It’s perhaps the greatest challenge for a Christian in the 21st century – just how are we different from the Christians in the first century? We all can talk a good game about being like the first century church, and greeting statements from shepherds at churches across the country attest to that. But the nagging question about where our weakest point is remains. In what ways are we different from the church that was guided by the apostles? If Jesus were to come and establish his church in the 21st century instead of the first century, would He expect out of them what He sees in us?
I’ve been asking this question a lot lately. Not because I have some itch to go back and ride a horse or pay taxes to Caesar, but because I want my life as a Christian to be about doing the will of God as closely as I possibly can. One of the best ways to do that is to see what the people who had direct access to Jesus, or at least to the apostles, did and how their daily lives changed. So in my own recent studies, I’ve started looking for the biggest difference. I’ve found it. And it’s not what you might think.
It isn’t that Christians in America today don’t evangelize as much as they used to. It’s not that they take sexual sin less seriously. It’s not even that they live essentially without fear of physical persecution. Instead, it’s that they live without a very, very important tenet of the Christian faith: generosity.
Oh, what’s that you say? You know Christians that are generous? Members of your church contribute a lot? You have a great program for feeding the poor in the area? Well, let’s examine those things, shall we?
It is the tendency of human beings, generally, to water down obligations, moral and otherwise, until they are so weak that we would have to be the devil incarnate in order to be in the wrong. In this spirit, loving our wives no longer means living sacrificially, but just liking them and saying the phrase sometimes. Faith no longer has to mean trusting God with everything, but just agreeing that he exists. In like manner, generosity no longer means getting out in the community and extending our hand and our wallets, even willing to risk being taken advantage of. It just means throwing some money at the problem.
Think about this. For all of those scenarios you’re thinking about as you’re formulating your angry comment, ask this question: how many of those scenarios include personally helping the poor? In contrast, how many of them include donating money for someone else to do the helping? Are you donating to a food pantry, or are you finding people who need that food? Are you putting money in the Sunday collection plate and calling that good enough, or are you finding people that need help yourself?
In many ways, Christian culture has been influenced too much by aspects of our modern society, particularly capitalism. Now before you burn me at the stake for being a Communist, I’m not criticizing capitalism as an economic structure. I don’t believe that all things belong to the government. I do, however, believe that all things belong to God. Somewhere along the line, amid the emphasis on the right to property, we forgot that. We said it was all ours, that we earned it, and therefore we have a right to decide what to do with it. So when someone comes along who could use our help, we treat it as a threat, not an opportunity. We berate them with questions, leaning on the edge of our seat, hoping for an inconsistency that will serve as our escape hatch and allow us to get out with our checkbooks intact.
In contrast, I’m always amazed when I see the attitude that the early Christians had. At the end of Acts 2, when we see the actions of the very first local body of believers, one of the first things it mentions is that Christians were selling their stuff and giving to anyone who was in need. Just a little further, in Acts 6, we find that feeding the poor was such a big job that it took not one, but a group of seven men, in whom was the Holy Spirit, to oversee that task. It was such a big deal that the apostles themselves were asked to see to it, before they decided it was more prudent to delegate that task to a group of responsible and godly men.
Some of these instances probably were referring to those within the church, not necessarily the poor community as a whole. But if you’re using that as an excuse to not extend a helping hand to anyone, then you’ve really missed the point. They were still living sacrificially. They were still selling stuff left and right so they could give to the poor, not unlike what Jesus told the rich young ruler.
But then comes one of my biggest pet peeves in gospel studies. It never fails that whenever the story of the rich young ruler is taught, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s teaching it, that the first thing that’s brought up isn’t what Jesus told him to do and why. Instead, it’s something along the lines of “But Jesus isn’t telling all of us to do that.” It’s almost as if to say “Wait wait, don’t run off! You can keep your three cars and designer clothes, I promise, just please don’t run away!”
I’m not saying that everyone reading this post needs to go sell everything they have. But I am saying that we spend more time talking about why we don’t have to be that sacrificial instead of talking about in what scenarios we should be. In fact, these studies usually conclude with everyone agreeing that as long as you don’t like your money too much, it shouldn’t be a problem. And after all, none of us like our money too much in 21st century America, right?
So here’s my challenge. What would happen if we started taking this aspect of Christianity more seriously? What if we cared about being generous with our money as much as we cared about the integrity of the church’s doctrine? What if we cared about the poor as much as we cared about our friends that sit in the same pew every Sunday? These aren’t radical notions; they’re Biblical ones. And if we realized that and challenged ourselves to be more like Christ in this way, then maybe God could use us to do some pretty incredible things. But first we have to get out of His way. And to do that, we have to be willing to relinquish some of our stuff. We have to recognize that we might have some issues with selfishness.
We have to realize that maybe, just maybe, we really are the rich young ruler.