Some of Jesus’s teachings go beyond the virtue of nonpossessiveness and become notably specific about what to do with wealth once you have detached yourself from it: give it away to the poor (Hill, 63). But was Jesus espousing a political philosophy or merely a private morality? Was Jesus a communist? And if Jesus valued being poor, did he do so as a means to an end, or as something desirable in itself? These just are some of the questions I am asking to make this paragraph interesting.
A more fundamental question is: Is it Jesus’s ethical teaching that people should give most of their possessions away? And to answer this we must analyze a number of passages to see if their ambiguities can be solved. In the last part we were looking at passages from Luke 19, where Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem, and he is still visiting there in these verses 1–4 of Luke 21:
Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the [Temple] treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’
Christian sermons have sometimes reduced this to the straightforward point of remembering that our charitable contributions matter, no matter how small they are, or appear to be by comparison to the contributions of others (Hill, 56). As an inspirational point that is fine, but it oversimplifies the story because, like the statement on “God and Caesar” (20:25/part 9), despite being presented as having happened to Jesus rather than as a story he made up, it functions as a parable, having multiple layers of meaning. Indeed, the set-up is clearly similar to the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14/part 6).
By highlighting that the poor woman was more generous than the rich people, Jesus appears to commend her behavior. And this is an important message, not because it was true in that case, but because sadly it is still the case today that poorer people give more to charity, as a proportion of their income, than richer people do (Hill, 54). A feminist message, of a woman doing good when she takes control of her own money instead of conforming to a passive role, has also been noted (Hill, 58-9; citing Levine). But for the widow to give it away is obviously problematic. Donating “all she had to live on” can be read symbolically as her giving her whole life, as her exemplifying the virtue of nonpossessiveness toward herself as well as her property, in contrast to the Rich Fool who did neither (Luke 12:13–20/part 7), This does not make up, however, for her action being downright foolish. As a widow it is unlikely she would have any income and hence she will be reduced to begging or prostitution. So is Jesus really commending giving everything away?
Keep Your More to Receive Your Less
A better known passage is Luke 18:22–25, when a man asks Jesus how he may inherit “eternal life.” Jesus responds:
‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
I think Jesus chose the camel for this image, not only due to its distinctively obstructive hump, but because it was the largest animal that most people in the Middle East would ever see (Hill, 65). But I don’t think that this famous image has any further significance than as a memorably humorous illustration of something being incredibly difficult.
The passage certainly appears to confirm that Jesus’s ethics require giving everything to the poor, since it sounds like he is saying that is a condition for entrance to heaven. It has sometimes been claimed that this was a special case for the particular individual he was addressing, but Jesus clearly applies this to “those who have wealth” in general (v. 24), or as a class (Hill, 66-7). Moreover, in Jesus’s teaching on anxiety (see part 7), he instructs: “Sell your possessions and give alms” in the most general sense (Luke 12:33). Furthermore, this teaching was followed through upon by Jesus’s early disciples, of whom we hear in the Book of Acts (traditionally ascribed the same authorship as the Gospel of Luke):
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:44–46).
This introduces a concept of common living, to which there are a number of references during Jesus’s ministry also (Hill, 68), e.g., John 12:6, meaning that it was not a new practice begun by the Church. The description is reiterated in Acts 4:32–37, with an additional principle of communism: “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32). And while it needs to be stressed that this is light years apart from twentieth-century communist regimes, it is chillingly familiar that this passage is immediately followed by the story of husband and wife disciples Anania and Sapphira, who are struck dead—presumably by God rather than the KGB—for secretly keeping some wealth and not giving it away (Acts 5:1—11).
But not all early Christians rejected private property in toto; “those who… are rich,” Saint Paul says, are “to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17–19). He does not say they have to give everything away, indeed he also says—with his characteristic touch of political incorrectness—“whoever does not provide for relatives… has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8), implying that in order to support others, people should hold onto wealth. For Paul, therefore, charitable giving serves as a means to the end of providing for the Christian family and the poor. Presumably there was some standard there to be met, above which he thought it legitimate to maintain wealth privately rather than sharing it all equally.
We clearly cannot rely upon theological opinion to set the meaning of Jesus’s teaching if there is such disagreement going back as far as the New Testament itself. But these passages help us understand the implications of Jesus’s words.
Realize I Don’t Want to Be a Miser
Returning to the gospels themselves, let’s look at Jesus’s encounter with a second rich man, named Zacchaeus, in the following chapter of Luke:
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (Luke 19:5–9a).
Unlike the previous rich man who went away “sad,” Zacchaeus seems glad to respond to Jesus by sharing his wealth. But there is the puzzle of why Jesus is satisfied of Zacchaeus’s “salvation” from his giving away half of his wealth, whereas for the previous man to “inherit eternal life,” Jesus required that he distribute all of his wealth among the poor. The simplest answer would be to interpret “all that you own” as hyperbole, but because this is not a parable or one of the similarly figurative statements found in the Sermon on the Mount, I don’t think we can be confident of that response.
A better response would be to make a distinction in the type of property that the two men had. Most tax collectors, like the Apostle Matthew, would not have been much wealthier than the average person, but Zacchaeus was, since he had the high-up role of a “chief” (v. 2) in a tax-collecting enterprise (Hill, 116). The man in Luke 18, however, would have been much richer still. The original Greek of the account in Mark 10:17–31 identifies that the type of property referred to was land (Hill, 66), and indeed in Luke the man is called a “ruler” (18:18). Ruling over an area of land in an agrarian economy not only places him in the richest minority, but makes him an owner of the means of production, controlling the profits and livelihoods of ordinary workers. Hence, this could be a type of property that Jesus thought should be totally handed over to the poor, as opposed to wealth more generally, which could perhaps be retained up to some level of subsistence before being shared. While we must be careful not to anachronistically project post-Marxian concepts onto Jesus, this is indeed a plausible possibility, but I think there is a more theologically sophisticated reason for Jesus’s different requirements for the two men underneath this.
If we look back at the practice of common living among Jesus’s followers, it is clear that there must be a distinction between those followers who were part of this way of life and those who were not. Between those who literally followed Jesus around Palestine, having left their former lives behind them, and those ordinary people who came to hear him speak when he was nearby and tried to follow his message in their lives. The sharing of property and use of the common purse would of course be limited to the former, smaller group (Hill, 68; citing Weaver), which included a number of women such as Mary Magdalen and the Apostles who later set up the Church. Zacchaeus would be considered part of the larger group. He followed Jesus’s teaching and found Jesus’s approval with his actions, but for whatever reason (probably to work as a tax collector and do so honestly) did not become one of Jesus’s close followers.
It was to the smaller group, by contrast, that Jesus was inviting the rich man of Luke 18 to join when he asked him to “sell all that you own… then come, follow me” (v. 22) (McKenzie, 683). The reason we explicitly hear Jesus ask this of him can only be because, unlike Zacchaeus, this man was asking for “eternal life” (v. 18). Although this tends to be conflated with everlasting life, “eternal” means something very different than “everlasting.” It describes something that transcends the confines of time rather than enduring throughout successive moments of it. Eternal life therefore refers to a state of being not limited to everlasting life after death but that can be attained in the present. (This is something it shares with “the Kingdom of God,” and indeed, there is a lot of overlap between the two concepts, which may both refer to the same mystery central to Jesus’s teaching; the ironic imperial language of kingdoms being how it tends to be illustrated in the Synoptic Gospels, while the language of life and living does this in Johannine and Pauline writings.)
It’s reasonable to conclude from this that Jesus believed a commitment to total nonpossessiveness, to giving up private property, was required if one was going to experience eternal life within their mortal years. Matthew 19:21 makes it clearer that this renunciation is a “counsel of perfection,” not something required of everyone. Jesus gives the same status to celibacy (Matt. 19:11) in the passage preceding the story of this rich man in that gospel, and notably like poverty, celibacy is another of the vows taken by those entering “religious life” in the Church. Indeed, it may be that these larger and smaller groups of Jesus’s followers grew respectively into the lay and religious members of the Church, since these distinctions are congruent, and this helps us to understand their purpose.
The purpose of these distinctions is that different people are suited to different things, to different ways of life, as expressed in the contextual approach of virtue ethics. Those moral habits it is fitting for us to learn derive from our individual potentials as human beings as well from our common nature. Thus, how the virtue of nonpossessiveness should be manifested in behavior varies from person to person. But the fruitful history of mysticism is testament to the fact that the life of an ascetic, a life of poverty and detachment, is suited to some people. Additionally, outside of the context of structured religious life, poverty can increase a person’s empathy and connection to other people, as exemplified above in poor people giving a higher proportion of their wealth to charity than the rich.
