Bob Hope said “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and being rich is better.”
It’s difficult to argue otherwise. Consider the two brothers at odds over their inheritance in Luke 12. How can we operate in grace and still be just? What is our role here, as followers of Jesus, in the “fair and equitable” division of wealth?
First, to make a somewhat simplistic point: my conviction is that “family” is the only viable principle on which any social morality can be constructed. That is to say: if you are in my family then I have some kind of an obligation to care for you. Quite often we only take it one way, as if the rich should support the poor tout simple. But in family life, the obligation is mutual, and reciprocal: the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, all live together. In spite of his many faults, the rich man is the poor man’s brother, and that the poor man is bound to recognize him and feel for him as a brother.
Now, poverty is a terrible thing, a malignant curse. It directly causes prostitution, AIDS, the spread of diseases, crime, alcoholism…. a multiplicity of evils. In a nutshell, it creates the circumstances that seem to make such vices inevitable.
The response of Jesus to the poverty he saw about him, and its consequences, is quite clear. The statement “A bruised reed he would not break” shows something of his tenderness to those beleaguered by circumstance. He was incredibly gentle to those who through terrible temptation and social injustice had sunk, and sunk into misery at least as much as into sin.
What about us? Remember that prophecy of Isaiah’s that we “turned our faces from him”? Who wants to look upon poverty, grief and sorrow? Who hasn’t switched channels when some very affecting charity commercial comes on?
But somehow I have to match that obvious thought with the circumstances of the wealthy. Wealth has its temptations, so has power. The vices of the rich are the forgetfulness of responsibility, indolence, extravagance, and sheer ignorance of what goes on down here in the dirt.
And of course, it is simply not just to attribute all to circumstances in the one case, and nothing in the other. It is not brotherhood to say that the laborer does wrong because he is tempted, and the man of wealth because he is intrinsically bad.
So how did Jesus deal with the inequality represented to him? “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” How would we have responded? We might have rolled our eyes at the ineffectiveness of the legal system, or noted the evils of the system of primogeniture, and shaken our head sympathetically, asking whether it were fair that one brother should have all, and the other none. Or maybe we might have ranted about the privilege of property and made jokes about Downton Abbey.
Jesus didn’t sneer at the law, nor attack the system, nor denounce the Haves on behalf of the Have-nots.
None of that.
He immediately attacked the root point of the whole discussion. “Be very careful about Greed.” It was greed –“covetousness” in the old translations – that caused the unjust brother to withhold: it was greed which made the defrauded brother indignantly complain to an outsider. It is greed that drives all kinds of lawsuits, social grievances and political in-fighting. James said, quite flatly, “Where do war and conflict come from? Don’t they emerge from the greed and desires inside your own minds?”
(More to say on this in a day or so)
- Jesus & the Money-gods of the West (Part One) (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- The Poor You Have Always With You (mrsmeadowsweet.wordpress.com)
- Out of the Ordinary (bestrongactlikemen.wordpress.com)
- Unbridled Capitalism and the Blight of Greed (jameswlackie.com)
- What Does “Poor in Spirit” Mean? How Do We Become “Poor in Spirit”? (prayers4reparation.wordpress.com)
- Overcoming Greed (shawnmichaelfollis.wordpress.com)
- Greed In The Church (bondservantforhim.wordpress.com)
- Sunday (August 4): “Beware of all covetousness” (shechina.wordpress.com)