I became a Christian in 1975 after debating some Baptist street evangelists. I wasn’t raised in church and had become an ardent atheist, but I knew some things about Christianity. I knew that Christians believed in the Trinity and gargoyles, and that they were against science. At least I was right about the Trinity.
After coming to Christ, in order to catch up with the kids in Sunday school, I read the Bible a lot. I learned that if you read 40 chapters per day, you could read through the entire Bible every month—or, what I did more often, through the New Testament every week. Consumed, I began seeing not just how each book of the Bible is distinctive, but also how each passage reinforces the major themes of the book in which it appears.
One New Testament theme that resonated with me early on was self-sacrifice. I saw this theme most clearly in the Gospel of Luke. As I grew familiar with the book, the meaning of Jesus’ words in chapter 12 became obvious to me. When Jesus called people to follow him, he demanded that they forsake everything, instructing his disciples to sell what they had and give the proceeds to those who need it more. By so doing, he said, they would provide themselves wallets that don’t get old, an unfailing “treasure in heaven” (v. 33).
As a new convert, I didn’t think giving up my possessions for Jesus seemed difficult—especially as I realized that the eternal reward far outweighed any present sacrifice. Or perhaps it seemed easy because I was young, idealistic, and didn’t own much. But I hadn’t been taught differently. While lacking a church background may have led me to take this passage more literally than Jesus intended, it helped me to see that living forever with God easily trumps everything else.
In Jesus’ day, most people owned few possessions. In rural areas, many people worked and lived as serfs on the land of the wealthy. In urban areas, many of them lived in rickety tenements located downwind from sewers. Only a small proportion of people were wealthy, and their property was serviced by slaves and paid workers. Estimates suggest that at any given time, more than half the Roman Empire was at risk of starvation. Luke’s world was not too much different from ours: Today half the global population lives on less than $2.50 a day and 400 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
While giving up possessions was not a foreign practice in Luke’s day, it certainly wasn’t the norm. Only some marginal philosophic sects and Jewish monks who lived in the wilderness near the Dead Sea actually demanded the sacrifice of possessions. Most people, like most people today, would have found Jesus’ words frighteningly difficult. They had either too much—or too little—to give away.
Yet Luke stresses that financial sacrifice is fundamental to Christian discipleship. Jesus urges not just the rich ruler but all of his disciples to sell their possessions and care for the poor—in return for treasure in heaven. Many of us today wonder whether Jesus’ words apply to all Christians or only to the disciples, those leaders of the early church. Peter wondered the same (v. 41). While Jesus may have meant it especially for leaders, the principle applies to any of us entrusted with resources that we can use to care for others (vv. 42–48).
A key reason Jesus calls us to care for those in need is that God does (1:53; 4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:22; 19:8; 21:3). Luke shows that God’s concern for the destitute carries profound implications for those who aren’t destitute. For instance, when people asked John the Baptist how they should repent, he invited anyone with two garments to give one to someone who had none (3:11). When an official asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life, Jesus invited him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow him (18:18–22). And in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, after people ask how to be saved, we are told that an integral part of their life together, subsequent to conversion, was sharing resources (2:44–45).
All of this struck a chord in my newly believing heart. Early on as a Christian, I decided not to accumulate many possessions so that I could care for others. Living simply seemed to come naturally to me.
Another aspect of Christ’s call, however, proved to be difficult.
Jesus not only summons his disciples to surrender their possessions, he also invites them to trust in his provision. He even tells us not to worry about basic needs such as food and clothing (Luke 12:22–29). It’s not that we stop needing such basic things. It’s that we shouldn’t worry about them. As a recent convert from atheism, I felt more prepared to give up my possessions than my self-dependence. I accepted the truth that God worked in spiritual ways, but I struggled to trust that he would act in my physical world.
Luke emphasizes that we can trust our powerful and caring Father to provide for us, especially when we aim to do his work. When Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them not to take any provisions with them and to instead depend on God through local hospitality (9:3–4; 10:4–8). I understood intellectually that God’s promise of provision is related to the mission on which he sends us. But learning to trust him in this area has been slow going for me.
For example, soon after I committed to support a child in India for $15 a month, circumstances changed and I had no income. I prayed that God would supply the money since the child was dependent on me. When I was literally down to my last dollar, God provided the money I needed—and the money the child needed—even though my faith was weak.
