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What Did Jesus Mean With “Sell Everything You Have”?

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Jesus and the Rich Man

Jesus and the Rich Man

When I was 16 years old, I read in the newspaper about world poverty. For the first time, I learned that one billion people suffers from what the UN calls extreme poverty – less than 1,25 US dollars per day – and that due to the horrible circumstances that such low income brings, 50 000 people die from extreme poverty every day. That’s 18 million in a year. Chocked by these facts, I opened my Bible later that day and found the story about Jesus and the rich man:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:21-23)

This wasn’t the first time I encountered this passage, but when I had done so previously I had simply interpreted Jesus in a non-literal sense. I thought that when He said “Sell everything you have” to the rich man, He meant “Put me as number one in your heart, give all of yourself to me.” Not that He literally wanted the dude to sell everything he had because, come on, that’s extremely… extreme.

However, now that I knew about the extreme suffering that people suffering from extreme poverty are going through, Jesus’ words suddenly seemed reasonable. If my money can save poor people’s lives, it’s quite unethical – even sinful – to spend them on Playstations or fancy cars instead of on them. And Jesus explicitly says that the rich man should sell his stuff in order to give to the poor in every Gospel this story is written in (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-30 and Luke 18:18-30).

Attitude Theology

In fact, the non-literal interpretation I had doesn’t make much sense (the continuing dialogue Jesus has with His disciples about not being rich and abandoning possessions clearly isn’t just “spiritual”). In my experience, not many Christians believe in the non-literal interpretation. Instead, most rich Christians believe in an interpretation where Jesus’ words to the rich man aren’t applicable to rich people in general, only this particular guy and maybe a few more (though hardly ever the person who’s arguing for this interpretation).

This interpretation assumes what I call attitude theology – the idea that wealth isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s your attitude towards wealth that makes it immoral or not. If you love God more than your money, you’re allright even if you’re very rich. It’s no problem if you own a lot of money, the problem is if you’re money owns you.

As I’ve explained in my fifth God vs Wealth video that you can watch above, attitude theology assumes that you can have a treasure on earth and your heart in Heaven which, of course, is the opposite of what Jesus was saying in His Sermon on the Mount when He pointed out that your heart will be where your treasure is (Mt 6:19-21). Furthermore, Jesus generalizes the rich man’s regret of following Him in Mark 10:23-25 and parallells, saying that it’s very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 12:33 He even gives the same command to sell possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, to all of His disciples!

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Lk 12:33-34)

People that want to isolate this radical command to one rich dude only, often fail to mention Luke 12:33 where it was given to all of Jesus’ followers. In fact, in Luke 14:33 Jesus says that one cannot follow Him unless one gives up everything one has!

Seriously… Selling Everything?

This is where it’s getting uncomfortable, isn’t it? Is Jesus actually saying that all Christians should abandon all their stuff and sit naked in some forest eating berries? After you’ve sold everything, all you have is nothing, right? What most people don’t realize is that Jesus’ command to sell everything isn’t a calling to an abandonment of possessions, but to community of possessions. Mark ends the story about the rich man with:

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:28-31)

Those who leave everything will gain a lot, not just in Heaven but even here and now. We see this in Acts where every Christian literally sells all they have:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had… there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32, 34-35)

Thus, in the apostolic church Christians sold all their stuff, gave the money to the apostles, and the apostles redistributed the money so that everyone’s needs were met. Those who previously lived in palaces got a normal house and those who previously were homeless got a normal house. There was equality and economic community, just as Jesus had been sharing money with HIs disciples (John 13:29).

That’s what will end poverty and that’s how Jesus wants us to live. Those who want to bail out, and claim it’s not for them, are those too egoistic to share their wealth. Poor people gain on community of goods so they surely want it, they just rarely get the chance. It is the rich that have the responsibility to start selling and giving. Are you willing to do that?

