"What then was it which persuaded him to flight, and made him depart from the Master, from the entreaty, the hope, the life, previously pursued with ardour?—'Sell thy possessions.' And what is this?" (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man, Chapter 11)In the story of the rich young ruler, the answer to this question directly concerns us. We know what Jesus said and we know that the young man was very rich, but why did the command of Jesus so grieve him and cause him to retreat from the offer of life? If we can understand this then hopefully we can understand ourselves as well. Clement goes on to contend that the young man's issue was not just the giving away all his worldly possessions, there was something deeper at work in his heart.
"He does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life." (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man, Chapter 11)The issue for this young man was not the riches that he possessed but rather the riches that possessed him. It was his relationship to his riches that were a snare to his heart and his relationship with God. His riches consumed his heart and his affections leaving little room for anything else including, and especially, God.
Jesus, in his counsel and command to this young man, was aiming at something beyond the physical; it went beyond just riches and money; and it involved more than just getting rid of all his wealth.
"For it is no great thing or desirable to be destitute of wealth, if without a special object,—not except on account of life. For thus those who have nothing at all, but are destitute, and beggars for their daily bread, the poor dispersed on the streets, who know not God and God’s righteousness, simply on account of their extreme want and destitution of subsistence, and lack even of the smallest things, were most blessed and most dear to God, and sole possessors of everlasting life." (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich Man, Chapter 11)Being poor does not bring us any closer to God than being rich, otherwise, those all over the world who are truly destitute of any wealth, even if they do no know and love God, would be those closest to God. God indeed loves the poor, but just giving away our worldly riches does not guarantee that we will end up any closer to God.
"Nor was the renunciation of wealth and the bestowment of it on the poor or needy a new thing; for many did so before the Saviour’s advent,—some because of the leisure (thereby obtained) for learning, and on account of a dead wisdom; and others for empty fame and vainglory, as the Anaxagorases, the Democriti, and the Crateses." (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich, Chapter 11)Also, giving our wealth to the poor does not necessarily gain us position and standing with God. Many have done this in the past, even those who were enemies with God, and yet were not brought any closer to God. In the past many have tried both voluntary poverty and the giving of their wealth to the poor without obtaining their desired hope of life and life eternal. So what was different about Jesus' command?
"Why then command as new, as divine, as alone life-giving, what did not save those of former days? And what peculiar thing is it that the new creature the Son of God intimates and teaches? It is not the outward act which others have done, but something else indicated by it, greater, more godlike, more perfect, the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself and from the disposition, and the cutting up by the roots and casting out of what is alien to the mind. For this is the lesson peculiar to the believer, and the instruction worthy of the Saviour." (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich, Chapter 12)The command of Jesus for this young ruler went deeper than his money, it extended down even to his heart; it dealt with his emotions and affections that attached him to his wealth and his wealth to him. This command was something he could not do himself, something that would require the agency and support of the Holy Spirit.
Poverty its self is not the answer. Others have tried the path of poverty and yet have not found life. In fact, some seeking life through poverty have actually found their inner turmoil and pain to increase. Instead of finding life they found pride, vainglory, covetousness, envy, and other passions of the heart.
"For those who formerly despised external things relinquished and squandered their property, but the passions of the soul, I believe, they intensified. For they indulged in arrogance, pretension, and vainglory, and in contempt of the rest of mankind, as if they had done something superhuman. How then would the Saviour have enjoined on those destined to live for ever what was injurious and hurtful with reference to the life whichHe promised? ... For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source." (Clement of Alexandria, Salvation of the Rich, Chapter 12)So becoming poor is not the answer, but what is?