Saturday, September 5, 2009

Early to Bed, Early to Rise.....

Doug and I have some research underway which we’ll probably have a chance to review here in the future, but in the meantime it’s made me think about the role of wealth and worldly position in the Gospels. It seems undeniable to me that Jesus considered that the distractions of the world are a hindrance to participation in the Kingdom. Just as a couple of examples: the story of the rich young ruler (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” [Mark’s version]), and the opening scenario to the Parable of the Great Banquet in which Jesus was dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and noted how the other guests were interested in being seated in places of honor [Luke 14:7].

But there is a paradox. Contrary to the picture that many people like to paint, Jesus and his disciples were not a rag-tag bunch of destitute homeless people. There is a difference between being homeless because you are an itinerant preacher and being homeless because you are destitute. Jesus clearly had several bases for operation for his ministry: Peter’s family home, the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, and obviously some unnamed contacts in Jerusalem (the owner of the upper room for example). There was a mission fund large enough to be noted in the story of Judas [John 12:6], and Jesus’ ministry was apparently financed by many people, including a woman inside of Herod’s court [Luke 8:3]. People who came “to the Great Banquet” included many people of power, wealth, or status, including at least three Roman centurions, Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Saul of Taursus, and possibly the author of the Gospel of John. Some people (Peter, Matthew, and in a sense, Saul) seem to have abandoned their livelihood to follow Jesus as disciples but, for example, there’s no evidence that the Centurions left their post nor that Joseph of Arimathea took a vow of poverty. (And there’s no evidence that Jesus asked them to do so --- Nicodemus was still wealthy enough at the time of the crucifixion to purchase an impressive amount of funeral spices [John 19:39]).** In other words, there’s no neatly tied-up, unambiguous playbook on what we are to do about our own wealth or wordly authority.

Yet, we cannot escape Jesus’ constant picture that possessions, power, and prestige are stumbling blocks to the Kingdom. I think the answer to this seeming paradox lies in Jesus’ message that he comes not to hang out with the healthy, but to comfort and heal the sick. A wealthy, powerful, or prestigious person is several steps down the road to being someone is need of salvation (healing). In other words, Jesus came to heal the lame and the blind and to comfort the orphans; but he also came to heal the rich and the powerful of their stumbling blocks from wordly diversion. Sometimes the wealthy and wordly are broken because of the diversionary demands of their life: many academics know how it is easy to obsess over the latest ridiculous referee report. Similarly, the powerful, prestigious and wealthy suffer in spite of their position. Neither poverty nor wealth are vaccines against loneliness, isolation, or rejection. I remember being shocked by how many otherwise reasonable people seemed surprised, even appalled, that Kurt Cobain could suffer, given that he was wealthy and famous. To take such a point of view is to argue that wealth and fame ought to bring happiness, a position that Jesus completely rejects. Kurt Cobain needed salvation as much as the lame and the blind.

Thus, it should be no surprise, after all, that even in his own ministry Jesus touched both the fishermen and the Pharisee, the tax collector and the prostitute and the wealthy in Jerusalem. We always think of the ending of the story of the rich young ruler as being sad. But we don’t really know what that rich young man did after he went away. Jesus said that with God anything is possible. Who are we to judge whether or not the Holy Spirit called the young man? Would we be shocked if the rich young man turned out to be the owner of the Upper Room? In my next post, I want to take a closer look at one of the verses in the story of the rich young ruler.

** As a side note on a special case of the elite, John The Baptist, Jesus, the witness of the Gospel of Mark (John Mark?), Peter and Paul --- all of them encounter Roman soldiers or Centurions, yet there is no record of any of them chastising the soldiers or centurions for their profession, or making any general command for them to lay down their arms. In fact, there is considerable recording that this did not occur, and that soldiers were participants in the Great Banquet [Luke 2:14, Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 15:39, Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10, Acts 27, Acts 28:16, II Timothy:2]. I believe that this substantially argues for the case that Jesus did not intend for his teachings to prohibit lawful, organized, forceful resistance to evil: the police and armed forces.

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