And when I was accepted into a PhD program, I didn’t have the resources to pay tuition. I figured I wouldn’t be able to enter the program, so I planned to decline enrolling. The day before I would have done so, however, God unexpectedly provided the money I needed—through someone I didn’t know even had that much. Time and again, I’ve experienced God’s provision for my calling. He’s been faithful to provide, even when I feared he wouldn’t.
God cares about us more than he cares about birds and flowers, yet he provides for them, Jesus says. How much more, then, will he provide for us (12:24–31). “Don’t focus your attention on, or worry about, what to eat or drink,” he notes. “No, these are the things that all the pagans are focusing on, but your Father already understands that you need them! Instead, focus on the matters of your Father’s kingdom, and he’ll provide you with these things you need.”
At minimum, this includes our basic needs such as food and clothing. And someday our Father will share with us everything—the fullness of his kingdom (v. 32). Meanwhile, Jesus wants us not simply to give up possessions but also to give up our dependence on them.
The self-sacrifice that Jesus calls us to, therefore, involves far more than money. Following Jesus and participating in his mission takes priority over everything else in our lives, including residential security and social and family obligations (9:57–62).
A few chapters later, Jesus warns those who want to follow him that they must “hate” their family, “even their own life” (14:26). Many of us trip up on the word hate. Like other ancient Jewish teachers, Jesus often used hyperbole, a rhetorical overstatement meant to drive home a point. Such statements were not intended to be taken literally, as if we could, for example, actually relocate mountains or squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle (Matt. 17:20; Luke 18:25). Rather, Jesus wants to grip our attention to force us to reconsider our priorities and actions.
Matthew’s version puts Jesus’ statement in more literal terms: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37). The point is that Jesus doesn’t want anything to get in the way of our following him—not even family or survival. He says we cannot be his disciples if we do not give up everything (Luke 14:33). He is an all-or-nothing Lord.
This doesn’t mean that everyone must give up all possessions; it does mean everyone needs right priorities. When Charles Finney preached on Luke 14:33 in a wealthy New England church, he emphasized Jesus’ call to surrender possessions. The pastor thought he needed to correct Finney’s interpretation. So he assured his congregants that Jesus merely wanted them to be willing to give up their possessions. Finney countered that while we don’t lose all our possessions when we come to Christ, we do lose our ownership of them. If Jesus is truly Lord of our lives, then everything we have and everything we are belongs to him.
I sometimes carried the principle of forsaking everything further than Jesus intended. Shortly after my conversion, I was supposed to be translating Caesar for my second-year Latin class. I wanted to read Scripture rather than do my homework, so I opened my Bible and put my finger down on the page, expecting it to fall on another “forsake all” passage. But not all passages, even in Luke, address this theme. Instead my finger landed on Luke 20:25: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” I now know as a Bible scholar that that’s normally not a smart way to apply Scripture to life. But the finger trick did get me to do my homework.
When people turned to Jesus, they learned to value people more than possessions. Rather than immediately selling everything and becoming monks—like Saint Anthony—the earliest Christians sold what they had to help those in need, as their needs arose (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35).
That sort of sacrificial love inspired me profoundly. I learned that everything I had was a gift from God, and I tried to use my resources for God’s purposes. After learning that in some countries 20 cents could provide a day’s worth of food for a child, and that a Bible commentary could cost a pastor a month’s salary, I used my money as carefully as possible. I found ways to live simply so I could contribute to people’s desperate needs.
Having a family obviously changed my practices. I want to provide for my family’s needs and bless them as much as possible. At the same time, my wife and I try to help our children understand why they don’t need everything valued by their peers. William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, similarly had to explain their sacrifices to their children, who grew up understanding why their parents lived the way they did. I pray that mine do too.
So what does it mean today to value people more than possessions? We’re not like the rich man who let Lazarus starve at his doorstep (Luke 16:19–31). Our society is too sophisticated to let anyone that hungry near our doorstep. Yet we know that thousands of people die every day from starvation, malnutrition, and inexpensively preventable diseases. It seems backward, therefore, to acquire what we don’t need when we could help others meet genuine needs. There is inexplicable joy in living wholly for Jesus. Why settle for temporary pleasures when we can do what counts for eternity?
I’m still discovering areas of my heart that can be more devoted to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’ve experienced firsthand the joy of sacrificing for others, not to mention God’s never-ending faithfulness through it all. That is worth infinitely more than anything I could give up.
Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press).
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