“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that won’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.
“Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit. Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door. Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he’ll dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn. But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Human One’s coming at a time when you don’t expect him.”
Okay, confession time. I really don’t like it when the lectionary breaks up sections like this. The first bit is a summary of a larger section dealing with inheritance, greed, and anxiety (verses 13-31). It starts out with someone asking Jesus to tell their sibling to give their share of the family inheritance. Jesus responds with statements about greed and then tells a story about a person who has so much wealth, that he decides to tear down his storage units and build bigger ones to keep all of his stuff. But they guy dies that very night. Jesus then offers the first section of our passage today.
This section is not about all of us selling our possessions and give all the proceeds to the poor. Rather, Jesus is talking about what Buddhism call “detachment” or “non-attachment.” “The root of suffering is attachment,” says the Buddha. Jesus is telling us to see our “things” as not being ours alone but for everyone; life will be easier.
This concept is all throughout Christian history. In the book of Acts, it states—
The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need (Acts 4.32-35).
The Didache, a late first or early second century document, states—
…If someone takes from you what’s yours, don’t ask for it back. You really can’t.
Give to every one who asks you, and don’t ask for it back. The Father wants his blessings shared. Happy is the giver who lives according to this rule, for that one is guiltless. But the receiver must beware; for if one receives who has need, he’s guiltless, but if one receives not having need, he shall stand trial, answering why he received and for what use. If he’s found guilty he shall not escape until he pays back the last penny (1.4-5; adapted).
There are several monastic “rules” that speak of this, too—
This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. Let no one presume to give or receive anything without the Abbot’s leave, or to have anything as his own—anything whatever, whether book or tablets or pen or whatever it may be—since they’re not permitted to have even their bodies or wills at their own disposal; but for all their necessities let them look to the Father of the monastery. And let it be unlawful to have anything which the Abbot hasn’t given or allowed. Let all things be common to all, as it’s written (Acts 4:32), and let no one say or assume that anything is his own (Rule 33 of St. Benedict, 6th century CE; adapted).
Whatsoever little or much you possess of anything, whether clothing, or food, or drink, let it be at the command of the senior and at his disposal, for it’s not befitting a religious to have any distinction of property with his own free brother (Rule 3 of St. Columba, 6th century CE; adapted).
Monks…must [diligently] guard against [greed], seeing that it’s wrong for them not only to be possessed of [excesses], but even to desire them. It’s not what they possess that matters, but rather how their wills are affected by their possessions. Those who’ve left all things to follow Christ the Lord with the cross of daily [reverence] have treasure in heaven. Therefore, as they’re to possess much in heaven, they ought to be content with little, nay, with the barest necessaries on earth, remembering that in monks [greed] is a leprosy… (Rule 4 of St. Columbanus, 6th century CE; adapted).
Again, Jesus’ point is we should hold our possessions loosely and be ready to give things away to anyone in need.
The last section belongs with the whole chapter; it can’t really be isolated as a separate piece. And while it certainly has to do with a refocusing of people’s lives around service, the last statement is quite telling. Jesus isn’t making a universal statement about readiness for his return—he’s making a clear statement to his contemporaries. “You (i.e., his immediate audience) also must be ready, because the Human One’s coming at a time when you (the same people) don’t expect him.” His point here is that the first followers shouldn’t be so attached to anything so that when the time comes—when the Romans come as God’s agents of justice against Israel—they’ll be able to leave at a moment’s notice without any hesitation (cf., Luke 9.57-62).
So, this section from our lectionary is part of larger question—mainly how to deal with possessions, being wary of greed and anxiety, and how to counter them. And while Jesus is specifically addressing his contemporaries about the coming war with Rome and all of the concerns therein, his words speak to us even today. As followers of the Way of Jesus, we’re to hold our stuff lightly, to view our things as not ours alone. We’re to view ourselves as stewards of our things and give them freely to anyone who asks for them. This is a hard thing for a lot of us. May God grant us the grace and strength to hear and do what the Spirit is saying to us.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC