Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Luke 32-34, 39-40, NRSV
This passage from Luke’s Gospel comes towards the end of a lengthy section where Jesus reiterates in multiple ways his teachings about wealth, which can start to sound like a bit of a harangue, especially if you are a wealthy person. Fortunately, I don’t have that problem, and neither did most of the crowds he was speaking to. However, we know that Jesus did have wealthy people among his followers, Joseph of Arimathea being the most prominent, as well as “middle class,” followers as I wrote about recently. In addition, John the Baptist was known to have wealthy and prominent followers, including the ruler of Galilee, and many of those likely began following Jesus after John’s death. We also know that the early church was able to survive in its infancy largely because wealthy patrons, particularly women, gave their money to support it. So Jesus’ words, as much as they are good news to the poor, are not just rabble rousing, and must have been heard as good news by people at all economic levels. Which might come as a surprise unless you happen to think someone telling you to sell everything and give your money away is good news. So what were these people in the upper economic tiers hearing that made them excited about Jesus’ ministry despite his teachings hitting them right in their wallets?
In Jesus’ time, (and continuing, to an extent, all the way into the Renaissance, especially for the learned) Greek schools of philosophy were the dominant belief systems, and their influence was everywhere, even in Jewish thought. Although these philosophies acknowledged there were forces in the world that we didn’t understand, they de-emphasized spirituality in favor of practicality, and the important things that mattered in life were those we could understand and study and improve: ethics, government, the greater good, etc–and it was considered folly to try to understand a mysterious and distant divine whom it was impossible to know. State religion and various cults of gods and goddesses were more a way to dismiss and appease forces that couldn’t be explained rather than an attempt to cultivate a relationship with a loving deity that partners with humanity. Greek notions of an afterlife and immortal soul were similarly practical–they believed that souls were permanently stuck in a place that was cold, damp and empty–basically, like being inside of a grave. Therefore, just as in our highly secularized age, materialism was the only rational choice in the face of eternal death; materialism meaning not only the accumulation of wealth, but the worship of the physical world, whether objects, or the physical body, or food and wine as with the Epicureans (whose famous motto, “Eat drink be merry, for tomorrow you die,” Jesus himself quotes, slyly cutting off the end).
So while the poor had no hope because of the oppressive economic system they were living in, the rich had very little hope, either. Their material needs were met, and as we know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once your material needs are met, you begin looking around and searching for deeper answers. And if the deepest answer you find is, “Death is coming, until then, find something to occupy your time,” that’s not really super-exciting, it’s not really good news; it’s going to leave you unsatisfied and wanting more. Whatever wealthy persons and gentiles were drawn to Jesus’ crowds, although many of them were there out of curiosity, many were there seeking hope, seeking deeper answers than could be found in their philosophies, wondering if this weird Jewish guy who the authorities didn’t like very much might have some extra piece of life’s mystery they’d been missing, that their philosophers didn’t know about.
And Jesus did. He had radically sophisticated ideas about spirituality and the human relationship with the divine, ideas like that humans could actually come to know and understand and love this divinity that loved us first. And he also seems to have had great psychological insight before psychology was even invented. He knew, well before any modern-era studies, that wealth doesn’t lead to happiness. You may have heard of studies showing that the wealthy aren’t really any happier, and it’s speculated that one of the reasons for this is because wealth brings about increased anti-social behavior. A recent Berkeley study that showed that the wealthy give less of a percentage of their income to charity also showed that the wealthy “are more likely to break traffic laws, lie in negotiations…and cheat to increase chances of winning.” The theory is that they get used to a competitive mindset, so it’s always dog-eat-dog, and looking out for number one for them. That must feel lonely going through life seeing everyone as a potential enemy or a potential mark. Jesus is offering freedom from all that: give away everything and in that generosity, find the answers you’re looking for. And a person’s generosity is one of the biggest predictors of that person’s happiness according to a Notre Dame study, which, again, Jesus was right about. Jesus knew that generosity gives the soul room to grow, so you feel bigger than your tiny little, competitive world. You feel part of something larger than yourself.
Just as in Jesus’ time, there are certainly some wealthy people today who understand that, who give their wealth over to causes they believe in. Warren Buffett famously has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth, and made a head start on that by giving one of the largest charitable contributions in history, $31 billion, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has probably done more for global health and development than any organization other than the United Nations. The reason why people like Buffett and Gates and the early patrons of the church would bother to give their wealth away is because there’s a human desire that is shared by the rich and poor alike, and that is the desire to be part of something bigger than yourself–treasure in heaven, as Jesus calls it. And Jesus’ recipe to be part of that something bigger is to sell your possessions, because Jesus is the original Marie Kondo! If your stuff doesn’t spark joy, give it away, sell it, unburden yourselves, and even better than just tidying up, you will have treasure in heaven. Because, Jesus says, in another instance of his underrated humor, if you don’t give your stuff away, a thief may come in the night and take it from you anyway, comparing himself–the Son of Man, the promised one of scripture–to a thief, which in effect he is: he steals away our pleasure in all the things and wealth we’ve stored up for ourselves. Because once you make the choice to follow Jesus, all that material wealth starts looking less and less like it belongs to you, and more and more like it belongs to God and should be shared with others.
All the preaching and Bible quotes in the world won’t convince anyone to give up what they have, what they probably worked hard for, just because it’s a nice thing to do. But the shedding of material goods, in every great spiritual movement, is always a sign of dedication to something larger than yourself, and finding a cause higher than yourself is one of the only proven paths to happiness–it is truly life-changing magic. So take Jesus’ advice and find that treasure in heaven, that higher cause that, unlike all the money and possessions we surround ourselves with, no thief can steal, and no moth can destroy.