08 Jun 2014

On “Following Jesus”

Religious 19 Comments

There is an intriguing gospel story that, prima facie, suggests that Christianity is incompatible with earthly riches:

Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler

16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good[a] Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good?[b] No one is good but One, that is, God.[c] But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”

Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’[d] and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”[e]

20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth.[f] What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
(Matthew 19: 16-22)

Now I had always thought that Jesus was tailoring His commands to this specific guy because Jesus knew that the man would not be willing to give up his material wealth. In other words, I had thought (and possibly I heard some conservative preacher even say this, I don’t remember) that the important thing is that a Christian would be willing to give up everything. I didn’t think Christians were supposed to read this passage and conclude, “Yikes, if I really want to go the extra mile, I need to sell all my stuff and go into ministry.”

The other day, I re-read another familiar story–that of the man possessed by a “legion” of demons. After Jesus casts the demons out into a herd of pigs, look what happens:

14 So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. 15 Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 16 And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. 17 Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.

18 And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. 19 However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” 20 And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled. (Mark 5: 14-20)

Look at the part I put in bold. At that point, that guy has been given his life back, and he is ready to leave his family behind–without even saying goodbye!–to hop in the boat and follow Jesus. He actually begged Jesus to allow him to travel with Him. Yet Jesus said no, and told the guy to go back to his friends.

By no means would I dare to suggest that I understand all of the nuances in the various interactions Jesus had with people, but I think these two stories juxtaposed show that we shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions from any single one. Jesus clearly did not want everyone who heard His voice to break off all existing social ties and physically follow Him around. Thus, the story of the demon-possessed man reassures me that Jesus gave those specific orders to the rich man, because Jesus wanted to reveal what that man valued most.

P.S. It detracts from the main message, but I also note that there is something odd/suspicious that when Jesus tells the guy to keep the commandments, his response is, “Which ones?”

19 Responses to “On “Following Jesus””

  1. Dan says:

    Why do you think Jesus only mentioned those commandments? And is the last one he said supposed to be a different way of the “Thou shalt not covet” commandment or was this something entirely different than the Ten Commandments?

  2. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, you omitted the most famous line from the passage: “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    • Carl says:

      By the standards of the time the vast majority of current U.S citizens are rich. Guess that means you’re all going to hell. Or at least limbo – are they still pushing that one?

      Unless by “rich” Jesus meant “having more than the other guy”. Thanks, J man!

  3. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, in the case of the demon-possessed man, could it be that Jesus simply thought it was more important for the man to spread the word of how he was a recipient of a miracle?

    • GabbyD says:

      also, the demon possessed man isnt rich, which is the point:

      IF there is something you need to give up as a sacrifice (i.e. substantial and painful), the you will be asked to do so.

  4. Harold says:

    There are a lot of commandments in the old testament besides the one Jesus highlighted. That Jesus picked out a few crucial ones rather than saying “all of them” suggests it may have been a reasonable question.
    He says “If you want to be perfect”, which is a very high aspiration. It suggests that a perfect state is one of poverty. However, few of us could realistically be expected to achieve perfection.

    As Keshav points out, the passage continues “then Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven!
    24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    This does seem to widen it out form this individual to everybody who is rich.

    However, it still goes on in cryptic terms, and I could not say precisely what he meant by it all

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      And this isn’t the only place where Jesus says this sort of thing. In the sermon on the mount he says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied,” and then “But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.”

  5. Gamble says:

    You do not have to give up ALL material possessions to be a Christian, but if you want to be PERFECT, then do as Jesus did. Get rid of everything and then walk around spreading the good news…

    The entire point of the Bible is that NOBODY, other than GOD is PERFECT.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Surely you don’t think, do you, that someone who gave up all their material possessions and preached the Gospel would actually be a perfect person?

      In any case, the bigger problem here is one of translation. The Greek word translated as “perfect” here doesn’t actually mean free of imperfections of blemishes. It means having completed one’s goal. So the young man is basically asking “What do I have left to do to achieve my goal?” And Jesus is responding “If you want to complete the achievement of your goal, sell all your belongings and follow me.”

  6. Z says:

    If Christianity is incompatible with earthly riches, then the solution is not to give it all to the poor. For then they are in possession of those earthly riches as well. The solution would be to destroy them instead so noone could have them.

  7. Matt M -Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

    “P.S. It detracts from the main message, but I also note that there is something odd/suspicious that when Jesus tells the guy to keep the commandments, his response is, “Which ones?”

