Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sell Your Possessions! An Imperative for One, for Some, for All? For You?

Matthew 19:16-22
Mark 10:17-23
Luke 18:18-23

I find importance in retelling stories, because much of our unspoken interpretations are lain bare in the retelling. So, let me tell you a story.

Jesus is on the outskirts of Judea, beyond the Jordan River. A young guy comes up to Jesus and asks him a question. In the Markan account, this man actually gets on his knees to ask this question, invoking (I assume) urgency and humility on the man's part and greatness and a lack of obligation on Jesus' part. The anonymous man asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life.

The word "inherit" is pretty telling. As far as I know, an inheritance implies family. Being a rich man, I'm sure this guy knew a thing or two about inheritance. Perhaps he had received an inheritance in his life, knowing how the inheritance is obligatory on the father's behalf, but not guaranteed for the child. If the man was Israelite (not a bad guess), he may have been familiar with his ancestors Jacob and Esau who had a rivalry concerning inheritance and blessing. Even if the rich man didn't know about Jacob and Esau, we will do well to remember Israelite history in our reading of the gospels.

Still, I doubt this guy expects to pull a Jacob in order to inherit eternal life from his heavenly parent who possesses it. Or, maybe he is trying to trick Jesus. He could be tempting Jesus, getting on his knees, calling him good, and seeing what he can do to take Jesus' rightful inheritance from him. Any guesses are filling the gaps in the story, of course, as intriguing as they might be.

In two of the accounts, the man calls Jesus good and in one account he doesn't call Jesus good, but asks what good deed he can do. Whatever it modifies, Jesus picks up on the word "good." Whatever the premise of this conversation, it has something to do with God the parent and possessor of eternal life, the child or children of God who receive or have received their inheritance, and Jesus' and the rich man's identity in relationship to God and each other.

The man seems to think Jesus is God's son, since he expects Jesus to know something about inheritance. Jesus brings attention to this assumption by saying only God is good. Jesus could be denying the status of God, claiming equality, or highlighting the man's assumptions in the question. Jesus draws attention, but doesn't make a big deal. He moves on from the statement about "good" to answer the rich man's question.

Jesus answers the questions by telling the man to keep the commandments, specifically a few he lists. The man tells Jesus he's already done so (this time the man does not use the word "good"). In Mark, the narrator says, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." In Luke: "When Jesus heard this, he said [...]." Matthew has no narration. I wonder why Luke needed to include, "when Jesus heard this."

"Well, a-well, a-well, a-well, huh! Tell me more, tell me more," like was Jesus surprised? "Tell me more, tell me more," was he telling the truth? Grease aside, I want to know what Jesus was thinking (don't we always?). What did the guy mean when he said he had kept the commandments? Did he mean he the Law as a whole (which, as far I as understand it, you can obey by sacrificing after you transgress a part of it, thereby keeping the Law)? What made Jesus love this man? Did Jesus believe the man was honest and earnest? Did Jesus love the man like we love children--because of their innocence? Did Jesus see a trickster--a Jacob--in the eyes looking up at him beseechingly?

And did the guy have any clue what was coming up? I hesitantly guess he didn't think keeping the commandments was "enough." Did he expect something more from Jesus? Was he disappointed in Jesus' first answer? Why would Jesus give the first answer if it wasn't enough? Is the answer different, depending on where the person is on their journey?

After the man's response, Jesus utters some infamous words:
"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark 10:21

"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Luke 18:22

"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21
Jesus' statements are directed at the rich man, not the Law and not Second Temple Judaism. But for this man, the commandments were not enough or, more likely, his interpretation of the commandments were not enough ... not enough for perfection, which implies completeness (hence the other Mark and Luke mention a lacking whereas Matthew mentions perfection).

In Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the man he lacks something and then tells him what it is. In Matthew, the man knows he lacks something and asks Jesus about it. It was in Matthew's account that I first thought the man might already have eternal life waiting on him. But the man and Jesus knew there is more to life than eternal life. The man knew something was missing and Jesus told him it was treasure in heaven. Outside of Matthew's account, the same interpretation works, but Jesus points out the difference instead of the man explicitly mentioning it.

I'm not sure what treasure in heaven is. Will we want anything other than God and each other? Will we want hundredfold of everything we gave up in this life? Should we even want something in heaven? I try to achieve a Stoic approach to things, because I don't want to be tied to possessions. But, am I to detach only to attach in the kingdom? And if I give up "possessions" as the interpretation of treasure, I'm not about to think of Ray Boltz's song, "Thank You," either.

So, I'll stick with Jesus' response to refer to treasure in heaven--which we should want, I guess--not eternal life. I just don't happen to know what treasure in heaven is. But, I'm OK with some ignorance. I don't know if that man knew exactly what Jesus was talking about either. I don't think he processed as much of the words as we did. Then again, he was there and probably knew a lot more about the situation than we do. So, I feel safe in investigating the conversation a bit.

After the conversation, the man left, forlorn. He was rich. Selling his things would mean selling a lot. It would take time. It would mean a lot of sacrifice. He would have to get rid of things he loved for reasons ranging from sentimentality to novelty and prestige. We don't know what the man did. He may have never sold his things. He may have stopped upholding the commandments. He may have sold everything and then followed Jesus. The story doesn't tell us. The author of the gospels didn't include the story because they were interested in the rich man. Instead, they were interested in the teaching of Jesus on eternal life and riches in heaven.

It is a really interesting teaching. Normally, you receive an inheritance when someone dies. I doubt neither Jesus nor the rich man expected God to die and leave one of them eternal life in the divine will (whether they were at the center of it or not). And whatever Jesus' response meant and/or means, Jesus had one very important thing to tell the man. That man needed to follow Jesus, a journey leading to the death of a God (a death of the God?).

It is at the cross where we can link Jesus' death as Christ with our own self death--which includes a death to possessions--as God's children.

As it turns out, our inheritance and our treasures come not from God's death, but our own.


To state it in a less artistically pleasing way than my ending before the "===," I do think this command is for all of us. We literally need to get rid of possessions. I'm not prepared to say everyone needs to sell all their possessions (even though I think every Christian could sell their possessions and there would be enough people to buy everything). Neither am I prepared to say we do not need to sell all our possessions. I am very prepared to say we should all struggle with this command, though. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you should struggle with it--and more than once. Never settle in your interpretation for too long. Be prepared even to sell your interpretation and gain new ones in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.

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