Should We Sell Everything and Give to the Poor?

In Matthew 19, we see the story of the rich young ruler who came up to Jesus to ask what else he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer was nothing short of explosive. He told the guy to sell all his possessions, give away the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.

The history of interpretation of this text is interesting. R.T. France says scholars down through the ages are divided between those who believe this should be taken literally and those who try to find an exegetically sound way to avoid literal application.

Both camps have compelling reasons. The Bible, after all, has plenty of stories of people who are rich and yet the Lord did not require them to give their possessions away. Think of Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea, the female supporters of Jesus, and Zaccheaus who only gave away half of his money.

On the other hand, a large group of people believe this is a literal command that demands obedience. The entire monastic order of the church, from the desert saints to the present day monastics, is a historical proof for this line of interpretation. The argument is that it is intellectually dishonest to treat all of Jesus’ words literally except for this one. Flannery O’Connor said it well when she argued that ‘the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.’

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

~Flannery O’Connor

Those who think that this command is very specific to the rich young ruler and therefore not applicable to the rest of us should be wary of circumventing by mere technicality what Jesus explicitly commanded. Robert Gundry rightly warns that those who sigh a sigh of relief that the command does not apply to them are precisely the very people to whom Jesus would issue this command.

While many people are so fixated on the controversy on whether we should give away all our money to the poor, we miss one very important detail of the narrative: the fact that Jesus actually said something else. Take a look at the verse again:

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.”

~Matthew 19:21 (ESV)

If you look at the punctuation of the sentence, you will see two clauses separated by a semicolon. First is the selling of possessions and the giving away to the poor that results in having treasure in heaven. The second is the command to follow Jesus.

Don’t miss the second part because that is the key to the entire passage. The selling up and giving away of money was commanded to give way to following Jesus. Going for broke was not the goal. Discipleship is.

In other words, what Jesus was really saying here is that the rich young ruler needed to remove whatever was standing in the way of his coming to Jesus. In this case it was money. You can easily surmise, judging by his reaction, that he loved his money more than the prospect of entering into eternal life.

I believe the reason why Jesus’ words sounds so shocking is because we are so immersed in a culture where we think money is so precious that losing it is considered a tragic loss. Jesus teaches us that the loss of money is not that devastating. The real tragedy is losing our souls to greed. 

What makes this story brilliant is the fact that Jesus’ command to give to the poor sort of hits two birds with one stone. When moneyed people divest themselves of their wealth in order to follow Jesus, the needs of the poor are met. The blessing goes both ways. The rich are cured of their idolatry with Mammon and go on to follow Jesus unhindered; the poor are able to eat one more day.

What is the one thing that is standing between you and the call of Jesus for your life?