Critical Stewardship Mass (CSM) and the Affluent: A practical answer in the twenty-first century to the rich young man’s question in Matthew 19:20?

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Critical Stewardship Mass (CSM) and the Affluent: A practical answer in the twenty-first century to the rich young man’s question in Matthew 19:20?

As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.

Victor Hugo

Last year I may have run across something remarkable: a credible and defensible answer to the question posed to Jesus by the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel: “what am I still lacking?”

You remember the account. The affluent young man had many possessions. Scholars tell us he was probably owned a lot of land and was part of a family of real Palestinian influence. He asks Jesus what he has to do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the second table of the Law – the loving your neighbor as yourself kind of stuff. He tells Jesus that he’s done all that since his youth and asks the good teacher where he’s still falling short (i.e., what he still lacks). Translated literally in the Greek, the young man is “hysterical” (lacking) in relation to being certain that he will inherit eternal life. This same word is also translated as “lack” is also translated “poverty” in the Gospel of Mark (12:44).

Jesus responds with the well-known, paradoxical answer: if you want to be perfect (i.e., lacking nothing in relation to God, neighbor or possessions), then take steps to liquidate everything you have, dispossess yourself and donate everything to the poor, believe this will result in heavenly treasure (i.e., eternal life) and then come follow me. See Mt 19:16-21.

The young man went away, dejected and perplexed, perhaps even depressed, and Jesus proceeds to tell us how hard (i.e., impossible) it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God (or perhaps submit to God’s reign and rule in their lives, with profound future consequences). See Mt 19:22-30.

This tradition in its variant forms has a long, storied and fascinating history of theological and ethical interpretation. As it did the disciples in the first century (see Mk 19:25), it baffles disciples in the twenty-first and produces a host of opinions, positions and practices far beyond my focus here.

What I wish to look at in light of what I saw last year is the concept of critical stewardship mass (CSM). Put simply, this is the idea that at some point in life some individuals, like the affluent young man in Matthew’s Gospel, reach a point where they really don’t need to accumulate more possessions or assets or cash to meet their personal lifestyle needs and the needs of their spouses and dependents. In other words, they have reached CSM.

Once they reach that point, it seems to me that it becomes the moral obligation of such (at least Christian) persons to find happiness in dispossession and donation as an expression of God-and-neighbor motivated stewardship. By “stewardship” I mean the responsibility that God’s children have to manage all that they are and have (breath, life, time, money, property, gifts, abilities, etc.) for God’s purposes and interests in the world – that is, making his name great through the proclamation of the gospel of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, helping the poor, marginalized and oppressed through liquidation-dispossession-donation, and expanding God’s kingdom (reign of loving forgiveness and forgiving, gracious love) on earth as it is in heaven.

After spending five years wrestling with the rich young man’s question in postgraduate studies,[1] last year I began to see a practical way forward for the affluent once they reach CSM. God creates and donates life and wealth. The affluent are called to be good stewards of these gifts. Once CSM is reached, the problem of what is lacking has been solved not only for the affluent but also for those poor the affluent can touch with their liquidated/dispossessed and then donated abundance.

CSM is, in my view, a biblical and theological concept with profound ethical implications for both the affluent and the poor in the twenty-first century. I think we get off track if we turn the story of the rich young man into an argument over the ethics of wealth or whether the rich can be saved.

If we get off track, I think we miss a crucial point Jesus is making in calling that rich young man to follow him: “You’ve reached CSM, brother. Empty your coffers, dispossess yourself, donate to the poor, believe you will have treasure in heaven by doing so, and come follow me in the way of the cross. As you do so, your heart’s desire for eternal life will be fulfilled and your lack (poverty) will become true abundance.”

[1] See David A. Sims, The Child in American Evangelicalism and the Problem of Affluence: A Theological Anthropology of the Affluent American-Evangelical Child in Late Modernity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009).

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