How the early Christians explained Mark 10:21
It seems much of the world is in for a slow recovery from the economic malaise of the past few years. What Christians aim to see "fixed" are not the fine points of banking laws, executive salaries, mortgage-backed securities regulations, or bankruptcy protections. Certainly, such changes have their place. Yet the Christian perspective must be far more holistic, pushing beyond corporate and governmental structures to the dispositions of individual people towards wealth and towards the financial, environmental, educational, legal, and social needs of the poor.
Should I buy a new, high-definition TV? Is universal healthcare a right? Should I expand my business? From what manufacturers should I buy my clothing? From the Christian perspective, every aspect of stewardship—time, talents, and money—should carry a concern to restore socio-economic injustice. Fortunately, Christians today not only benefit from the voices of current leaders but also may take advantage of the wisdom of those Christians who in earlier times wrestled with many of these same questions. Early Christianity provides us with a wealth of resources to retrain our minds to think Christianly about wealth, poverty, and the desire to resolve economic disparities.
Case in point: In Mark 10:21 (and the parallel text in Luke 18:22), Jesus told a rich young man that he needed to "sell all that he possessed" in order to be one of his followers. This was as jarring to the early Christian readers as it sounds to us today. Was Jesus suggesting that a person can be too rich for heaven? Early Christians were divided about the question before a consensus emerged around a critique of superfluous wealth.
Renunciation vs. detachment
The natural reading of Mark 10:21 is that Jesus called for a lifestyle of renunciation, that is to say, a disavowal both of wealth and of one's access to wealth. During the second century, some Christian writings taught as much. The Epistle of Barnabas, for example, exhorted its readers, "Treat as common all things with your neighbor, and do not say things are 'one's own,' for if you are sharers in incorruptible things, how much more ought you to be sharers in corruptible things!" The command not to call things "one's own" is also found in Didache 4.8, a late first-or second-century document, although it is less clear in Didache that the author held strictly to a renunciation view.
Even in the second century, however, the matter was the subject of some debate. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons accepted that property is morally neutral. Property itself is not to blame; rather, one's use of property should be scrutinized. In fact, the possession of property is not a right, since everything one currently has is the result of someone else's earlier labor. Thus, the property one acquires is always to be used for a morally good purpose. Irenaeus recalled how the Israelites took wealth from the Egyptians just prior to their exodus (cf. Ex 12:35), only later redeeming it when they used it to build their temple. "And we are proved to be righteous by whatsoever else we do well, redeeming, as it were, our property from strange hands." The implication of this argument for later Christians was that, just because you labored in a field for a planting and harvesting season, you do not have the right to declare that all that is harvested from the field is your own. All property is the result of someone else's earlier labor. Someone in an earlier time acquired the raw materials. People in earlier times designed the tools used in harvesting or tradecrafts. Land and any rain that falls upon it are a divine gift and not the product of human labor. Thus, property could never really be considered "private" because no one person could ever claim to have produced every part of it!
Irenaeus's arguments resonated in the third century. One of the bishops of Alexandria, Clement, articulated what we now call a detachment view of wealth and property in Who Is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved? Clement's text specifically addressed Jesus' teaching in Mark 10, and he applied a spiritual style of exegesis that had gained some currency in his day. A spiritual reading of the text was necessary, argued Clement, for Jesus would otherwise be requiring the renunciation of property in one text while requiring that we regularly share our resources with the poor in another text (cf. Matt 25).
"If 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)
Clement articulated a vision for wealth and property in which a person may freely possess what he or she needs or is useful to him or her, but must give all that is superfluous to the poor or otherwise needy. Clement therefore opened a more fruitful course of inquiry: how much is enough?
The rich and the merciless
Clement's critique of superfluous wealth became the standard interpretation of Mark 10:21 for later Christian preachers and theologians. Yet the renunciation view never fully disappeared. In the mid-fourth century, Epiphanius condemned adherents to a renunciation view in his Panarion. A fifth-century Pelagian text, "On Riches," insisted that only renunciation of property and wealth would ensure elimination of poverty for others. Even so, more and more of the ecclesiastical elite articulated the detachment view.
One of Clement's early successors in Alexandria, Peter, preached on the need for detachment from property in his sermon On Riches. Peter said two important things that were echoed in many later Christian texts. First, he argued that God makes a distinction between the rich person and the merciless rich person. The former liberally dispenses his superfluous wealth to the poor; the latter is consumed with thoughts of wealth and despises the needs of the poor. Only the merciful rich person has standing before God. Second, Peter argued that there is a direct connection between the giving of alms by a rich person and that person's fate after death. The distribution of alms to the poor is the starting point for those with greater financial means who wish to ensure that their wealth is not a hindrance to their relationship with God.
So Clement and then Peter set the stage for Christian teaching about Mark 10 that continued throughout late antiquity (and, arguably, continues in our own day). The mid-to late-fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus preached a homily encouraging love for the poor, particularly those with serious health problems. He observed in his homily that inordinate affection for property was responsible for the strife between persons and between nations.
"Men squirrel away 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, and then in their folly arch their brows and refuse to show compassion towards the unfortunate among their kinsmen." (Gregory, Oration 14.25)
Love for the poor begins, in part, with the recognition that wealth and property truly belong only to God. Similarly, in his homily The Unjust Steward, Asterius of Amasea, a near contemporary of Gregory's, balanced a concern for the temporariness of property with each person's responsibility towards God. Everyone will be obliged one day to give an account before God of his or her use of wealth and property.
A test of virtue
Bridging the fourth and fifth centuries was the preaching career of John Chrysostom. In several homilies Chrysostom framed the wealth question this way: Wealth exists to test human virtue, and whether or not we are virtuous depends on the extent to which we willingly give of our possessions to the poor. In his Homilies on Matthew, he argued giving to the poor is, in fact, giving to them what was already theirs in the first place. God has simply entrusted the rich with the responsibility to dispense it. This is echoed in his Homilies on 2 Corinthians, in which he defined superfluous property as all things that go beyond what is needed to live healthfully and respectably.
"I require you to cut off superfluities and to desire a sufficiency alone. Now the boundary of sufficiency is the using those things which it is impossible to live without. No one keeps you from these nor forbids you your daily food. I say food, not feasting; raiment, not ornament …. [T]hat is superfluous which is more than we need." (John Chrysostom, Hom. 2 Cor 19.3-4)
He exhorted his hearers not to spend their money on unnecessary things, which are not really theirs at all—they ultimately belong to God and to his designated heirs, the poor. Furthermore, he taught that a gradual reduction in one's concern for the body will lead to a gradual reduction of one's acquisition of superfluous property and, correspondingly, a gradual increase in one's willingness to give alms.
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.
Brian J. Matz is assistant professor of historical theology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. He has doctoral degrees in both early Christian studies and social ethics. Dr. Matz was a research staff member with the Centre for Catholic Social Thought at the Catholic University of Leuven from 2005-2009.
For Further Reading
Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983)
Louis William Countryman, The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire: Contradictions and Accomodations (New York: Edward Mellen Press, 1980)
Rainer Kampling, "'Have We Not Then Made a Heaven of Earth?' Rich and Poor in the Early Church," Concilium 22 (1986): 51-62.
John A. McGuckin, "The Vine and the Elm Tree: The Patristic Interpretation of Jesus' Teaching on Wealth," in The Church and Wealth: Papers Read at the 1986 Summer Meeting and the 1987 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, eds. W.J. Shiels and Diana Wood (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)