Give It All Away

This week at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 12:13-34, where Jesus lays out some of his radical teaching about money. He tells the story of the rich fool who stored up all kinds of riches for himself, not caring for the needs of others or thinking beyond his personal comfort. Jesus reveals that the God Movement has nothing to do with accumulation or self-protection. Instead, we should take our cue from the ravens and the flowers: These creatures don’t have bank accounts or pensions, but God provides for them and cares for their needs. If God takes such good care of the birds and the grass, how much more is he going to take care of us, his human children?

In case there was any confusion, Jesus concludes with this startling bit of encouragement:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.

OK, Jesus! I could get on board with the whole no hording thing, and I could embrace the whole birds and grass thing as a nice metaphor about trusting God to provide. But what’s this about selling my possessions and giving to the poor? And what kind of crazy are you talking about heavenly bank accounts? You don’t expect me to take this literally, do you?

Christians love to argue about what the Bible says, but I don’t hear much argument about this one. On the contrary, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant what he said about money. Yet the gospels are full of Jesus’ explicit, clear instruction to abandon our dependence on material wealth and to give generously to the poor. It’s right there in black and white, clearer than almost any other scriptural command: We cannot serve both God and money. How can I even pretend to be a follower of Jesus if I do not take this repeated, explicit teaching with utter seriousness?

Why does Jesus command us to surrender our wealth and give sacrificially to those who have nothing? No doubt he meant what he said, but there have got to be some extenuating circumstances, right? We live in a very different culture from the one he originally spoke to. Maybe back then someone could give away all their wealth and be OK, but nowadays we have health insurance to think about, children to put through college! There must be some sort of First World, 21st-century exemption.

This teaching of Jesus is so hard, and so consistently repeated throughout the gospels, that I cannot help but conclude that it must be central to his entire message. I want to be a disciple, and I know in my gut that I’ll never become one if I don’t take this teaching seriously.

The fact that Jesus’ teaching on wealth inspires such discomfort and consternation reinforces my suspicion that it must be very important. Why do we all get so nervous when Jesus starts talking about selling our possessions? If we really trust God and believe that Jesus speaks for God, why wouldn’t we be eager to do what he says? If Jesus’ message is good news for the whole world, why would we shrink from a central theme of the kingdom he announces to us?

I have been sitting with this question a lot lately, and I am realizing that my own hesitation to obey Jesus is not based primarily in a fear of material deprivation. For all our problems as a country, in the United States we can count on certain safety nets. No matter what happens, I feel confident that I will not starve to death. If I have emergency medical needs, they’ll be taken care of even if I can’t pay for them. I also feel sure that I could find another place to stay if I lost my house. Materially speaking, I’m basically covered. So why does the idea of giving up all my wealth to follow Jesus seem so impossible?

I’m seeing that my deepest fear is not of losing my stuff, but rather that I might lose my autonomy. For me, having some extra money in the bank means that when I get into trouble I don’t have to ask others for help. At the end of the day, I want to be self-sufficient. The last thing in the world I want is to be forced to rely on others. Giving away my reserves of wealth puts me in a precarious situation: It won’t be long before I’m forced to ask for help, to depend on others.

As a small child, I had almost no autonomy. I went where my parents said I could go, I ate what they gave me to eat, and I slept when they said it was time for bed. As I have grown older, I have increasingly been able to make my own rules. Nowadays, I go to bed when I want, and if I really wanted to, I could have ice cream for breakfast! For me, growing into adulthood has mostly been an experience of increasing autonomy.

Given this progression in my life from lesser to greater personal freedom, I naturally assume that the proper end point for my life is total autonomy – symbolized by retirement from paid work. How great would that be – to have enough wealth stored up that I never had to rely on anyone else again?

But in his parable of the rich fool, Jesus reveals that this aspiration is a false one. Mysteriously, he teaches that we enter into God’s kingdom by becoming like a child again. Rather than continuing to progress into greater and greater levels of personal autonomy, disciples of Jesus are called to make themselves servants to everyone. When we surrender the false independence of Mammon, we find the true freedom that Jesus offers: embracing total devotion to the Love that lays down his life for others.

What is your experience with Jesus’ teaching on wealth? Where do you feel discomfort? Where do you feel joy? What would help you to open yourself more fully to the radical implications of Jesus’ self-emptying way of discipleship?

  • The part of the scripture quoted is addressed to the disciples. These are people who already have given up everything in this world to follow Jesus. So it does not appear to be a literal instruction to them. It does appear to indicate that they will be blessed for giving up their old lives to follow Jesus.

    Jesus did talk about money a lot. And he is pretty consistent about warning against reliance on material wealth and calling on his followers to put their loyalty in God instead. But in addition to all the instructions to not rely upon money and to be generous to those in need, there are also references to wisely investing money. And scripture makes clear that this little band did not go generally about just relying on what people gave them, but had a treasury with which they bought things they needed.

    I don’t think Jesus gives clear universal rules for how to handle money, but he does give some important principles. We need to be discerning all the time about how to faithfully follow Jesus, including its implications for our money and material possessions.

    Some things which are clear from Jesus’ teachings:

    – We need to be very careful not to rely upon material possessions as the basis of our security, but rather on God.
    – Those of us with material wealth (and this would be far more than just the “1%” but most of us in affluent countries) face a constant danger of being trapped into reliance on it, and need to keep constant guard against it. We need to be ready to give it all up if we are so called.

    – We are to be generous with what we have.
    – We are to look at ourselves as part of a community (or communities), and not just in an individualistic way.

  • Shasta4737

    My mother has been ill for several years, and at 89 can’t care for herself. She has mental illness (paranoid Schizophrenia), and is terrified she’ll have to go to a nursing home. She has the lowest social security payments and medicaid plus she has to pay a spend down and can’t afford to live on her own. She lives with me and I stay home and take care of her. To make an income I sell used books, movies, and music on the Internet. I’ve enjoyed doing this work and caring for my mother who is a kind, intelligent, and very creative, artistic person, but I feel afraid many times because at 56 I don’t have health insurance, and it’s getting more and more difficult to sell used media on the Internet because of e books, streaming media, etc. I pray to God to know what to do, but I am not sure. I would like to give more away, but, frankly, I think I end up being too opportunistic, hustling, trying to find what I need to sell just in order to survive. It’s difficult to even think of giving it all away right now. What would happen to my mother, also?

    • It sounds to me like you’re already giving a lot!

      I don’t think that the point of Jesus’ teachings are to put us in bondage to voluntary poverty, but rather to liberate us completely for lives devoted to God and God’s loving mission to our fellow beings. Sometimes this involves money!

      A good example from Scripture that I’m thinking of is when Paul writes, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28)

      At least part of the lesson here, it seems to me, is that money is to be used to serve the needs of others, not for self-gratification. That certainly seems like the message in Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, too.

      From what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like self-gratification is your primary motivation. It’s supporting your mom in her late life, right? I wonder whether if, for you, Jesus’ blessing might be his assurance that God will take care of you and your mother, just as surely as he watches over the ravens and lilies.

      • Shasta4737

        Thank you, Micah, that’s a very good message. Mom and I have been happy and content so far, and it does seem that God is watching out for us day by day. I need to remember Jesus saying not to fear. Pray for me to have faith in the future as well. Blessings to you!