For the past few years I have lived in an urban slum community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. So my interest in issues of poverty is more than academic. When my hungry 8-year-old neighbor, Srey—not a statistic, but a real person with hopes and dreams—tugs at my arm and asks for a piece of bread as I walk through the alley to my home—it’s very real.
Living here has forced me to dig deeper into Jesus’ teachings about poverty and wealth, because like most readers of this article: I am filthy rich. I was forced to ask, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Go. Sell everything you have and give to the poor…” (Mark 10:21) or, “any one of you who does not give up everything he owns cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)?
Even earning just $15,000 per year, which is the minimum wage in the United States, would make me wealthier than 92 percent of the world. (You can check out your own wealth ranking here.) There is no denying that relatively speaking, we are people of affluence and comfort in a world of need.
So what does Jesus say about all this?
We know that Jesus left the most exclusive gated community in the universe, choosing to come and live among us, seeking out those on the margins of society—the poor and untouchable. He hung out with beggars, outcasts and prostitutes. He told tales of hoarders and debtors, fair wages, dishonest managers and even the indignity of being excluded from rich people’s banquets. The gospel record simply overflows with Jesus’ teachings on money.
And some of those teachings are deeply challenging. No wonder our churches tiptoe around these passages, turning them into earthly stories with heavenly meanings instead of tough calls to whole-life discipleship.
We concoct a hundred reasons why these verses cannot possibly mean what they say, perhaps deciding that there is something so wild and subversive about these words that they are better kept locked up safely at the back of our minds. Even the men and women at Jesus’ side were freaked out by his teachings at times. Many of them turned away, saying His words were just too hard.
So, how did the early believers who followed Jesus and heard His words firsthand interpret and live out these commands on a day-to-day basis after He left?
Here’s where it gets interesting. We read in Acts that the earliest Christians applied his teachings on money in at least three ways:
1. They banded together with commitment.
“All the believers were together and shared their possessions. Every day they continued to meet together. They ate together regularly with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:45-46)
2.They shared sacrificially.
“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:46) “and from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:34)
3. They addressed poverty seriously.
The incredible outcome is recorded for us all to see in Acts 4:34: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons in their midst.”
This is the fuller picture of what Jesus meant when he said open your hand, let everything go, then come join my community of followers.
How much should we give?
We have pages filled with the true stories of ordinary people, who were challenged by Jesus about their money. So, why not examine their reactions and see what we can learn for ourselves? After all, they had the benefit of hearing the full story—of looking into Jesus’ eyes and asking questions back and forth.
Zacchaeus, a stumpy conman who was hustling his way through life when he first met Jesus. Convicted by the fact that his riches had been earned through exploitation, Zacchaeus cried out, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor…” (Luke 19:8)
There is nothing metaphorical about this response. Zacchaeus is actually talking about cold, hard cash that would be redistributed to the poor because of an encounter with Jesus.
Amazingly, as soon as he hears Zacchaeus’ declaration of economic repentance, Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this household!” (Luke 19:9).
So, we learn that repentance and discipleship will often have an economic component, especially for those of us who are more well-off. God is interested in transforming every aspect of our lives–even our pocketbook.
Remember Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler? He was a righteous and upstanding citizen, not someone obviously living a bad life. Yet, Jesus tells the man to go and sell everything he has, and redistribute 100 percent of that money to the poor. After that, he was supposed to come back and join Jesus’ small band of radicals (Mark 10:21).
It seems there is no hard rule or fixed percentage, but rather a stance of radical open-handedness and generosity in the context of community. One was challenged to give half while another was challenged to give everything. We see now that the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words did not run off to live in a cave by themselves. Nor did they become destitute and alone. But instead, they committed themselves to one another and the poor.
When Srey comes to me hungry, I hope to share some of my food with her and build relationships with her family, so the sharing can be mutual. For there is dignity in that. Then, together as a community, we can address the poverty in our midst. There are no easy answers or outside superheroes to parachute in and solve our problems—just neighbors and friends, doing life together sacrificially. Like the early church.
And hopefully by God’s grace, we too will one day be able to say, there are no needy persons in our midst.