“But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.'” –Genesis 13:22-23
Most of us are pretty familiar with the story of the Rich, Young Ruler: A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. In response to the man, Jesus tells him he must obey the Law. The young man replies that he has done so. Jesus then tells the man to sell all his belongings. But when the young man hears this, he becomes very sad because is a man of great wealth. So instead of forsaking his possessions, he merely walks away.
This story is really powerful given the radical and uncomfortable implications of its message, yet Christians have become amazingly adept at taking the teeth out of it. In spite of the sweeping changes that it calls us to, we somehow manage to interpret it in such a way that requires little to no change of us. We let ourselves off the hook by saying, “Jesus doesn’t *actually* want us to sell our possessions. Rather, he is merely asking us to store up treasures in heaven, instead of on earth. This story is actually about the state of the man’s heart, not what he possessed, so as long as our contentment rests in God and not our worldly possessions, then we don’t need to give them away.” And so nothing in our lives change–we can keep on driving our SUV’s, living in our nice houses and wearing our nice clothes–just as long as we still love God a whole lot.
Well I gotta be honest, I think that interpretation stinks. However, I bought into it hook, line and sinker until I read the above passage from Genesis. This passage blew me away. It comes from a less familiar story of Abraham in which Abraham has to rescue Lot when he and the other citizens of Sodom are taken captive by a foreign king. When Abraham succeeds in this endeavor, the King of Sodom is grateful, and tells Abraham that he would like for Abraham to return his people, but that he is welcome to keep all the possessions for himself. In response, Abraham declines the offer, saying he will not keep one thing because he does not want the King of Sodom to ever be able to make the claim, “I made Abram rich.”
What is striking to me about this story is Abraham’s desire to avoid even the *appearance* that his success or wealth came from anyone but God. He says nothing here of his own heart; never implies that he is avoiding the personal temptation of hording material possessions. No, his main concern is the *perception* that others might subsequently have of him. He never wants people to think that his happiness or his success originates from anyone or anything but God.
With that in mind, I think that this passage shatters our traditional interpretations of the story of the Rich, Young Ruler. No longer can we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that what we have is of no consequence as long as our hearts are right with God. On the contrary, we must also consider the appearance that we give off, because we might be indicating to the world that our happiness and security lies in what we have, not in who we serve. Thus having worldly possessions is not merely about us, but also those around us, and forsaking our possessions is not merely for our sake, but for the sake of all who know us to be Christians. The very credibility of our witness is at stake.
That being said, even if you think your heart isn’t wrongly holding on to your car, or your clothes, or your weight, or your make-up, the very *appearance* that those things matter to you, and that they are the source of your happiness in life, is enough to abandon them all. This is particularly difficult for girls, because that often means we must give up trying to be the cutest looking one at church or in class, because in doing so, we indicate to other girls that that’s what matters, that that’s what it means to be a Christian. When we spend a great deal of time on our hair and our face and our nails and our clothes, then we tell a lie–we tell the world that those things supply greater contentment than God.
Now I’m not telling you to start dressing in burlap and live in a box, but consider this–If anything I have mentioned here causes you the slightest bit of discomfort, and you find yourself readily making excuses as to why you don’t need to give it up, then your first problem is NOT appearance–your first problem is your heart.
The rationalizations in which you are engaging indicate that your heart is, in fact, too wrapped up in that object. THAT is why you don’t want to give it up, not because you have an alternate interpretation of Scripture. Whether God calls us to or not, we should always be ready to let go of anything we have, so if you find yourself resisting this message, then that should tell you something.
So although the main point of this lesson has been about appearance, I have ironically found myself most convicted about the status of my heart. We will rationalize our possessions all the day long, saying it’s perfectly fine for us to have them as long as our hearts are not attached to them, yet it is this very desire to justify our possessions that reveals the true state of our hearts.
We rationalize what we have because our hearts ARE holding onto our possessions. We wouldn’t feel the need to defend them so rigorously if our hearts were not so tightly wrapped around them. And realizing this truth made me realize that when we play that game of rationalizing the life we live, we are not reading Scripture faithfully–we are only interpreting it in such a way as to uphold the way of life we already have.
But not anymore. Between the story of Abraham in Genesis, and Jesus in Luke 18, there is no longer any justification for clinging to those possessions and practices which might undermine your witness. It is a hard lesson because it requires radical change, but if we are to affect the world around us, then we simply cannot look like the world. Your appearance must reflect your heart, so we must not comfort ourselves any longer with the lie that our hearts may change but our lives don’t have to, because in the words of James, that kind of faith is dead.