by John-Peter Gernaat
Luke 18: 18-34 is the story of the ‘rich young man’, a ruler in his community, who askes Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Jesus responds that he should uphold the Commandments, which, to summarise, are to have concern for other and be honourable and truthful. When the man says he strives to maintain these, Jesus says there is one thing he lacks. This is usually translated as “sell everything you have and give to the poor … and come follow me”. This passage tells us something of the cost of discipleship. Nothing in life comes without a cost. But is it the intention that extreme poverty is the only true cost of discipleship?
Francis of Assisi thought so and gave away everything he owned, including the fabrics he was selling on behalf of his father, even the clothes off his back. He created a community of Mendicants, beggars, who wandered about and begged for their food and accommodation. He so inspired the people of his time that the Franciscan order grew rapidly and he was canonised two years after his death. There are religious groups who own nothing personally. Everything is owned in community and shared for use. Even the clothes they wear are taken from a communal wardrobe.
Why does Jesus begin by asking about the Commandments, the Law of Moses? Through living the Law, not rigidly observing the letter of law, but by making it a part of life, the person gains freedom. For most observant people the Law is a burden that regiments their life. It is also why Jesus says, “I have come to fulfil the Law”. Then Jesus says: “’Yet, there is one thing you lack. Exchange the attitude of holding on tightly to what you have for an open-handedness for those who do not have, and you will have treasure in the Heavens. And come follow me.’ And having heard these words the young man became intensely sad for he put great and total effort into holding tightly in his possession the abundance of his provisions.”
The word in Greek that means ‘sell’ originally meant to exchange in the sense of exchanging one set of goods for another (barter). When the exchange became one for money, the word was retained and changed meaning to ‘sell’. The exchange was one that implied an exchange out of one’s hand. In order to make such an exchange the hand must be open. Someone who is tight-fisted cannot make an exchange of possessions. It is therefore possible to translate the words of Jesus and “change one attitude for another” and what needs to change is an attitude of soul towards things and in the overall context also to the Christ. To be a disciple requires a change of attitude of our soul in how we relate to the things in our possession. The change referred to here is different to the change asked of us by John the Baptist. John the Baptist asks that we change one thing into something new. Jesus asks that we change one thing for another.
What is the word that is translated as ‘divide up what you have’ with the poor? The Greek word could be translated as ‘offer’ – offer what you have. The original meaning was ‘hand it over’. Again: exchange the tight-fistedness of holding on to an open-handedness of handing over. “Hand on, don’t hold on.” This concerns what the person considers important, rather than purely material possessions. Is the attitude to what is important selfish or is it selfless? The Greek word is ‘diadidōmi’. We retain ‘dia’ in English in the word diameter. It means to cross over to the other side. Diameter is therefore to cross over from one point on the circumference of a circle to a point on the other side, but, importantly, a circle cannot exist without a relationship to the centre and to cross over requires passing through the centre. ‘Dia’ meant, for the Ancient Greeks, to successfully cross through to the other side; successfully cross through the central point. The question to ask then is, “what is the central point of my existence if I am to successfully cross over to the other side in terms of an attitude I hold?” It is for this reason that the word is translated as ‘hand it over’. Handing over also brings it into motion. ‘Didōmi’ originally meant ‘to deliver by reaching out’. The real meaning of this word that is so readily translated as ‘give’ or ‘divide’ really means to ‘reach out and cross from where you are to where the other is through the central meaning of your life, which as a disciple would be through Christ’.
How can one live this attitude? Are the possessions I own purely for the enjoyment of my own life, or do I make the benefit of owning them available to other people especially through reaching out to connect with others through the central meaning of my life which is Christ? I own a car in order to travel to visit vulnerable members of our community to deliver a copy of the newsletter that contains articles such as this one and thereby connect with them on what is central to us both.
