Thursday, September 20, 2012

Part 2. What did Jesus say?

The persons composing the crowds that swarmed around Jesus to receive his healing touch and hear his teaching were the common “people of the land.” We might suspect that such audiences would have shaped his teaching style and content to some degree yet his subjects also suggest that occasionally hearers with some means were in the audience.

Take for example, the Sermon on the Mount instruction,"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21, NASB) This logion does not find an easy application to persons who only own the clothes on their back. It makes more sense to see it as addressing the more well to do in the crowd. At the very least warns it against accumulating things, if not outright rejecting the amassing of physical wealth. The teaching raises concerns about motivation, goals, and material threats to holdings. Wealth and seeking more do not come off in a positive view here. The goal that Jesus promoted was investing now for future benefits in heaven (“Treasure in heaven” Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33; 18:22)

An episode that Luke (12:13-21) alone presented pushes this perspective even more. When Jesus was confronted with a claim to make an equitable division of inheritance, Jesus refused to intervene. Instead he viewed this request as an opportunity to confront greed. His shared a story of a rich landowner. This rich man attends to accumulation and how to properly store the ever increasing product. His expansion for the future moves him to celebrate his present good fortune and future prospects. The surprise ending narrates his immediate demise, futile creation of more effective storage, and loss of his amassed holdings. The character is treated with contempt, named a “fool.” The parable explanation applies the story to any who might follow like misguided priorities (v. 21). This parable was spoken with reference to someone who questioned fairness of an inheritance settlement. We don’t know the economic status of the one who asked for Jesus’ help. The most we can say about the petitioner was he was potentially wealthy. What is clear is that the attitude perceived behind the request received a direct rebuke from Jesus. Here again wealth and seeking more do not come off in a positive view.

A third episode but an example narrated by all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30) is the encounter between Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” Jesus perceiving a personal weakness within this questioner omitted the final commandment from his list of several Decalogue rules, and love for neighbor (in the Matthew version only), to elicit from the young man a bold claim to complete obedience, “I have kept all of these things from my youth up.” (Mark 10:20). Despite the bold claim Jesus recognized the problem, “one thing is missing.” His aim in life concerned the seeking of more. Desiring more lies at the foundation for the amassing of wealth. The prescription as Jesus saw it was distribution of his holdings for the common good of the poor. He however, could not comply since riches were too great an attraction. Jesus used this occasion to acknowledge the difficulty for the wealthy to enter the kingdom before his surprised disciples. They hold a mistaken view that wealth is a clear sign of divine blessing. Jesus asserted the very opposite. Wealth is not a sign of the acceptance of heaven, but an omen of rejection.  To emphasize the degree of difficulty that the rich must overcome, he then uttered something of a well turned proverb, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Meaning: it can’t be done. Wealth builds an impassible barrier for the rich to assault, but they can’t. The good news that Jesus proclaims is that God can solve this impenetrable problem, what is impossible for humanity God can overcome. Here again it is plain to see wealth and seeking more do not appear in a positive light. To promote a future life of blessing in heaven (?) wealth is something to be abandoned and avoided. If the prior examples are inconclusive then I have two more to mention.

On occasion Jesus gave instruction related to riches in an even more direct manner. Luke reported that Jesus once gave a general command concerning the disposition of wealth, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34) And finally Jesus explained that the disposition of wealth is a prerequisite for being a follower of Jesus: "So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

From these examples it should be obvious that the way current American society views wealth and the way Jesus warns about it suggests that these perspectives are quite different and not compatible.

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