Views of wealth in the early church

Brian Matz of Carroll College in Montana explores some early church leaders’ perspectives on Mark 10:21: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ ” (ESV).  Like many of Jesus’ sayings, this one raises a lot of questions: Is this statement just for this man?  Is Jesus using hyperbole?  Does this include those who are rich by global standards (most Americans)?

While some in the early church believed that wealth was evil, others came to a more nuanced view that Jesus was requiring the rich to give away their superfluous wealth.  For example, Clement of Alexandria asked:

[I]f no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving? And how can this dogma fail to be found plainly opposed to and conflicting with many other excellent teachings of the Lord? … How could one give food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and shelter the houseless, for not doing which He threatens with fire and the outer darkness, if each man first divested himself of all these things? (Clement, Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved 13)

Here is Matz’s conclusion:

Can you be too rich for heaven? According to the early Christians, the answer is most certainly yes. When they read Mark 10:21, they understood Jesus to be saying that superfluous wealth is a clear hindrance to a relationship with God. They appreciated the temporariness of wealth and property, which corresponds to the temporariness of human life on earth. They also recognized that God will require of the rich an account of how they managed that wealth for the benefit of the needy. Finally, the early Christians acknowledged that God intended all of creation to be for the benefit of all. They believed God intended for the rich and poor to share with one another—even if that was conceived in so simple terms as the rich sharing their superfluous wealth and the poor sharing their life of prayer and nearness to God.

How does this all apply today in a consumer society that makes so much available?  As I sit in my apartment, I don’t see the fineries that Gregory of Nazianzus denounced: “gold and silver and quantities of soft and superfluous clothes and glittering jewels and similar items that bear the stamp of war and dissension and of the first act of rebellion.”  But I might have more clothes than the rich people of his day because our economic system, thankfully, has made clothing affordable for all.  And I certainly don’t need the books and the TV and the laptop, but today they’re not exactly luxury items either.

So I guess that I’m no closer to knowing how to understand Mark 10:21 for my own life, but reading my ancient brothers’ reflections on it was a good reminder to prioritize generosity.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue in the comments.


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