Sell all of my possessions, Lord? Part 1
Does Jesus want us to sell all of our possessions?
What a great question! Why? Well, because when you wrestle with a text like this (Luke 12:33) and come away thinking that He wants you to act and sell your possessions you are taking the text at its face value and are not blurred by alternative voices explaining the text away. With that said, ironically, I am going to function, in some sense, as an alternative voice. The reason being is that there are elements within Luke’s writings that might warrant us gathering all of the data before coming to an inflexible conclusion. However, I tread lightly here because I do not want to minimize the intended force of God’s word. I will first point out factors affirming taking the text at face value and what that might mean (Part 1) and then I will point out several mitigating ones that might help us obey Jesus’ command along with other passages by the same author (Luke) or containing the same teachings (Part 2). Within that discussion I will briefly touch on Matthew’s rendition of the command and context and also note some factors that Acts brings to the table.
1. “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor…” (see Luke 12:33; 14:33). When you take this imperative (command) at face value, and you meditate on it for some time, you come away thinking that you should sell your possessions (Luke says “all” of them, Matthew leaves “all” out of his text) and give the proceeds to the poor. If we do this we are being obedient to the words of Christ. The first Christians did this in Acts, in some sense. In Acts 2:44-45 it says, “all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as any might have need” (NASB). When you take this text at face value, it seems that they probably had Jesus’ command in mind and believed it to be binding upon their lives. Now what it does say is that they “began selling their property and possessions.” This does not necessarily mean that they sold everything, for how would they take care of their own families (we will see more in part #2), but that they were selling possessions for the purpose of providing for “anyone [who] might have need.” The verb “selling” is an imperfect active verb which has the idea “they sold their possessions from time to time.”* This was something that they did continuously, but at various times, not all at once. It is interesting to note this was their behavior, because when Jesus tells us to “sell your possessions” it is used in a verb tense that indicates no reference to how often it should happen but that it should. Perhaps those first believers concluded that this was something that should characterize their lives. On the other hand, the force of this passage might have been intended by Jesus to be a call to repentance and faith in Him. This seems to be the case for the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. Notice how in 19:20 he admits to having "kept" 6 great commandments and therefore was righteous in his own eyes. Jesus therefore does not give him the gospel (telling him about forgiveness of sin) but more law. He does this, most likely, because this is what the man needs. He needs to see his sin, and hear the bad news, before he can appreciate the good news. The man was blind to his own sin, that of greed and reliance on possessions, and Jesus was to expose it by commanding him to break from them. This is why He spoke this way to the rich man. Jesus' evangelistic encounters were tailor-made for the person he was talking to (see Luke 9:60). Jesus also often used hyperbole (exaggerated/overstated statements to get His point across “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…no one can be my disciple if he does not first hate his mother and father“), and this fits well with Luke 14:18-20, where various characters in a parable are called to a “supper” in the kingdom of God (15,16). In this parable, the three invited guests give excuses for not attending. Each person asks to be excused so they can attend to some earthly possession or acquisition, or to someone (a new spouse) elevated to higher importance than God. In 14:18 the first guest “bought a piece of land” and needed to “go out and look at it.” In 14:19 another guest has to “try out” his newly purchased “oxen.” Finally, and not to say that women or wives are possessions at all,** but the newly married man asked to be excused because he has just “married.” Craig Keener notes that these guests (illustrative of Israel) would have already promised to attend the banquet and were thus insulting in their cancellations.*** With this said we look to a possible interpretation, in Part 2, of the passages at hand. Stay tuned!
*Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon Rogers III. The New Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Zondervan, 1998, 234.
**The IVP Bible Background Commentary. InterVarsity Press, 1993, 230.
***Culturally, the status of women in the Middle East was minimal. As Keener also notes, women “were not often invited to such dinners” on page 231 but could have attended with the husband. Christianity reversed such imbalanced roles.