Jesus, poverty, and wealth


This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary include a passage from the Gospel Mark that I consider one of the most remarkable in the New Testament:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'"

He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
This passage was deeply influential to me as an early teen. I remember once speaking to my Sunday School teacher about it when I was in the eight grade. I asked him, semi-rhetorically, if these passages meant that one could not really be a Christian if one were rich. I can still picture in my mind's eye the way my teacher shook his head in response to my query. Like a good conservative Christian, he had no problem with reconciling being rich with being a Christian. I don't remember anymore the reasoning that he gave me for his position, but I do recall that I didn't really accept what he told me at the time.

Rereading the passage above now, though, several interesting points emerge. First, Jesus takes the humble position of denying that he is "good", and he clearly differentiates himself from God. Mark was the first of the four Gospels to be written, and this passage was clearly so embarrassing to the later Gospel writers who used this as a source. In particular, Matthew, which was written some ten years or so later, and which incorporated almost the entire Gospel of Mark within it (sometimes verbatim, sometimes with changes), clearly didn't like the way Jesus denigrated himself in that verse. So Matthew changed Jesus's words to say, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good."

Secondly, Jesus went further than just condemning rich people. He told the rich man not to live a comfortable middle-class existence, but to sell all his possessions and follow him. He was asking the man to become an itinerant like himself.

As a 13-year-old Christian, I was not prepared to do anything like that. I don't think that, at that point in my life, I knew what to make of that. I focused more on Jesus's statement that rich people, for all intents and purposes, were excluded from the Kingdom of God. To me, ostentatious wealth was, in effect, stealing from the poor. Once you provided yourself with food, shelter, the basic comforts of life, and a modicum of pleasures, what else was necessary? I was not a poor child. I was well fed and well taken care of by my parents. I lived a modest middle income existence. We certainly were not a rich family by any means either, or even a very well off one. I knew many of my schoolmates who lived in more upscale neighborhoods than my own. I did not consider Jesus's radical statements about selling all one's things, but I did believe that when I became an adult, I would live a relatively simple life.

In contrast to that, we have all sorts of Christians who preach a kind "prosperity Gospel". This phenomenon made the cover of Time magazine a few weeks ago. One megachurch pastor of this prosperity Gospel is Joel Osteen, whose church services are held in a former sports arena each week before a crowd of many thousands of parishioners, and whose services are broadcast to hundreds of television stations. Osteen is a charming and entertaining speaker who is himself quite wealthy. He has certainly benefited personally from the prosperity Gospel, and one cannot imagine him selling his possessions and following Jesus as Jesus asked that man in the passage above to do.

In many ways, variations of this Gospel of prosperity have been with us a long time. New Thought denominations, such as Unity, Religious Science, and Divine Science, have long used the word "prosperity" in their teachings; they believed that this prosperity was achieved through positive thinking and through tithing to their churches, although their definition of prosperity was broader than just to refer to economic wealth.

Even more traditional Christianity has often been used as a means toward, if not a justification of, ostentatious wealth. Just consider how much the Protestant work ethic has, when practiced, led to enormous payoffs for its adherents.

We may give out our Nobel prizes to the Mother Teresas of the world, but few of us actually walk the talk. We call them saints, those people who live the simple life and who devote themselves to helping the least fortunate. We admire them as we revel in our own comfort. Where I live, in San Francisco, there is something called the Night Ministry, led by a pastor who walks the dark streets of the poorer neighborhoods in town. Volunteers for this ministry provide phone counseling services to people in distress throughout the early morning hours. This is Christian ministry at its best.

But does God want us to be uncomfortable in order to enter the Kingdom of God? Does self sacrifice just for its own sake make sense? Or does God want us to build a society in which all of us are modestly comfortable, rather than one in which a few are very well off while others live in poverty? Why did Jesus tell that rich man to sell his possessions?

