Can We Be His Disciples?
Think of what the Hebrew word “Cain” means - for he is alluded to by the Lord as the epitome of the “devil”, the “murderer from the beginning”, the archetypical sinner (Jn. 8:44 - perhaps because Adam and Eve’s sin was forgiven, whereas Cain was the first impenitent sinner). “Cain is defined on the basis of a double Hebrew etymology, as ‘possession’ (from qana = acquire) and ‘envy’ (from qana = be envious)” (1). Personal possession is almost – almost - inextricably linked with envy, and led to the lies and murder for which Cain was noted by the Lord. To have a strong sense of our personal ‘possessions’ will lead us into the same sins. Indeed, it’s the epitome of ‘the devil’. The concept of ‘private property’ is indeed a myth. For we die, and leave it all behind. The Mosaic law sought to teach this because, “The land is mine”; what appeared to be a ‘sale’ of property wasn’t really a sale at all, quite simply because the land was God’s (Lev. 25:13,23). And likewise our ‘generosity’, as David observed, isn’t really that at all, for we only give God back what He has given us. In fact, when you think about it, the only ‘thing’ that Biblically a person can say is ‘theirs’ is their partner or family, even though these are also given of God. And so it’s sadly understandable that a materialistic, wealthy society always becomes one that has a low estimate of the family unit and the exclusive sanctity of marriage.
Having said that, it is so hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom - as hard as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle - the Lord comments that ‘what is impossible with man, is possible with God’ (Mk. 10:27). In first century Palestinian Judaism, this saying was a kind of figure of speech for describing a miracle. If any rich person gets into the Kingdom - it will be a miracle. That’s what the Lord is saying. And He says it to us today. Generosity alone, of course, won’t bring us into the Kingdom. It’s not as if we can buy our way in. But there are major implications that our attitude to wealth is, in fact, a crucial indicator of whether or not we will be there. God richly gives things to all of us, Paul says; and by our being “liberal and generous [we] thus lay up for [ourselves] a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). “The life which is life indeed” is not the lower middle class striving-for-security life of slowly saving and occasionally splashing out on something, building, building up, watching the interest slowly grow, worrying about inflation and the possible need for a new boiler or roof… Much as those things are all part of our human experience in this age, they’re not “the life which is life indeed”. That life begins now, in a counter-instinctive going against the grain of being generous. Making friends of the unrighteous mammon results in the man who had otherwise been somewhat weak in his stewardship being accepted in the end by the Master: “I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (Lk. 16:9). “Riches profit not in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivereth from death” (Prov. 11:4). Riches kept in hand will not help us through the day of judgment. But righteousness - which in the Hebraic parallel in this verse refers to the correct use of riches - will deliver us from eternal death. And perhaps Prov. 13:8 also speaks of how our attitude to wealth is a crucial factor in our eternal destiny: “The ransom of a man’s life are his riches”. Just prior to that we read in Prov. 13:7: “There is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches”. This verse is actually part quoted in 2 Cor. 8:9 and Phil. 2:7, about how on the cross, the Lord Jesus made himself poor, of no reputation, and now has been so highly exalted. Our living out of the Lord’s cross is shown in our making of ourselves poor. That is surely the unmistakable teaching of this allusion.
Wealth is increasing in this world. Even a number who were previously without doubt ‘poor’ do in fact have enough over these days to buy a few of those extra luxuries with which the Western world is so obsessed. And many in the West end up receiving legacies from relatives, when they have already got themselves nicely established in life. They are strapped [in God’s eyes] with extra cash. So are we to just hope on the Father doing a miracle to save us? Do we realize the grave importance of what the Lord is warning us of here? It seems to me that the Father has given us a way of escape. The enormous explosion of the Gospel in these last days has brought forth a huge harvest of converts amongst the genuinely and desperately poor of this world. The blind and lame, as it were, have been herded into the feast, after so many others have rejected the call. And thanks to the communication revolution, our world-wide family can relatively easily respond to those needs. Is this not a wonderful, Divine way of escape for the ‘richer’ segment of the brotherhood? An escape, no less, from condemnation…?