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13 Comments

  1. jonatanfransson says:

    Very good post. Though I’m not a fan of the community thing, which I do not think was how the first christians practiced their giving away of goods, I totally agree on selling your possessions and giving to the poor. Can’t say I’m there where I practice this, but I agree this is the command of Jesus. One thing I’m curious about is what you think about the fact that Jesus seemed to have a place He called His own, as well as other early christians in acts seemed to have their own houses. How do you sync this with a modern community living?

    • Hej bror! 🙂

      Thanks for your comment and question! We have to firstly keep in mind that even though 50 % of Sweden’s households today are single households, those hardly existed in ancient times – people almost always lived together in nuclear families or extended families. In fact, it’s not impossible that Jesus stayed with Peter or some other disciple in Caparnaum. But even if He had His own house that isn’t incompatible with community of goods, just like having your own clothing or tooth brush isn’t incompatible with community of goods.

      See, there were at least 3000 people – possibly 5000 – practising community of goods in Jerusalem according to the book of Acts. There was no single house to accomodate all of that people, so clearly they lived in many houses, such as the house of John Mark’s mother and other. The important things is that nobody lives in luxury and that nobody is homeless.

      It’s similar in the Jesus Army in the UK – there, 500 people live in community of goods but they don’t live in the same building. Instead, they live in 40 different community houses all around Great Britain. But they share a common purse where all income and expenses are pooled.

      I hope that answers your question. Blessings!

  2. artbucher says:

    My church has thrift stores. So we have a continual opportunity to sell our things. And others in the neighborhood can too. Then we give the proceeds to relief and development around the world. We’re living this out!

  3. Andrew says:

    In 1980 I did just that: I took and lived those sayings of Jesus literally for 35 years…never having a regular salary after Febr, 1980. It was not that at that time I had a lot of earthly possessions, actually mostly debts which I had to pay first before being able to drop out and follow Jesus 110 %. I forsook a few old cars but mostly what I forsook was my own life: how I was used to the safe feeling of a monthly salary and to be able to have money to do what I wanted. My so called financial freedom which actually had kept me in bondage with invisible chains… I never ever regretted giving that up, as it started a life full of daily miracles of supply from sometimes the most unexpected sources! The rich life of a ‘poor’ missionary, but always helping the poor with the abundant supplies of the rich that shared their abundance with us. I would do it all over again if I could!

  4. Johnny says:

    Brother,
    Thank you for your post. I am a Roman Catholic who has struggled with this passage for a long time.

    Before I proceed, let me acknowledge that I do not disagree with you that we need to take Christ’s words here more seriously, especially when our brothers and sisters live in such dire poverty. I am not proclaiming that these examples mean we should just forget what Jesus said.

    It is a call to die. There is nothing figurative about it. However, saying that Jesus called every one who might gain eternal life to sell everything is inaccurate.
    The same gospel writers who condemned this man’s wealth say later in the Passion narrative that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple AND a rich man. Not formerly, or a converted rich man who now begged. He used his wealth for the service of the Son of Man and by later fable went and spread the Gospel.
    Mary Magdalene, Lazarus of Bethany and Martha had a house that Jesus frequently visited and enjoyed spending time with them and did not proclaim woe unto them.
    In the Acts of the Apostles, AFTER we here about their socialist sharing, the apostles meet Lydia, the purple merchant who is a woman of means. The disciples stay at her house and use it for services. She is not told to sell everything.
    Nicodemus was not told by Jesus in his discussion on salvation to sell everything otherwise he will rot in the eternal flame.
    The Good Samaritan must have had possessions because he had enough to stop and supply what the man needed and then some.
    Zacchaeus sells half and restitutes fourfold. There is debate as to how much he has left, but the above statements make you think its very plausible he still kept his wealth.

