What Must I Do?Posted: October 14, 2012
What Must I Do?
Whenever the lectionary schedules the story of the rich man and Jesus, everyone squirms a little bit. When Jesus looks at the rich man and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” we all sort of look down sheepishly and shrug our shoulders to shake off some the guilt. In twenty-first century America we are likely to wince, when we hear Jesus say in verses 24 and 25: “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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
And so like some of Jesus’ disciples we are likely to cry out: “Then who can be saved?” Who can be saved indeed, and what is the meaning of this passage for us? Let’s take a minute to try to unpack this story.
The Rich Man came to Jesus asking: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In at least three or four other places in the gospels other people asked Jesus similar questions. Eternal life was a hot topic. Let us begin by noting Jesus did not give exactly the same answer to everyone. In fact, in our story Jesus originally said to the man, “keep the commandments.” Only when the man claimed to have kept the commandments since his youth did Jesus go further. When the Pharisee Nicodemus in the Gospel of John approached Jesus, he said, “you must be born anew.” To the lawyer who asked who is my neighbor, he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When the disciples were squabbling about who was the greatest in the Kingdom of God, he told them they must become like children. So first we must understand Jesus was not handing out any formulaic answers.
Now many people, perhaps out of guilt, believe Jesus was being unusually harsh with the Rich Man. Jesus did not like him or something, or Jesus was against all rich people. But let us look at what the text reads: “Jesus looked upon him and loved him.” Jesus’ answer was not motivated by contempt, or hatred, or jealousy. Jesus really liked this guy. Jesus did not judge the rich man, he simply shared with him, if you want peace, love and joy in your life, then share with other people especially the poor. But people with great wealth often have difficulty sharing. The rich man had a choice, to share or not to share, and he chose not to share, so he left sadly, because his possessions owned him.
Now let’s ask the question, can these sayings, “sell what you have and give to the poor,” and “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God,” be reliably attributed to Jesus? We know that some of the followers of Jesus had money. In the Gospel of Luke last week we learned several well to do women were instrumental in bank rolling the Jesus ministry.
The early church seems to have conducted an extensive discussion about wealth. According to John Dominic Crossan a radical group of itinerant missionaries in the early church advocated absolute poverty: Mark 6:8 “Take nothing for your journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” But then there was a group of more prosperous and propertied households that rejected itinerant poverty for a more balanced view of wealth: “Then who can be saved?”
“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Jesus did not automatically reject people of wealth, the primary issue in this passage may not be wealth at all, but rather the willingness to share. The story of the Rich Fool laying up riches for himself, when he is scheduled to die that night, suggests that earning the money is not a problem, but hoarding it is. Or as Colonel Sanders said, “There’s no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery. You can’t do any business from there.” Similarly the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the Rich man is feasting sumptuously and is dressed in fine clothing enjoying his wealth, while poor Lazarus is starving to death in rags laying on the Rich man’s door step, again suggests that it was not the accumulation of wealth by itself that was the problem, but the failure to share the wealth that sent the rich man to Gehenna.
Inevitably people ask, “well how much do I have to share?” My guess is that if we have to ask how much, we haven’t shared enough. Trying to fix a percentage of sharing is not what Jesus was about. He wants us to share compassionately and generously. The truth is the poor usually share a far higher percentage of their disposable incomes than the wealthy. A new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy confirms this observation. The Chronicle found a pattern across the nation. Households with incomes of $50,000-$75,000 donate on average 7.6 percent of their discretionary income. That’s compared with about 4 percent for those with incomes of $200,000 or more.
Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that’s consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and giving. “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,” he says.
Piff says it’s not that rich people aren’t generous. They’re often just isolated. They don’t see a lot of poor people in their daily lives.
The less contact wealthy people have with poor people the less generous they become. When people making more than $200,000 a year account for more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a ZIP code, the wealthy residents give an average of 2.8 percent of discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for all itemizers earning $200,000 or more. So, if we live in a gated community far from the misery of the poor, we become less likely to give to charity. The Chronicle found that pattern holds across the country. High-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods, and high income people who live in or near economically distressed inner-city neighborhoods gave an average of 12% of their incomes to charity.
Perhaps most interesting, the Chronicle of Philanthropy also found that poor people give when they can, though it is often only a few dollars at a time. But even if it is only a few dollars at a time, the median household contribution of the poor is almost 19 percent of discretionary income. Material poverty tends to lead to generosity and spiritual riches, while material wealth tends to lead to miserliness and spiritual impoverishment.
Of course wealth is relative. As Henny Youngman said, “”I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by four o’clock.” Most of us don’t think of ourselves as wealthy until we compare ourselves to the Billions of people on earth who live on one or two dollars a day. I believe the community of faith affords us an opportunity to share in a way that is good for our souls.
Lillian Daniel wrote a Still Speaking Devotional about Acts 2: 44 and 45 – and the text reads: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
I love my church but I find it difficult to imagine all of us emptying our savings accounts and dumping them into a common pot. I can’t picture us all selling our cars, so that everyone gets the same vehicle, be it a bike, a Chevy, or a skateboard. I’m in awe of the early church in the book of Acts, where they shared it all in common. Today, we would talk these people into doing a reality TV show. We’d film them squabbling over who brought the most bread or wine to this giant ecclesiastical yard sale. In other words, I don’t believe this was actually easy for them.
I see this scripture as a goal. And at church, we come closer to living it out than we do at work, or school, or the sports arena. At least every week in church, we do share some of what’s in our pockets. For this reason, I am in favor of always putting something in the offering plate when it is passed. You may pay most of your pledge by check through the mail, but that weekly act of taking something out of the wallet that is “mine” and putting it in the plate that is “ours” is a spiritual discipline. It reminds us that none of what we have is really ours.
I think she is right. What we begin to learn to share through the community of faith, can transform us. In the past I don’t think United Church has ever had members who were actually poor. But since we have become a more economically diverse congregation, we have people coming to the Sharing Table, who need the meal.
If we have to ask how much do I have to share, we probably aren’t sharing enough. Jesus wasn’t opposed to wealth, but he knew that until we can learn to share, we will never make our way into the Commonwealth of God. Jesus doesn’t judge us, he invites us to share for our own good. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Share!