One thing thou lackest

Good Monday Morning to this new week of 2023

Chapter 36

In a group of three, during a team meeting we were tasked with discussing financial approaches related to tithing, offering, and their impact on the church. During our brief discussion, we came across a particular Bible verse that left us intrigued. As a result, I decided to delve into some research on the topic today.

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19.21

A young seeker’s exceptional devotion attracted the affection of Jesus. This fervent desire for a higher life and deep personal trust made him worthy of Jesus’ love, leading to necessary tests and discipline for his growth.

How do we deal with the profound challenge of this verse.

Statement; “If thou wilt be perfect”, “If thou desirest to be perfect”, “One thing thou lackest,” , “One thing is needful” – Answer; Go and sell that thou hast.

How should the discrepancy between those who claimed to have renounced their possessions, and those who apparently did not, be understood?

Following are some very helpful thoughts out of an article;
The renouncement of possessions according to Matthew 19:16-30 by
Marius J. Nel, Department of Old and New Testament, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

In terms of Matthew’s community being a possible two tier one, the Essene movement provides a possible analogy since, according to Josephus, it had a two tier social structure comprised of groups adhering to a strict ethos, renouncing both possessions and marriage, and groups with a more temperate ethos, in which both marriage and personal possessions were tolerated. The more temperate Essenes lived scattered about in camps and cities. There was apparently regular contact between the different groupings with those in cities expected to provide hospitality to travelling members. Importantly, both groups were considered to be part of one movement. It is thus a question if the Gospel according to Matthew contains references to both virtuoso and non-virtuoso followers of Jesus. And if so, whether the rich young man could be described as an aspiring religious virtuoso. In order to answer these questions it is important to briefly clarify what is meant by a religious virtuoso and then to enquire if Matthew – specifically 19:16-29 – exhibits the traits common to it. Ilana Silber develops a typology of virtuoso religion based on the work started by Max Weber. According to her typology, virtuoso religion can be summarised as exhibiting five key characteristics

(1) Virtuosi religion is a matter of individual choice, that (2) involves the seeking of perfection in (3) a disciplined, systematic fashion, through a defined rule or method that
(4) implies a normative double standard since its rigour is not possible for all and therefore (5) it is in practice only achieved by a ‘heroic’ minority.

If her fivefold typology is applied to the interaction between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-29, a case can be made that most of the elements which Silber describes as being typical of virtuoso religion are present therein.

According to Matthew, it was the young man’s personal choice to go further than the routine norms and expectations expressed by the Torah since he sought to be perfect (Mt 19:20). In order to become perfect the young man had to be willing to break the social and psychological ties with his family (he had to follow Jesus and travel with his group) as well as with his possessions. Jesus reacted to the young man’s statement that he wanted to lack nothing, by calling him to follow him. The reason for following Jesus is not stated by Matthew. Presumably it was to be instructed in a disciplined, systematic fashion like the twelve disciples who had been called by Jesus. The response of the disciples emphasises that the standard set by Jesus for obtaining perfection was considered impossible to meet. If it was a prerequisite for salvation the disciples conclude that only God could save them. The statement by Peter (Mt 19:27), however, suggests that while the commands of Jesus are stringent the disciples – a ‘heroic’ minority in Silber’s terms – did adhere to them. The response of the Matthean Jesus that not only the twelve disciples, but all who had left their families, property and lands would be rewarded (Mt 19:29) echoes similar references in Matthew to a select few (not only the disciples) who had met the demanding standards set for them (cf. Mt 7:13). It can thus be that some of them had become the religious virtuosi that the rich young man aspired to become.

The preceding overview of the role of possessions in Matthew points to the possibility that while the Matthean community included a settled group, who had not renounced their possessions, it also included a virtuoso group that had, and that was therefore dependant on the support of the settled group. In other words that both the settled and the dispossessed members of one community (or movement) had responded with different levels of commitment to the teaching of Jesus, but that both were considered to be authentic followers of Jesus. This possibility that followers of Jesus had responded differently to his commands and teaching raises questions about the nature and extent of his authority in Matthew.

