Sunday, February 12, 2006

Justice and Charity: Security and Demand

Whenever I think of value, and particularly monetary value, I think of one occasion at a local park where my dad and Carmel had taken Jacob for ice cream. Jake was only about 18months old at the time, and dad gave him a $20 bill to go buy ice cream from a vendor. Jake bought the ice cream, but when the vendor gave him the change – it was all bills – he thought that it was garbage because he’d never seen paper money before. So, my son threw $18 into the nearby garbage can, which – humorously - caused my wife and father to then go and dig it out.

This story always makes me wonder about whether or not we understand the value of money, or if we even get how precious some of these things would be to other people.

I once heard a fictional story about a church that decided to give all of its members $1000, with the intent that they were supposed to “pay it forward.” The idea was that the church people wouldn’t just give the money to someone else, but that they would invest themselves into that amount of money and imagine all that could be done with such a large sum. The pastor suggested they might take several lesser-income families to buy groceries, or that they might pay for a semester at a junior college for a student. It was also suggested that they might create a truly generous experience for an elderly couple, and treat them to a world-class supper served to them in their home.

But the story goes that no one did anything significant with the money. Some, sure, gave the money away and some tried to spend the money on nice gifts for people who weren’t well off; but, by and large, the church people couldn’t get their minds around how to be that generous.

Generosity begins small, and grows incrementally; so, you won’t ever be able to give a gift of $1000 if you’ve never given a gift of $2 to buy someone a slice of pie.

You don’t become generous, you cultivate generosity in your heart and that spirit grows within you until you understand its value.

The Gospel of Luke tells us about a remarkable encounter between Jesus and a rich young ruler [that term is used in most translations, but not in the Message]. Remember some of the context here, that the term “rich young ruler” likely referred to the political status of the young man as a member of the Herodian dynasty [who were selling out their own people to the Roman Empire ], or possibly a member of the Jewish landowning aristocracy. Probably, he would have been very much out of his element talking to a messianic claiment, particularly from the lower class.

One day a [rich young ruler] asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to deserve eternal life?"

Jesus said, "Why are you calling me good? No one is good--only God. You know the commandments, don't you? No illicit sex, no killing, no stealing, no lying, honor your father and mother."

He said, "I've kept them all for as long as I can remember."

When Jesus heard that, he said, "Then there's only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me."

This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.

Seeing his reaction, Jesus said, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God's kingdom? I'd say it's easier to thread a camel through a needle's eye than get a rich person into God's kingdom."

Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

Peter tried to regain some initiative: "We left everything we owned and followed you, didn't we?"

"Yes," said Jesus, "and you won't regret it. No one who has sacrificed home, spouse, brothers and sisters, parents, children--whatever- will lose out. It will all come back multiplied many times over in your lifetime. And then the bonus of eternal life!"

At first glance there seems to be some powerful language in this passage, and though I want to be careful not to deconstuct it too much, it may be helpful for us to understand that there is some debate among bible scholars about the language that Jesus is using here. For example, there are those who believe that the phrase “eye of the needle” actually was a coloquialism used to refer to the entryway to a common home in first-century Palestine. These homes were made of crude materials and the front door, so to speak, was shaped kind-of like the eye of a needle about 5 feet tall. If this is true, then it would be conceivable that a camel actually could pass through the “eye of a needle”, or the front door of such a home, albeit with tremendous difficulty. Camels, after all, typically stand 7 feet or more in height and weigh 1600lbs; so, getting one to willingly shove its humps into the lobby of a hobbit-hole would be no small feat.

On the other hand, we might think for a moment that even if “eye of a needle” was common terminology, that the rich young ruler might be wondering if Jesus’ play-on-word wasn’t designed as a jibe to a member of the oppresive upper class. Just imagine, if you were part of a group that was notoriously resented among the poor and you, tremolously, approached a poor clergyman with a query about salvation – and he answered cryptically – don’t you think you might not be a little concerned that you were about to get your come-uppance?

But notice what Jesus says directly after, in true Jesus style – mysterious and clever – “what is impossible with men is possible with God.”

I love this! It’s like Jesus is saying that you could force a dromedary through a cubbyhole AND that, supposing his remarks were meant as a taunt, that God even makes room for the rich and the wicked in His kingdom. Jesus is letting the young ruler sweat, even while assuring him that there’s no need for him to surrender hope.

Sadly, the young man does abandon the Path of Christ, daunted by the reality of having to give up that which he most cherishes. This, of course, is the danger of attachment to wealth – for there will come a time, or many times, when we must choose between what we can immediately keep or have and what God requires of us as followers of Him. This is why Mark warns of the deceit of wealth and desire for things, in chapter 4, that come in and choke the Word, making it as unfruitful as if it had been touched by Satan.

And yet, the young ruler is not called simply to come and give what he has to the poor, but to do that and then to “follow Jesus.” In other words, the call of Jesus to radical generosity is at one level an individual decision, but its context is that of a call to community. Such a community is in line with the function of voluntary communities within society. The disciples, after all, left everything and followed Jesus, and yet they did not totally renounce their possessions – though their decision certainly involved economic risk. In fact, historians tell us that James and John were probably fairly well off, having the money to hire other workers than just their own family to fish, and that Peter probably even owned home and a small bit of land.

So, though they gave “it all up” they also gained something in return. In return for risking their financial security and social standing, they gained a new society that functioned as the kingdom of heaven on earth; they gained a new family; they gained a new significance; as the discipled community shares among itself each member has access to much more than they gave up. This could also be said about heavenly reward; and, certainly on the level of temporal fulfillment, without this community emphasis the teachings of Christ could easy degenerate into an ethic of personal fulfillment.

This may be why Jesus’ words “fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom” precedes “sell your possesssions” in Luke 12.32,33. It may very well be that charity – giving everything away – is not simply a matter of making sure that one’s heart is in the right place or getting rid of a dangerous substance. It may be that that renunciation flows of out security – out of a sense that even if you did give everything away, God would look after you; or that even if it were impossible for a camel to enter the “eye of a needle”that Christ should justify you – rather than out of demand. Our sense of security is rooted in the knowledge that God is our Father, not in the phyisical reality of being over-generous. This does not give us permission to live lazily or foolishly or stupid; rather, it validates the old cliché that ‘you cannot outgive God.’

What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don't be afraid of missing out. You're my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

"Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can't go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Luke 12.29-34

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