Some popular-level Christian writers have recently argued that modern-day Christians should emulate the early church in selling all of their possessions and giving to the poor. This is based in part on their interpretation of the description of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47) and in part on Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow him (Mark 10:17-27 and pars.; note that in no one Gospel is the man ever described as rich and young and a ruler — we only get this description by combining the descriptions across the Synoptic accounts).
Clement of Alexandria (150-215), in his Quis Diver Salvetur (“Who is the Rich Man that May be Saved?”), offers the following insight into the matter:
For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving? And how can this dogma fail to be found plainly opposed to and conflicting with many other excellent teachings of the Lord? “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye fail, they may receive you into the everlasting habitations.” “Acquire treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, nor thieves break through.” How could one give food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and shelter the houseless, for not doing which He threatens with fire and the outer darkness, if each man first divested himself of all these things? Nay, He bids Zaccheus and Matthew, the rich tax-gathers, entertain Him hospitably. And He does not bid them part with their property, but, applying the just and removing the unjust judgment, He subjoins, “To-day salvation has come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.” He so praises the use of property as to enjoin, along with this addition, the giving a share of it, to give drink to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, to take the houseless in, and clothe the naked. But if it is not possible to supply those needs without substance, and He bids people abandon their substance, what else would the Lord be doing than exhorting to give and not to give the same things, to feed and not to feed, to take in and to shut out, to share and not to share? Which were the most irrational of all things. (Quis. Div. 13)
Clement goes on to insist that it is not the presence or absence of wealth that is the matter, so much as it is the heart condition towards money that God is most concerned with. So, on the one hand, Jesus is not making a “literal” command to sell everything (nor did the early church actually do this, as a close reading of Acts makes evident). But, on the other hand, this is hardly an endorsement of the American dream: Jesus calls for sacrificial, significant, intentional giving to those in need. If only Christians were known first and foremost for this quality in our day…