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Today's Study

Mark 10:21: Sell Everything You Have?

The man to whom these words were spoken certainly found them hard. He was the rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, "Well, you know the commandments," and mentioned those which sum up one's duty to a neighbor. That keeping the commandments was the way to life is stated in the law itself: "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD" (Lev 18:5). The man answered that he had kept all these from early days--presumably ever since the age of thirteen, when he became bar mitzvah, personally responsible to keep the commandments.

But he plainly expected Jesus to say something more; he did not come to him just to learn that keeping the commandments was a way to life. And the something more that he waited for came quickly: "There is one thing you haven't done," Jesus said, "and you can do it now: sell your property, give the poor the money you get for it, and come and join my disciples. You will get rid of the burden of material goods, and you will be laying up treasure in heaven." But the man, an honest and attractive character evidently, found this counsel too hard to accept. It is sometimes called a counsel of perfection, from the way in which another Evangelist phrases it: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor" (Mt 19:21).

But this does not mean that keeping the commandments is the duty of all, whereas giving all their goods to feed the poor is the privilege of those who would attain a higher level of devotion. Paul reminds us that even giving all our goods to feed the poor is worthless without love in the heart (1 Cor 13:3). Matthew's wording might be rendered: "If you want to go the whole way in fulfilling the will of God, this is what you must do."

For those who wish to treat the teaching of Jesus seriously and make it, as far as possible, their rule of life, this is still a hard saying. It is easy to say, "This is how he tested one man's devotion, but he did not ask all his hearers to give away their property in the same way." It is true that those who joined his company and went around with him as his disciples appear to have left all to follow him. But what of those friends by whose generosity they were maintained--those well-to-do women who, as Luke tells us, "were helping to support them out of their own means" (Lk 8:3)? They were not asked to make the sacrifice that this rich man was asked to make; it might be said, of course, that they were doing something of the same kind by supplying Jesus and the Twelve out of their resources. When Jesus invited himself to a meal in the house of the chief tax collector of Jericho, no pressure apparently was put on Zacchaeus to make his spontaneous announcement: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor" (Lk 19:8 RSV). It is usually inferred that this was to be his practice from that time on; it is just possible, however, that he meant that this was what he regularly did. Either way, Jesus recognized him as a "son of Abraham" in the true sense, a man of faith. But he did not tell him to get rid of the other half of his goods as well, nor did he suggest that he should quit his tax collecting and join his company, as another tax collector had done in Capernaum at an earlier date.

Even so, Jesus' advice to the rich man is by no means isolated; it is a regular feature of his teaching. The same note is struck in words appearing without a narrative context in Luke 12:33-34: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." And Matthew includes the same message in his version of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:19-21).

This teaching was not given to one special individual; it was intended for Jesus' followers in general. He urged them to have the right priorities, to seek God's kingdom and righteousness above all else (Mt 6:33). But it is very difficult to do this, he maintained, if one's attention is preoccupied by material wealth. Experience shows that some wealthy men and women have promoted the kingdom of God above their worldly concerns--that they have, indeed, used their worldly concerns for the promotion of his kingdom. But experience also shows that their number is very small. There is something about concentration on material gain that not only encroaches on time and energy that might otherwise be devoted to the interests of the kingdom of God; it makes one less concerned about those interests, less disposed to pay attention to them. Naturally so: Jesus was stating a law of life when he said that where one's treasure is, there the heart will be also. He would clearly have liked to enroll the rich man among his disciples, and up to a point the rich man was not unwilling to become one of them. But the sticking point came when he was asked to unburden himself of his property.

Fulness to such a burden is

That go on pilgrimage.

But he decided that he would sooner go on bearing his burden than become a pilgrim. Jesus' words to him were not intended for him alone; they remain as a challenge, a challenge not to be evaded, for all who wish to be his disciples.


John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, Part 2.

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