The Problem with Money
You lack one thing: go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)
This, of course, is the story of the rich young man, that very attractive young man who kept the commandments and led a godly life. He felt there was something more, however, that just that, and asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. He obviously felt uneasy. And Jesus looking upon him, loved him and spoke the words above, Sell what you have and give to the poor. They are words also found in St. Matthew's Gospel, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor. (Mt 19:21), except that St. Matthew prefaces his advice with an "if". It is what we call a counsel of perfection - not a law but a piece of good advice - that is adopted by those, in the Catholic Church, for example, who take a vow of poverty. In these words from Mark's Gospel, however, there is no "if", just a direct injunction to do as Jesus says.
This advice about money is a regular feature of Jesus' teaching. We see the same idea in Luke's Gospel: Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:33-34) It also comes again in the Sermon on the Mount.
These words have had a great effect in some people's lives. In the third century, for example, a young man called Anthony heard them read out in the Gospel in church, and took them as a personal and direct command of Jesus Christ to himself. He left his comfortable existence, for he came of a well-to-do family, gave all he had to the poor, and spent most of the rest of his life as a hermit in the Egyptian desert. A thousand years later Francis of Assisi was equally moved by the same words and made them one of the the rules of his order of preaching friars, whom we now call Franciscans.
The fact that this is a regular theme in Jesus' teaching means that his words to the rich young man were not meant just for that man. The advice is meant for all his followers, not just people who feel called to make a vow. If we look at Mt 6:33, we see that absolute priority must be given to the kingdom of God (But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.) When Jesus tells this man that there is one more thing he must do, sell everything he possessed, give it to the poor, and join Jesus' disciples, his face fell and he went away with a heavy heart: for he was a man of great wealth.
Jesus puts his finger on the problem here. But how many of us have great wealth? Most people have to struggle to make ends meet. So is his teaching irrelevant to us?
Yes, it is. The man in the story was not condemned by Jesus because he was wealthy. He was condemned because he gave his wealth priority. When he has gone, Jesus says, How hard it will be those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! He adds: You cannot serve both God and Mammon. He also says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This last saying astonishes the disciples.
The meaning is plain: wealth makes it difficult for a man to be in the right relationship to God. It is not, however, impossible. We don't exclude people from church because they are rich. Many rich people have used their money well, founding hospitals, schools, medical research and many other things. However, if we are not enormously rich, can we really say that Christ's sayings do not apply to us. Many people in the world live on the edge of starvation. If we occasionally spend a lot of money on a party, on a show-off wedding, on eating in a restaurant, on clothing we do not need, or on other luxuries, then we must hold ourselves accountable for that money. We should sit lightly on money, neither hoarding it nor throwing it away.
If we live in the Gulf we are not taxed, and we cannot therefore claim that our taxes go to help the old, the sick, and the poor. Even if we do live in a country where we pay taxes, we have to think, as we spend the money we keep, what that money could do for someone with none, and as Christians we should take care to find out how to give some of our money away. There is always a way, if we ask God to show, for everyone to be generous according to our means.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not optional. Our entry into the Kingdom of God depends upon it.
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The Hard Sayings of Jesus copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson.