For those of us who grew up in middle class U.S. households, it is natural to imagine that we can create a good life for ourselves financially by our own effort. We can earn enough to make ends meet, even get ahead a little and create a nest egg for our retirement years, if we are thrifty and responsible in our planning. Of course, we have to choose the right profession and compete in the marketplace, but the way is open to us if we just make the right choices and hang in there long enough. So we believe.
We tend to patronize those who are poor. Perhaps they are not as intelligent as we. Likely they are impulsive and need to be taught about budgeting. We can even go so far as to speculate that they are mentally ill, lazy or shiftless.
I kind of doubt that First Century Palestine operated under this same illusion; their attitudes toward financial security would have been different. Being from the right family, being a good son or daughter, keeping the commandments and being righteous in one’s dealings with others were probably viewed as more directly responsible for one’s wealth than skill, ingenuity and good financial planning. But everyone still looked down on the poor.
The rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to gain eternal life would have believed that his possessions were an outward and visible sign of God’s pleasure in him and his family. Scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan tell us that he wasn’t asking about life after death. He wished to become part of Jesus’ social change movement, part of the new age Jesus was ushering in. He wanted to bring his resources and his social clout into Jesus’ service. No wonder he was so shocked to discover that Jesus wanted him to give away his wealth. This went against all his understandings. To give up the very thing that defined him as a righteous man, how could he do that? And of what use would he be to Jesus without all the “stuff” he could bring to the relationship?
It is not at all easy to let go of our assumptions about wealth and poverty – that “we” are somehow better, that “they” are different, that not having enough is somehow somebody’s just deserts for wrong ways of living, of wrong mental functioning, or of wrong believing. Maybe it really does take the radical step of giving up all our possessions for us to truly see and understand. But even that is not a sure fire way of getting there.
It really is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. We come with all the baggage of those long legs and fleshy humps. Rightly, the disciples ask, “Who, then can be saved?” And Jesus’ answer is as instructive as it is reassuring. “For mortals it is impossible. But not for God. For God all things are possible.”
It is important to work hard to change our ingrained perspectives and attitudes toward the poor, the marginalized and the outcast. Listening with an open mind, imagining what it would be like to be in the shoes of those different from us, struggling with all our embarrassing stereotypes and prejudices, this work is absolutely essential to the Christian. And it is even more important to bring our camel-like selves to God in prayer. For at the end of the day it is only by God’s grace that we will really come to the perspective Jesus calls the kingdom of God.
Holy and Compassionate God, help me with the log in my eye that keeps me from a true perception of my neighbor and of myself. In the name of your Son, I pray. Amen.
“ChineseJesus” by Original uploader was Ai.kefu at en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.