    I am NOT saying that we should take this blanket solace in the above examples and say “oh, that’s great, I’ll just do whatever I want,” but on the same hand, you must look hollistically at biblical text. I think every person of means is called, in one way or another, to downsize to a relatively significant extent to help their brothers and sisters. This question has lead me to study economics in college- how can we systematically help the poor? And every single person selling every single possesion halts progress and helps no one. If you are called to sell all, you must, but discern and don’t just legalistically do it over fear of hellfire. Listen to God.

    • Irene says:

      Johnny, he is not saying selling, but sharing. All the examples you gave, if you look at sharing instead of selling (which is ur way of twisting what the author says) as the solution, it would make sense.

      Economics only look at $$, but it is other not about $$ but love. The ultimate commandment is to love your neighbou as yourself, not providing systematic help to he poor. The ultimate commandment encompass more and is very personal and does not bypass the individual in front of u.

  5. Irene says:

    This is the best interpretation or explanation of the concept I have learned, it ties everything together, including the beatitudes for in the kingdom of God (on earth or in the people), those who mourn will indeed be comforted in a true communal living where not only $$ is shared but where the people love each other truly. In addition to the attitude theology answer u mentioned, I was also told

    1 The Bible never said this and he as a pastor knows the Bible better than I do??!! (What else can I say…)

    2 God is not asking u to do it (because God has not taken your money away but continues to bless u). God is asking that IF He asks you (i.e. takes away your money and makes you poor), you will accept it. This theology provides the most self-righteous justification for the rich not to help the poor.

    3 This only applies to the rich, those whof Iive in luxury (e.g. 10 million dollar mansion, private jet, etc)

    4 This only applies to those with 3 houses, I have only 2 (each worth about a million) and I am so glad I don’t make the cut off to share. (True statement from bible class teacher at church.)

    5 I already do because I am so talented, if I had my career in other trades instead of being a pastor, I would have made much more money. So by sacrificing my life as a pastor (in a rich country), I am already sharing with the poor the much higher salary I could have earned if I were not a pastor. salary, but theses pastors own expensive houses with grown up children prospering. )

    6 God bless the righteous, look at David and Abraham. So it is good to be wealthy and continue to own those possessions.

    7 the Beatitudes… the rich commit suicide and worry all the times, but the homeless men who have joy and peace because having Jesus is enough (FYI, the rate of death is much higher among the homeless than the rich. Being homeless in itself is a formust of slow-cooked suicide.)

    8. JOHN 10:10

    9 The poor you will always have with you…
    ….

    The other end is like Mother Teresa”s model. I volunteered there and talked to the sisters during their private hour a lot. They are good people but in such misery in terms of emotional
    needs because the Sisters are not allowed to have attachment. And a lot of the money goes into buying houses for the MissionAries of charity but the poor cannot take shelter in there. They can at most get a meal and then go back to the street. How much nicer it would be for communal living where the poor actually can contribute and are on equal ground with the Sisters instead of always being the lowest with no future.

    ….

    But unfortunately, you again focus solely on materiaLism. This is understood if you come from a privileged background. You put zero attention on giving up brothers and mothers etc and gaining 100 folds more mothers and brothers etc. People privileged with growing up in love always take it for granted and deny the need exist. Because they have access to this family love easily. It is like people drinking water very day ignore the importance of water….

    Proverty is not just about money. Indeed many poor (below poverty line) children are much more happier (according to their own words after they became adults) than some rich ones. No, the rich kids do not ask for it or deserve it as those privileged with a reasonably loving family may be ready to judge. But naturally, people just ignore the part on giving up mothers and brothers etc… no, it means more than living away from home for with today’so technology, being away means nothing.

    Bottom line, does it matter. Many rich people who share minimally experience miracles and have all their wishes from God all the times, showing their clooseness to God.

    Jesus says a lot of things in the new testimony…. but is he expecting us to follow it all… no, that is where His grace comes in… the fact that He so readily blesses and provides true miracles to those who are already richly blessed with much in terms of finance and family and health and love shows that he is not really expecting it, even though I wish he was. And his criteria on love certainly does not just include sharing possession. He looks at humilily, emotional care, patience, compassion, judgement on others, pride, forgiveness, etc etc.