Since Jesus had left his home and family, he could therefore command those who wanted to follow him to do the same. He could, however, not force them to comply. Thus the rich young man could decline Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple and willingly disobey his command to sell his possessions. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is, however, paradoxical in nature since his refusal enhanced Jesus’ reputation as a religious leader who had the authority to give commands that were difficult to obey. Conversely, the fact that Peter (Mt 19:27) and the other disciples had complied with Jesus’ call to follow him, enhanced the status of those who did what others would not.

Although Matthew refers to the disciples and others who had renounced their possessions and families , it is not clear if he claims that all the initial followers of Jesus, and the entire Matthean community, actually did permanently renounce their possessions. While Matthew presupposes a group of Jesus’ initial followers who, like Jesus, had become homeless , travelled from town to town, suffered persecution and were rejected in a number of locales, it appears as if at least some of them led a more settled life since they are instructed to be generous in almsgiving, willing to lend freely to those who ask , and to provide hospitality to others. It is also apparent that despite leaving their families and economic support in order to follow Jesus, prominent disciples of Jesus are not described as being permanently dispossessed. James and John, for example, continue to be defined in terms of their relationship to their parents. Similarly, Peter retains a house and a family, despite claiming to have left all to follow Jesus. Jesus, furthermore, addresses four standard elements of everyday household management -the relationship between husband and wife, children, wealth and slaves – which all characterise a settled community.

Conclusion

This article investigated three related questions. Firstly, it was asked if the renouncement of possessions was a requirement for all who wanted to follow the Matthean Jesus or join the Matthean community. Secondly, it asked whether this requirement lead to a distinction according to Matthew within the pre- and post-Easter followers of Jesus between those who adhered to a stricter ethic of Jesus and those who did not (i.e. between religious virtuosi and non-virtuosi). Finally, the question was asked as to what motivated some followers of Jesus and members of the Matthean community to comply with it.

In terms of the first question it appears as if the renouncement of possessions was, according to Matthew, practiced by at least some of Jesus’ pre- and post-Easter followers as a sign of their commitment to him. The willingness to renounce possessions could have functioned as a test of the commitment of new community members as it did in some Jewish groupings in order to separate those who were serious about following Jesus from those just exploring different religious options for becoming a religious virtuoso. There is, however, little evidence for a formal initiation process into the community of Jesus followers in which the process of sharing of possessions is clearly defined in Matthew. There are, however, with regard to the second question hints in Matthew that the pre- and post-Easter followers of Jesus were compromised of both settled and dispossessed groups. In other words that they both had a two tier structure from the perspective of compliance to Jesus’ command to permanently renounce their possessions. Some complied wholeheartedly by leaving possessions and family while others lived a settled family life.

The language Matthew uses as motivation for the renouncement of possessions (the final question investigated), and for the care by those who had not renounced theirs, is primarily eschatological in nature. According to the Matthean Jesus, all who had left their families and possessions would be richly rewarded by God at the eschaton. The authority of Jesus is thus far greater than that of an everyday Rabbi, since he possessed the unique authority to promise a range of eschatological blessings to those who accepted his authority and did his bidding. There is in this regard a noteworthy shift in the depiction of Jesus in Matthew 19:16-30 from being addressed as a teacher of the Torah to being described as the eschatological judge over Israel (19:28).

It should, however, be kept in mind that while Matthew often refers to the theme of the incomparable eschatological reward for virtuous conduct, it is also possible that those who had left all to follow him would not be rewarded differently than the settled disciples who had extended hospitality to the wandering Christian prophets . It thus appears as if through the grace of God, both the settled and the dispossessed could enter the kingdom of God through the eye of the needle if they supported Jesus and his followers with their possessions.

A few thoughts to my personal conclusion. Matthew 19:21 issues a profound challenge to reassess my dedication to following Christ. It urges me to contemplate my readiness to relinquish worldly possessions in pursuit of heavenly treasures, while also encouraging me to consider the diverse responses of Jesus’ disciples to his radical teachings.

As I grapple with the intricacies of living out our faith in a materialistic world, I am again and againg humbled by the grace of God, which extends to both those who maintain earthly ties and those who have renounced them. This grace allows entry into the kingdom of God, resembling the metaphorical “eye of the needle,” as I follow Jesus. It’s a call and a reminder ot the journey of discipleship take in various forms, and that my choices carry profound consequences.

I wish you a good start to this new week
Philemon

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