Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Did God Really Say "Sell all you have..."?

“come on and follow Me, but sell your house, sell your SUV,
sell your stocks, sell your security
and give it to the poor”
-Derek Webb from “Rich Young Ruler”

(HT: Dave Faulkner)

Don't think I've gone Jesus Seminar here. I'm not asking if Jesus said it. I'm asking if God said it, or if God says it--in other words, if that's what He asks of us.

Two caveats: 1) I'm still working through my theology here, so there's room for sharpening, and 2) this will be a survey, rather than a comprehensive and exhaustive look at this issue.

At issue: How does God feel about the poor, and how should we as a result feel about them?

#1 God cares about them. It doesn't take long to figure this out. You can see His love for them throughout the Law (with provisions for them), in Wisdom liturature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs), where He is said to uphold the poor, and men are admonished to do the same, and in the prophets, where His judgment in pronounced on those who oppress them and don't care for them. The word "poor" appears 141 times in the ESV OT (not 100% of these times are poor in that sense, but most are).
#2 Jesus cares for them. This probably goes without saying, but Jesus has a great love and mercy for the poor. As he is our example, it seems clear we should do likewise.
#3 The early church cared for the poor. In Acts 4 we read about those who sell their possessions so that there would be no "needy person among them;" and in Acts 6 we read that to balance the priorities of preaching & prayer, along with ministry, a group of godly men were assigned the task of caring for the widows. Paul says in Galatians 2:10 that they were "eager" to remember the poor. This statement was the resolution of a dispute between them & the Jerusalem church, whose leader was James. James 2 has much to say in relation to the poor, and those who would ignore them.

Even from these brief highlights, it should be clear that God cares for the poor, and it is our job as Christians to do it, too.

So back to our original question: Does God command that all of us sell everything and give it to the poor? No.

We might think so at first, but Christ's instructions to the "rich young ruler" seem to be for him alone, to illustrate that he has not kept and cannot fully keep the law. He may ask this of someone individually, as He did of the young man, and if He does and we don't obey, we are no better off than he was. But there is no corresponding command (that I'm aware of) for all of us to do the same. Even in the examples mentioned in Acts, it doesn't appear that everything a person owned was sold.

The bottom line is this: the Bible never commands us to sell all we have and give it to the poor. But it does make it clear that we are to care for the poor, and as Christians we have far too long relegated that responsibility to others (primarily the government). We should do this because God loves those who are poor (and so we should love them), and we should do it in the hopes of winning a hearing for the Gospel (just as Paul's motivation was to "become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some...for the sake of the gospel..." 1 Cor 9 :22-23, ESV).

P.S. Consider this at best a sidebar to Centuri0n's excellent post, soon to be a series. I hope when he does he'll flesh out in greater detail this idea that theology drives methodology, something I'm planning to write about here in the near future.


Sojourner said...


Hey, I just found your blog via our mutual benefactor. I recently wrote a post on this myself, though I had no idea the Centuri0n had already done so. It must have been while I was in India.

What I consider most fascinating about this is that fact that Jesus told this man that he had to sell everything that he had. You write, "The Bible never commands us to sell all we have and give it to the poor..." True enough, but Jesus did command this man to do so. Is it a stretch to then think that someone else may have to do the same? If someone asked me, "Do I have to sell all that I have and give it to the poor." I would not answer, "No." I would answer a very serious, "Maybe."

Gummby said...

Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I wrestled with exactly how to express this. At one point, I had an emphasis on "everyone", to be clear that I wasn't saying that he never calls someone to do this. In the end, though, this is the statement I decided on, and I hope it does it justice.

"He may ask this of someone individually, as He did of the young man, and if He does and we don't obey, we are no better off than he was."

I think it's important that we focus on what we have been clearly called to do, care for the poor, and work out for ourselves what that looks like. We are called to "take up our cross," and I think that looks different for different people, but for some it certainly could include selling everything.

Finally, I would add that if I did sell everything, I would think the local church would be a better candidate for my sale proceeds than "the poor."