This week at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 12:13-34, where Jesus lays out some of his radical teaching about money. He tells the story of the rich fool who stored up all kinds of riches for himself, not caring for the needs of others or thinking beyond his personal comfort. Jesus reveals that the God Movement has nothing to do with accumulation or self-protection. Instead, we should take our cue from the ravens and the flowers: These creatures don’t have bank accounts or pensions, but God provides for them and cares for their needs. If God takes such good care of the birds and the grass, how much more is he going to take care of us, his human children?
In case there was any confusion, Jesus concludes with this startling bit of encouragement:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.
OK, Jesus! I could get on board with the whole no hording thing, and I could embrace the whole birds and grass thing as a nice metaphor about trusting God to provide. But what’s this about selling my possessions and giving to the poor? And what kind of crazy are you talking about heavenly bank accounts? You don’t expect me to take this literally, do you?
Christians love to argue about what the Bible says, but I don’t hear much argument about this one. On the contrary, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant what he said about money. Yet the gospels are full of Jesus’ explicit, clear instruction to abandon our dependence on material wealth and to give generously to the poor. It’s right there in black and white, clearer than almost any other scriptural command: We cannot serve both God and money. How can I even pretend to be a follower of Jesus if I do not take this repeated, explicit teaching with utter seriousness?
Why does Jesus command us to surrender our wealth and give sacrificially to those who have nothing? No doubt he meant what he said, but there have got to be some extenuating circumstances, right? We live in a very different culture from the one he originally spoke to. Maybe back then someone could give away all their wealth and be OK, but nowadays we have health insurance to think about, children to put through college! There must be some sort of First World, 21st-century exemption.
This teaching of Jesus is so hard, and so consistently repeated throughout the gospels, that I cannot help but conclude that it must be central to his entire message. I want to be a disciple, and I know in my gut that I’ll never become one if I don’t take this teaching seriously.
The fact that Jesus’ teaching on wealth inspires such discomfort and consternation reinforces my suspicion that it must be very important. Why do we all get so nervous when Jesus starts talking about selling our possessions? If we really trust God and believe that Jesus speaks for God, why wouldn’t we be eager to do what he says? If Jesus’ message is good news for the whole world, why would we shrink from a central theme of the kingdom he announces to us?
I have been sitting with this question a lot lately, and I am realizing that my own hesitation to obey Jesus is not based primarily in a fear of material deprivation. For all our problems as a country, in the United States we can count on certain safety nets. No matter what happens, I feel confident that I will not starve to death. If I have emergency medical needs, they’ll be taken care of even if I can’t pay for them. I also feel sure that I could find another place to stay if I lost my house. Materially speaking, I’m basically covered. So why does the idea of giving up all my wealth to follow Jesus seem so impossible?
I’m seeing that my deepest fear is not of losing my stuff, but rather that I might lose my autonomy. For me, having some extra money in the bank means that when I get into trouble I don’t have to ask others for help. At the end of the day, I want to be self-sufficient. The last thing in the world I want is to be forced to rely on others. Giving away my reserves of wealth puts me in a precarious situation: It won’t be long before I’m forced to ask for help, to depend on others.
As a small child, I had almost no autonomy. I went where my parents said I could go, I ate what they gave me to eat, and I slept when they said it was time for bed. As I have grown older, I have increasingly been able to make my own rules. Nowadays, I go to bed when I want, and if I really wanted to, I could have ice cream for breakfast! For me, growing into adulthood has mostly been an experience of increasing autonomy.
Given this progression in my life from lesser to greater personal freedom, I naturally assume that the proper end point for my life is total autonomy – symbolized by retirement from paid work. How great would that be – to have enough wealth stored up that I never had to rely on anyone else again?
But in his parable of the rich fool, Jesus reveals that this aspiration is a false one. Mysteriously, he teaches that we enter into God’s kingdom by becoming like a child again. Rather than continuing to progress into greater and greater levels of personal autonomy, disciples of Jesus are called to make themselves servants to everyone. When we surrender the false independence of Mammon, we find the true freedom that Jesus offers: embracing total devotion to the Love that lays down his life for others.
What is your experience with Jesus’ teaching on wealth? Where do you feel discomfort? Where do you feel joy? What would help you to open yourself more fully to the radical implications of Jesus’ self-emptying way of discipleship?
Micah Bales is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker Christian community, and has been an organizer with Occupy Our Homes DC. A communications and web strategist by trade, he is employed by Friends United Meeting – an international Quaker denominational body. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Lamb’s War or follow him on Twitter.