How much stuff should we give to the poor?

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a rich man who has done a good job following the commandments that there’s something else he needs to do “to inherit eternal life”:

“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:22-24)

Now 99% of the Christians I know, especially the wealthy ones, don’t seem to be selling all their possessions and giving them to the poor. Sometimes non-Christians will use this passage as proof that Christians don’t really believe in following all the teachings of Jesus, but only the ones they find convenient. And then there’s that <1% that actually does give everything to the poor and thinks any Christian that doesn’t do the same thing is a bad Christian.

Well, we could look up the original Greek words or browse centuries of commentaries to try to justify our interpretations of this passage, but I think we need to look no farther than the next chapter, where Jesus interacts with another rich man:

Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

I’ve read this passage many times, but for the first time I noticed the contrast with Luke 18. Jesus just got done telling the unnamed rich man to give “everything” to the poor. Here, Zaccheus voluntarily offers “half.” If giving everything to the poor was a universal principle, wouldn’t we expect Jesus to demand more?

Instead, Jesus is excited: “Today salvation has come to this house…” What makes this even more remarkable is Jesus just got done talking about how hard it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Yet he concluded that it was possible with God, and it’s almost like Zaccheus’s salvation in the next chapter is the proof.

So there are two things I take from the contrast of these two passages.

1. God doesn’t want us to be generous in the same way. Jesus wanted one wealthy man to give everything to the poor, but he seemed satisfied with another man offering half. Maybe it has something to do with the different attitudes of the two men; maybe God just wants different sacrifices from each of us. Paul says “God loves a cheerful giver,” (2 Corinthians 9:7), and he tells the rich to “be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

But maybe there’s no clearly defined rule for our generosity. Maybe we have to seek the Lord and ask him what he wants us to give. God has blessed each of us in many different ways and wants each of us to give in many different ways, including from our possessions, our money, and our time. If someone else isn’t giving the same way or at the same level that you’re giving, maybe that’s OK. Maybe God hasn’t called them to the same kind of sacrifice that he has called you.

2. God definitely wants us to be generous. While Zaccheus and the unnamed rich man showed different levels of generosity, 50% and 100% are both pretty high levels of generosity compared to what we often like to think about (such as, say, 10% tithing, unless you interpret that as an Old Testament rule to justify giving even less). If you’re not sure what God is telling you to give, you could probably err on the side of being more generous than you are right now. And while you shouldn’t force your idea of generosity on other Christians, I think you could still encourage them to be more generous, just as Paul did in his letters. I guess that’s what I’m doing right now.

So ask God what he wants from you. Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all rule, but do expect to be very generous.