    Jesus was a sharp guy who knew how to argue/debate. This right here is probably what tipped him off that the man wasn’t serious, and therefore, Jesus, in something of a “gotcha” sort of way (as in, he knows the man is not going to comply with this request) tells him to give away all of his possessions.

    Jesus could tell this man’s sincerity was false, so he took it upon himself to expose it as such, not only to anyone nearby, but to the man himself. With the possession guy, there was no such need.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      If it was just directed to that particular guy, then why did he say the “camel through the eye of a needle” line, and the “woe to the rich” line in the Sermon on the Mount?

      • Matt M -Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

        My interpretation about the “camel through the eye of the needle” thing has always been that he was implying that riches enable a man to more easily indulge in his sins.

        Of course, this contradicts the whole “adultery in your heart” notion. I’m not a Christian myself and I don’t claim that Jesus was 100% consistent on everything.

        But generally (especially back then), riches were almost certainly highly correlated with hedonism, sloth, lust, etc.

        In other words, I don’t think he’s saying “having riches is a sin, you need to give everything away,” so much as he is saying “having riches makes it easy for you to give in to temptations, making it very difficult for you to avoid sin and get into heaven.”

  8. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    But what about the line from the Sermon on the mount about “woe to the rich”? There he seems to be clearly saying that because the rich have already had their material satisfaction, they’ll suffer once the kingdom of God comes, whereas the poor will have the kingdom and the hungry will be well-fed, because they didn’t have such comforts previously.

    Here’s the sermon on the mount:

    For the record I’m not Christian either.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      That was meant as a reply to Matt M.

    • Matt M -Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

      Well, the easiest thing to do would be to take that statement at face value and say that yeah, he’s saying what it sounds like he’s saying, and chalk it up to a minor inconsistency.

      Although I think with a lot of this, Jesus is treating wealth as a symptom, not a cause, of sinfulness. It’s not that wealth makes you bad, it’s that if you have wealth, you are likely to have already been bad.

      Consider – how does one typically become wealthy? Either through some sort of illegitimate means (fraud, deception, theft, violence, etc.) or through very hard work, lots of labor, dedication, etc. To truly become rich through legitimate labor (and I imagine this was far moreso the case in Christ’s time than it is today) you had to really work at it, and put your talents to use for the service of men, and not the service of God.

      There’s a reason the apostles were poor. Not because they were lazy and/or incompetent, but because ministering isn’t a wealthy profession. Even today, most Christians would cast aspersions if their pastor was driving around in a new Mercedes. Not because having a Mercedes is wrong, and they wouldn’t be justified in stealing it from him to sell and give the proceeds to the poor. It would just imply something about his priorities.

      I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. He was far more demanding than most Christians are today. He made it very clear: God comes first. If you truly put God first, it’s probably very difficult to become rich in the first place, and therefore, if you are rich, it’s probably an indication that maybe you aren’t putting God first. Consider how many rich people probably work on Sundays…

  9. KB says:

    There is a vast difference between rich and wealthy. It is possible to give away all possessions and remain rich. We are cautioned against envying, murdering, stealing, lying or committing adultery against our neighbour. This is the non aggression principle in action. The rich do not keep the commandments, they are rich in spirit and so cannot enter into the kingdom of God. The rich in spirit can be equally poor in possessions.

    The parable of the Tallents warns against protection of possessions but not against the good that possessions can do. A love of money/possessions for there own sake is the basis of transgressing against the commandments. Those that do not have money/possessions/love might be tempted to find ways in which they can be obtained that run counter to the commandments. The parable also hints at having an attitude of gratitude for what is God given and to use those gifts wisely. A man who is wealthy may well have used those gifts wisely and so provide benefits to others just as a tree provides shade and fruit.

    Non aggression against our neighbour is the seed of peace within us. It spreads to others if we practice it well. As Ghandi said ” be the change you wish to see in the world”.

    Jesus also asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’. This does not imply that we should not defend ourselves, but to think carefully before reacting. In other words to put yourself in the place of the other. ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself’ and ‘ take the plank from your own eye before taking the speck of sawdust from the others’ , ‘let him who hath not sinned cast the first stone’ and most importantly ‘don’t judge unless you wish to be judged’. Same thing written different ways.

    The important thing is that the message can be read however one wishes to read it, but if you follow the logic there is only one correct way to assemble the message correctly. Ultimately only God judges and ignorance -taking Gods name in vain/thou shalt have no other Gods before me-is no defence. Spin it however you want but inevitably it won’t be the neighbours or the communion plate that judges goodness.

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