Unimpressed by Material Excess
This value of poverty for moral and spiritual self-improvement is why Jesus teaches that poverty can help people experience eternity in the present and find the Kingdom of God inside themselves (Cf. Luke 17:21). It isn’t simply means to the end of a more equitable distribution of wealth. So, did Jesus view poverty as intrinsically valuable, as good in itself? I don’t think so. It would be cruel to the poor to call their poverty a blessing, and indeed the Gospel of Matthew is keen to stress this. As we examined in part 5, Jesus’s central ethical teaching in the Sermon is one of inwardness, and accordingly, he does not praise the external material condition of poverty itself, but rather an inner attitude it often engenders: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3). (As Lawrence Ware pointed out in PEL’s podcast about the parables, “Kingdom of Heaven” is simply a rendering of “Kingdom of God” by those who thought it impious to speak the name “God.” Hence like eternal life, “heaven” is not what “Kingdom of Heaven” refers to, at least not primarily.)
This “spiritual poverty” is having the humble, grateful attitude of some poor people, whether or not one is actually poor in material conditions (Van Kasteren, para. 6). As the philosopher Keith Ward highlights, it also means imitating the “poverty of God… who does not selfishly enjoy the good things of creation, but shares them with others” (Ward, 117). This connects again to the common destination of goods, the idea that possessions are not truly ours but are “on loan” for use in our life—and the lives of others (see part 8). Once more it is how things are used that is essential. As the great twentieth-century ascetic Thomas Merton observed: “self-denial should not make us forget [that] pleasure is a positive good,” rather it should make us remember “the difference between the evil use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue” (Merton, 106).
Importantly, the asceticism of spiritual poverty is not a passive mysticism withdrawn from the world and its concerns. It is part of a network of virtues supporting engagement with and transformation of injustice. Indeed, we will see another example of Jesus’s critique of social injustice in returning to the story of the Generous Widow with which we began.
An explanation of how Jesus could commend the widow’s generosity even though it impoverishes her is that she, like the men who sell all that they have in the parables of the Treasure and the Pearl (Matt. 13:44–46), would have been welcome to join a community that used a common purse, supporting each other materially, and sharing all that they had. But according to one interpretation, what Jesus was doing with his statement: “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4) was highlighting the lack of such community in his society. He may still have been commending the widow’s generosity, but he was also criticizing how willing the religious establishment was to take (and presumably ask for) money from a poor widow, rather than giving it to her.
This interpretation is supported by the earlier version of the story in the Gospel of Mark (12:41–44), and the socio-literary reading it has been given by the biblical scholar Ched Myers. Myers points out that the location of the passage between the preceding verses 38–40 and the following verses 1–2 of chapter 13 bookends the incident in the context of the corruption of the religious establishment. In verse 40 in particular, Jesus states that the religious officials, for all their outward righteousness, “devour widows’ houses.” This ruination of widows (and probably other vulnerable groups) may have been caused by the expense of running the temple itself, and by a corrupt religious ideology that persuades people like the widow to give away all she has (Hill, 58). Myers digs deeper, noting that the mention of widow’s houses is a reference to a convention in which the religious officials would take trusteeship of the property widows inherited when their husbands died, a practice that “was notorious for embezzlement and abuse.”
Jesus’s words in the story of the Generous Widow are thus read as ones of lament or indignation at the scene before him, rather than as approval. Ultimately, what this all means is that Jesus’s stance on poverty is far from being one of praise of it, or even passive tolerance of it, but is instead a highly politicized call for justice. Which leads us into the next parts of my series, which will address the controversy over whether Jesus intended his ethics to apply to socioeconomic as well as personal issues, before introducing some more parables in relation to the issue of distributive justice.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Hill, Symon, (2015), The Upside Down Bible: What Jesus Really Said About Money, Sex, and Violence, Darton, Longman & Todd, London
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2014), Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of A Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne, New York
Merton, Thomas, (1955), No Man Is An Island, Harvest/HJB, New York
McKenzie, John L., (1965), Dictionary of the Bible, Geoffrey Chapman, London
Myers, Ched, (1988), Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Orbis Books
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford
Weaver, J. Denny, (2013), The Nonviolent God, Erdmans
Van Kasteren, John Peter, (1907), “The Eight Beatitudes” in: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, New York