If the intention of Jesus was to give everything away we would no longer have that which we possess in order to make relationships meaningful. We cannot take our possessions with us across the threshold when we die, but we take with us what these possessions enabled us to do, especially in relation to other people. The attitude regarding our possessions should therefore not be to hold on, but rather to let go (not to lose or abandon them). The Apostles say that they have let go of parents and family; they have not lost them, but rather developed a freer relationship to them; they are not so attached to their family that they cannot move in their following of Christ. This is a letting go of the attachment, not a letting go of the relationship. We are not asked to abandon our possessions and family but rather to free ourselves from the attachment, an inappropriate attachment. This attachment applies equally to perspectives, attitudes and relationships as it does to things. These could bind or enslave one.
This passage in Luke forms part of a greater section that is about the “Conditions of Discipleship”. In the Madsen translation Luke 14:25 and next verses bear this title and says: “Great crowds of people were wandering with him. And he turned to them and said, ‘If someone comes to me but cannot free himself from his father and his mother, from his wife and his children, from brothers and sisters, yes, even from his own soul, he cannot be my disciple.” Our essential “I” must be free. It must work with our soul but not be so attached that it overly identifies so that our life is directed by the soul and not by the “I”. When we allow ourselves to be distracted by the comforts of life our soul is taking over and we do not experience, or allow, the freedom of the “I”. This is the struggle of life on earth: to exercise being ourselves. Our struggle is to change the attitude of hanging on to everything that we gather around us in life to an attitude of letting go, of being in an exchange.
Shortly after the statement in Luke 14: 25-26, Jesus gives examples of the difference between losing and letting go. It is important not to lose in the process of letting go. Jesus gives the parables of the ‘lost sheep’, the ‘lost coin’ and the ‘prodigal son’, the son who is lost. In the story of the prodigal son the son asks his father to let him go and the father does so, but the father does not stop waiting for the free return of his son. In the free returning the son is willing to form a new relationship to his father, a relationship of not being dependent. The father replies: “you are willing to reach across and through to me and I to you and now we are in an exchange”. The relationship is now one of flow and no longer one of being fixed. This is one of the requirements of discipleship.
Then Jesus tells the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. This lays out the fundamental attitude laid out before the rich young man comes with his question. The pharisee prays loudly; he desires everyone to notice his position in society. The tax collector behaves like a beggar and humbles himself. What is the position of a beggar or of being poor? The original word in Greek meant “bent over”. It was understood that these people were bent over because they were begging or deeply destitute. But it also came to mean an attitude of bending over, showing humility or devotion in recognition of spiritual poverty. The attitude of begging is also one of open-handedness to receive. The cost of discipleship is what is missing between the pharisee and the tax collector; there is no relationship between the pharisee in his arrogance and the tax collected in his state of begging. Jesus ends the parable saying the tax collector returned home being justified more than the pharisee. It is the justice in our relationships to God and one another that is important. The justice comes about when my attitude to my possessions and status in life is one of open-handedness to those who lack in what I have. Then we arrive at the story of the rich young man where this change of attitude is explained more fully and with it the cost of discipleship, of following Christ. What is important is Jesus saying that the change in attitude to an open-handedness precedes following Christ.
Rudolf Steiner speaks about the new path of initiation as being initiated in our relationships with other people. This means that our path of initiation is never over, it is ongoing, every day in our relationships with everyone we encounter. It is also not a lonely task but one in community.
This story of the rich young man is structurally located in Luke’s Gospel in the sixth step of the eight-fold path (see this more fully explained in the article: The Old and New Paths of Chakra Development). This is the step of right effort which Rudolf Steiner describes as concerning human endeavour. “The aspirant puts his capacities and proficiencies to the test avoiding anything that is beyond his powers but omitting nothing within his scope. He sets before him aims connected with the ideals and great duties of a human being. He does not thoughtlessly regard himself as a wheel in the great machinery of mankind, but tries to comprehend his tasks and look beyond everyday affairs. He endeavours to fulfil his obligations more and more thoroughly.” This relates to ‘dia’: reaching across and though and being more thorough in the connections we make, then we are following Christ.
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