I’m always disturbed by Jesus telling the rich young man to sell everything he owns and give it all away (Luke 18:18-27). I don’t think I’m particularly rich, but I am compared to probably 98% of the world. I did just take a trip to Toronto, did some shopping, went to two basketball games, I own a house, 2 cars, an iphone, 3 TVs, etc, etc. What if I followed Jesus’ command?
As the story plays out, the rich young man goes away sad – he doesn’t do what Jesus suggests. Jesus utters his famous line: “its easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.” And then we get some relief. The people around Jesus ask: “who then can be saved?” In other words – we’re all richer than 98% of the population, how can we enter God’s Kingdom? And Jesus replies: “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Awesome. If we rely on ourselves we’ll never make it. We just can’t do it. Should we give to the poor? Yes. Will we do it perfectly? no. Imagine if we even did little things like having a garage sale (selling possessions) and then giving the money away?
Shortly after this scene in Luke, Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, a tax collector who has cheated people out of a lot of money. Jesus invites himself over for supper and the people are horrified that Jesus will eat with a sinner like Zacchaeus (a rich sinner at that!). Zacchaeus doesn’t ask what he can do to inherit eternal life the way the rich young man did, instead he welcomed Jesus in and pledge to give half his possessions away and pay back anyone he cheated 4 times more than he’d taken. Jesus responded with: “Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
Jesus didn’t say – “you know Zaccheaus, you are really supposed to give everything away.” In fact, what Jesus says isn’t about Zaccheaus’ charity, its about his faith. He was open to Jesus and his message of giving and sacrifice. What’s amazing to me is that Jesus doesn’t emphasize Zachaeus’ giving at all, he says that salvation has come because “the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
The rich young man sought out Jesus and tried to get the secret for how to get eternal life. Zacheaus climbed a tree to see Jesus, but it was Jesus who did the seeking in that story. Zaccheaus is saved, not because of his initiative, but because of Jesus’ initiative. His charitable giving is just a response to what Jesus has done in his life.
The Rich Young Man was a religious seeker – he wanted eternal life, and Jesus told him how to get it if he didn’t want to rely on God
Zaccheaus was a relational seeker – he wanted to see Jesus – he was curious. Jesus found him and lead him to respond because of the salvation Jesus offered. The whole story is about Jesus, not about some trick to get into heaven.
I think Jesus is asking us to give everything away. After all, he did. But I also think that from Jesus’ point of view we are all lost, and he is on a mission to find us, save us and help us respond in the small ways that we can. So when someone starts giving a small amount to the Church, Jesus rejoices, when someone volunteers at a soup kitchen, Jesus rejoices. When someone decides to give more than their tithe away, Jesus rejoices. When someone sponsors a child through world vision, Jesus rejoices. He doesn’t say: “actually you’re supposed to give it all away like I did.” He says: “Salvation has come to you, because you were lost, and I’ve found you.”