Sell Your Possessions: Luke 12:33 And The Greco-Roman Utopian Ideal -- By: Murray Vasser

Journal: Southeastern Theological Review
Volume: STR 08:1 (Spring 2017)
Article: Sell Your Possessions: Luke 12:33 And The Greco-Roman Utopian Ideal
Author: Murray Vasser


Sell Your Possessions:
Luke 12:33 And The Greco-Roman Utopian Ideal

Murray Vasser

Asbury Theological Seminary

How can the command, “Sell your possessions and give alms” (Luke 12:33), be reconciled with the fact that many Christians in Luke-Acts maintain significant possessions? In the first section of this essay, I review the various answers to this question which scholars have proposed and argue that none of these answers is entirely satisfactory. In the second section, I draw upon the insights of redaction criticism to demonstrate that Luke has intentionally set Jesus’ command in contrast with the parable of the rich fool, who hoards his superfluous possessions. In the third section, I draw upon the work of Abraham J. Malherbe, who demonstrated that Luke 12 develops a common Greco- Roman topos on the vice of greed. I argue that the extant literature bears witness to a prominent antithesis in first century thought between the vice of greed, expressed through hoarding, and the ideal of equality, expressed through sharing. In the fourth section, I demonstrate that Luke was influenced by this ideal of equality. I conclude that the command to sell possessions in Luke 12:33 should not be understood as a command to relinquish all possessions and embrace poverty, but rather as a command to relinquish all superfluous possessions and embrace equality.

Key Words: Acts, almsgiving, charity, equality, greed, Luke, money, poor, possessions, utopia.

In a chapter entitled, “In Search of a Christian,” popular author and activist Shane Claiborne considers “what it would look like if we really decided to follow Jesus.” He then describes his own personal quest to find someone who believed “Jesus meant the stuff he said.” Claiborne’s search eventually led him to India, where he encountered a man named Andy.

[Andy] used to be a wealthy businessman in Germany, and then he said he read the gospel and it “messed everything up.” He read the part where Jesus commands the disciples to sell everything they have and give it to the poor (Luke 12:33), and he actually did it. I had met some fundamentalists before, but only “selective fundamentalists,” not folks who took things like that literally. He sold everything he owned and moved to Calcutta, where for over ten years he had spent his life with the poorest of the poor.

Claiborne concludes, “I had gone in search of Christianity. And I had found it. I had finally met a Christian.”1

This provocative passage raises an important question. Does being a Christian really require one to “sell everything...

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