    Who is better in God’s eyes…the ones living in comunal living but who are proud, self righteous, and show little compassion for those suffering from loneliness/hopelessness/guilt/emotional pain/nightmares/fear at nursing homes, jails, mental hospital, or abusive homes or not isolation,
    OR
    the ones who are quite comfortably with a privatev nice big house and cars etc but who are compassionate towards everyone (with feverent prayers in private and demonstrated actions to comfort and support), humble, patience, loving, and grateful?

    If you always use what you yourselfind have done well in as a measuring stick for everyone and ignore everything else outside of money, are you any better handle those you judge?

    The more I study Christianity, the more I am not sure if Christianity can offer any hope or if Jesus is real. It is like every single christian wh claims to be close to God or really loves God can offer me absolutely nothing but a bunch of demands or beliefs or judgements that will make themselves feel good.

  6. edith says:

    SELLING ALL calls for the surrender of anything that hinders us from making God the Lord of All. Every person has that one thing that he lacks, one weakness that he cannot fully overcome, one thing that he loves more than God…. It may be money, a career, a dream mission, or even a beloved person or pet… even himself…..

  7. Matt says:

    Very well stated. You put this together very well. I have struggled with this question for a while now. Also countless debates, of weather its literal or not. I do honestly believe it is a serious point in our faith with the lord, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. We are to do our best to follow in the footsteps of Christ in some way. This is a real test of faith regardless of if you believe it is literal or not.

    Again good job.

  8. oilerz4life says:

    The words of Christ are not open to interpretation by churchy church 2017 North America. I have lived 40 years justifying my false beliefs before until the resent overdose and death of my step daughter. In this journey I realized there is more to life. I started selling my possessions and giving over 100% of the proceeds to the poor.

    What followed was a reliance on living by faith for each measure of the world that was previously held onto (materialism/greed/etc). Each day is a struggle to say, ok, what is one thing you want from me today? You find that living by faith and talking about faith are two seperate things.

    There is no room for compromise. Where your heart is, your life will follow. It is not easy to take up your daily struggle, but you find where you had previously lived a life of greed and materialism, you now have a life 100% dedicated to faith and scripture, the holy book and prayer, to the Spirit and the Word. The Bible revolves around promice and result anyway (you do this, and this will happen).

    This is clearly outlined in scripture. Once you start living this way, everything else starts to make sence and it all falls into place (the gospels, acts). Luke 16 (the rich ruler). Matthew 19 (the rich and the kingdom of God). Acts 2 (the early church). The first step Jesus clearly states “first, sell all of your possessions and give all of the money to the poor, then follow me”. When he sends out his diciples two by two, they are sent with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. In Acts 2 the early church sold their possessions, gave it to the apostles and shared with those in need.

    There you have it, the cornerstone of Christianity. After that, well then it’s living by faith and no longer just saying it, so it’s an adventure, but all of those instructions are clearly laid out, step by step. Once you start down that path, it simply becomes natural to want to follow the path of obedience anyway, which Jesus says is the measure of whether or not you truly love God. No simple task, but when you consider the reward, you no longer think of the consequence. Your best friend is there beside you and once you follow that route you find no one could be happier than none other than the Almighty, in person each step of the way.

  9. […] “Then what? Sit naked in the forest eating berries?” […]

  10. Jessica says:

    Our possessions do seem to own us.

    We want so we buy. But what we do not realize is that our wanting will never be satisfied. Our greed, lust, and gluttony are like black holes. They can never be satisfied with stuff. Only God can fill us up. Imagine that; everyone’s heart a black hole that only God can fill. Each human that was ever born. Astounding, don’t you think?

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The author

Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

Micael Grenholm - a Swedish charismactivist residing with the Jesus Army in the UK.

Check out my YouTube channel!

A Living Alternative

God vs Inequality

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