John Dominic Crossan argues in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography that Jesus founded a revolutionary movement of rural itinerants who were
on a mission to rebuilt peasant society from the grass roots upward. Since commensality is not just a technique for support but a demonstration of message, they could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency but rather communal dependency. Itinerancy and dependency: heal, stay, move on.
In this kind of lifestyle, it made no sense to own possessions. In fact, the peasant itinerants who followed Jesus depended on the hospitality of those they visited. They depended on generosity, but behind that generosity lay a principle of commensality. Jesus's vision was a radically egalitarian one. If those they visited did not welcome they, then these missionaries needed to move on. That is why in Mark 6:11, Jesus tells followers that if they are not welcomed, they should "shake the dust" off their feet.

We no longer live in a peasant society, but poverty remains with us. Does the life of the itinerant make sense anymore? Peasants may have shared their food and shelter with itinerant preachers two thousand years ago, but most of us live in an urban society now, and we fear strangers knocking at our doors--for good reason. It is a dangerous world out there. So how can we best implement Jesus's ideal ethic of radical egalitarianism under present conditions? For Jesus, the lifestyle he led and asked others to lead was a means to an end--the end being social justice. What means are available to us now?

At thirteen, I may have envisioned my future adult self as living the simple life. As an adult, I know I haven't exactly lived up to that ideal. It is hard to escape the Western capitalist ethic of consumption and the acquisition of wealth. It is hard for any of us not to want to acquire a better income. As an American, I live in a society with a very porous social safety net. I would worry about how I could get by if I lost my job. I worry about having enough money for retirement. If I give away all my material possessions, how would I managed to survive into old age? Not to mention the fact that I like having my computer, my comfy bed, my television set, my cable TV. I am relatively comfortable, and I like it. The way I saw it when I was thirteen was that I also wanted everyone in the world to be able to share equally in the bounty of plenty that our world had to offer; the point was not for me to be poor, but for me not to be rich--me, and everyone else. I wanted to see a world where each person had available to them a modestly comfortable lifestyle, rather than one in which some people were very rich while others were very poor.

What happened to the radical poverty of the Jesus movement after he died is another interesting question. When Jesus was arrested, his followers fled. They were understandably afraid of the consequences of being associated with a radical religious leader who was executed for having opposed the earthly Kingdom that he lived in, in favor of the Kingdom of God. The execution of a leader in those times easily brought on a crisis in the movement. In the case of the Jesus movement, the followers probably went back to their jobs in Galilee, back to making a living. Their movement seemed shattered. There was no need to continue on. But something else took hold even after they fled Jerusalem; they were deeply affected by Jesus in ways that his death did not crush. It was only after some of them came to believe that Jesus after his death was exalted into heaven that the movement took a new phase. The crisis brought on by Jesus's death led to something new, a sect of Judaism that became the origins of a new religion.

This new religion continued to be a movement that, for a time at least, offered a radical critique of the wealthy. The author of Luke and Acts reports that the early Christian followers of Jesus lived a communal lifestyle after the Pentecost: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." It is hard to know how the Christian movement evolved away from this kind of theological socialism, but it is worth noting that the epistle of James, written many years later, still expressed a strong negativity towards the rich:
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
James also wrote in the same epistle:
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
It is my guess that the preachers of the prosperity Gospel don't get around to emphasizing these words from the New Testament very often. Within the New Testament can be found radical language that resists against a social system in which a certain percentage of people control enormous sums of wealth while others live in poverty. Today we still have this same kind of injustice in our society. How can we in the modern world pursue the dream of social justice in ways that make sense in the contemporary economic and political system in which we live?


Gary said...

I've just been having the same thoughts. In Australia it's Anti-Poverty week. The Stand Up Against Poverty campaign is setting a world record. And this passage is being contemplated across the world due to its inclusion in the lectionary (this is the first time I've used the lectionary, due to the church I've recently started attending). I was consumed yesterday with thoughts of disappointment for my own consumerism, and desiring a more world-friendly occupation. I'm glad you're posing this here as a question, rather than simply blanket criticism. I have no answers, and will continue asking questions. Thanks for further stimulating my thoughts on the issue.