But we are not to give for fear of condemnation. The spontaneity of giving is of course exemplified by the ‘love communism’ of the very early church. They just counted all that they had as “common”. What they did was not organized, not compelled by a strict set of rules about giving [as e.g. in the contemporary Essene community, or as in the tithing churches of today]. It was a voluntary, sincere abandon of love and generosity and resignation of self. The early Christians “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property” by the state (Heb. 10:34). There was a joy felt amongst them because of their loss. This is a totally counter-instinctive feeling - to be joyful because you lost or gave away ‘possessions’. The Philippians likewise gave out of a deep joy at giving away; the abundance of their joy resulted in their liberality (2 Cor. 8:2). And let’s not think that the early church were necessarily all dirt poor. The Christians of Heb. 10:34 had property which was plundered - and still they gave support to the poor saints in Palestine (Heb. 6:10). A case could be made that Luke’s account in his Gospel and in the Acts actually emphasizes how wealthy and middle class people came to the Lord - e.g. Joanna wife of Chuza, Cornelius the Centurion; Dionysius; Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus. Perhaps a reason for this was that he dedicated his works to the “noble” [Gk. ‘well born’, ‘wealthy’] Theophilus (Luke 1:3). Luke, it seems to me, was writing to Theophilus because he wanted to convert him. And so he gives other examples of wealthy people who had also converted. He was urging the middle class to allow the radical call of Christ to reach to them.
Especially in our generation, we hold wealth - any wealth - in the full knowledge that our Lord could return at any moment. James 5:3 brings out the paradox - of hoarding up wealth for the last days! The Greek for ‘hoarding up’ means ‘to reserve’. And this is just what our flesh tells us to do - reserve ‘our’ wealth for a rainy day, for long term security. It’s as if James foresaw that in our last days this would be a particular temptation. In the context of writing about the approaching end of the age, Paul commented that because “the form of this world is passing away”, therefore those who buy anything should “be as though they had no goods, and those who deal with this world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor. 7:30). Of course, this was taught millennia ago by the Mosaic law of Jubilee - that whatever land was bought was not really theirs, because the land was and is God’s. And again, we are not to be “anxious”, because “the Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5). And there is nothing like managing our ‘wealth’, however small it may be, to make us “anxious”. Paul’s not saying we shouldn’t buy, sell or ‘deal with this world’. He’s saying we should do so as if we’re not really doing so, as if it is all an act, a sleepwalk, something we do but our heart isn’t in it.
I have at various times studied why the early church went wrong. How did the high idealism of Acts fritter away into the apostasy and hollow emptiness of ‘mere Christianity’? One of the reasons seems to me to be associated with their attitude to wealth. The band of poor men who followed the Lord around Galilee were replaced by wealthy bishops and pontiffs. Even as early as AD 144, the Roman church gave Marcion 200,000 sesterces (Roman coins) when he left the church. This was a huge sum, enough with which to buy ships (2). Instead of meeting in homes, churches were built and lands acquired. Money and legacies were hoarded rather than spent. And, even worse, the attitude of the church leaders became obsessed with money. The writings of their leaders came to focus upon it quite wrongly. The so-called ‘Acts of Peter’ [written during the second century] keep stressing how converted people supposedly gave all their money to Peter or to the church, encouraging readers to do likewise. According to this uninspired book, when the wealthy woman Chryse was converted, she supposedly gave 10,000 gold denarii to Peter in gratitude. This nonsense is quite sickening; it reflects nothing more than a greedy desire by church leaders to build up large capital. Such obsession with money on an organizational level will lead us astray too. Generous we must be, but directly to the poor and those in need.
So, should we literally ‘sell all we have and give to the poor’, as the Lord bids us, finally breaking out of the mire of middle class mediocrity by real, radical, concrete action, in obedience to our Lord? Nobody could really criticize anyone who did. For His words - from the lips of the Man who at times had not where to lay His head - hardly sound as though they were meant to be figurative. In my opinion, no amount of gymnastics with the text or exegetical tricks can legitimately rob those words of their obvious meanings. For those of us who can’t fully rise up to them, I have to say [and I hope, desperately, this isn’t mere sophistry] that there is a teaching that we should have an attitude to wealth that says: ‘This doesn’t exist… I don’t really personally possess this’. In the early church, “no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32). I wonder - and maybe I’m clutching at straws and justifying us all - if the emphasis is upon the word “said”. Their attitude was that they didn’t personally possess anything. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, to buy and sell and deal in this world, as if we didn’t really buy anything or gain a thing, as if it’s all somehow performed by us as in a disconnected dream. And this is surely what the Lord was teaching us in Lk. 14:33: “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”. Renouncing is something we do in our hearts and deepest feelings and attitudes. Have we truly renounced it all? Even if there are still bank balances and pension plans and property deeds and cars and treasured possessions… made out in our name, have we in our hearts, renounced them? They aren’t really mine, I have no personal long-term security from them, because they’re not mine, I’m just holding in stewardship what God gave me. And not DH but the Lord Himself drives the point home - if we have any other attitude to these wretched things, these almost-nooses around our necks, then we are not His disciples. It’s one of the scariest thoughts for 21st century Christadelphia.
(1) Martin Hengel, Property And Riches In The Early Church (London: S.C.M., 1974) p.1.
(2) Adolf von Harnack, Marcion (Berlin, 1921) p. 24.
Bro Duncan Heaster (Walton, UK & Riga, Latvia)