Who Must Renounce All Possessions to Follow Jesus?

“Detachment from riches is necessary for entering the Kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’” (CCC 2556)

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” 1889
Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” 1889 (photo: Public Domain)

A hyper-skeptical, self-described “biblical scholar” who sees “contradictions” at every turn in the Bible, and denies its inspiration, inquired in one of his articles as to what it meant to “follow Jesus.” He doubted that Christian apologists (my own tribe!) even knew what it meant.

I believe that I do, after 39 years of intense study of the Bible and defending it and Christianity (the last 30 years as a Catholic). I know that I have always sought to be an honest, committed, non-hypocritical, and knowledgeable follower of Jesus, though we all fall short, of course, in many ways, because it’s such a sublime and lofty ideal.

It was noted by this one skeptic that in every Gospel instance of Jesus saying “Follow me!”  (see, e.g., Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; Mark 1:16; 2:14; Luke 5:11; 5:27; 9:59-62; John 1:43), that the people involved were expected to leave jobs, material good, and even families, including wives and children.

He also strongly implied that few apologists and “fundamentalists” have any idea of what Jesus taught about being his disciple, and that the vast bulk of them were ignorant or hypocrites or both: dishonestly promoting irresponsible and unbiblical agendas. These are very strong accusations, and richly deserve to be responded to.

To start with, it’s very important to consider to whom Jesus’ words apply in this instance. I deny that it is required of every Christian to leave their families, or to be single and celibate. That is the higher calling of what Catholics call the “evangelical counsels.” Some are called to that; most of us are not. St. Paul makes these distinctions very clear in 1 Corinthians 7.

I contend that what is being referred to in the passages above is the “above and beyond” discipleship of those who are apostles: a select group of individuals that were present and required only during the period of the very early Church. Not all disciples are apostles. In fact, 99.99% are not. The Bible repeatedly refers to the initial group of the disciples of Jesus, as “the twelve.”

Even this very select and unique group was not necessarily required to completely forsake their families. Hence, we see St. Peter still caring for his mother-in-law (for whom he sought healing: Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). St. Paul is still contending about “apostles”: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5: RSV, as throughout). If it’s not an absolute break even for them, it’s certainly no universal requirement of every Christian follower.

The initial disciples (of the twelve) who were fishermen indeed “left their nets” (Matthew 4:20; Mark 1:18) and concentrated on a radical faith-led Christian ministry. But St. Peter and several other disciples were fishing again after the death of Jesus. Indeed, in one of his post-Resurrection appearances, this is how Jesus found them (John 21:1-11). Jesus not only did not chastise them for returning to their previous work (as if this violated being His “follower”); he asked them, “Children, have you any fish?” (John 21:5).

Moreover, St. Paul was still making tents for a living after becoming an apostle (“they worked, for by trade they were tentmakers”: Acts 18:3), even though he argued that he had the right to be supported by other Christians in his work of evangelism (1 Corinthians 9:1-15). He himself renounced these rights (9:12, 15, 18), but it doesn’t follow that all Christians must do so.

When Jesus encountered the Roman centurion who asked that he heal his servant, he said about him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). But He didn’t require him to forsake his military assignment in order to (implied) be his follower, who had great faith. He said nothing about that (cf. John the Baptist’s similar reply in Luke 3:14).

Following Jesus as his devoted disciple is indeed a total commitment, not to be entered into lightly or without much thought, but not necessarily a complete forsaking of all existing familial and employment situations, as just shown.

This person argued that passages about “storing up treasures” (Matthew 6:19; Luke 12:21, 33) preclude saving up any money at all. But it’s a general principle: don’t live for money; don’t idolatrously place your allegiance to it higher than your allegiance to me.” Jesus is not against all money or the saving of it, or else he couldn’t have taught the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30); which was specifically about not only having money but making interest and profit in investing it (cf. Luke 10:4 with 22:35-36).

Then he referred to the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-24; Mark 10:17-25; Luke 18:18-30; “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”: Matthew 19:21). There is no indication whatsoever that what Jesus required of him is required of every Christian believer (to literally sell all they have or own). This man had made money his idol, and so he was required to give it up.  St.  Paul, in making tents, wasn’t living solely on faith, like the birds of the air. He was providing for himself. That’s fine. We can have money and jobs and even be wealthy, as long as we don’t place them above God.

Joseph of Arimathea is casually referred to as a “rich man” without the slightest hint of condemnation (Matthew 27:57) and is even called in the same passage “a disciple of Jesus.” Therefore, a rich person can be a disciple. There is no contradiction. Period. End of story. Jesus was buried in his tomb, that he wouldn’t have owned if he wasn’t rich. 

The Bible condemns the “delight in riches” (Mark 4:19), not all riches per se. St. Paul (1 Timothy 6:17-18) didn’t condemn riches, but only wrong use or view of riches or “mammon.”