Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spreading the Wealth

Matt. 19:21-24 Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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."

One of the things still sticking in my craw from the presidential campaign is the way that “spreading the wealth” suddenly became code for evil socialism. Aside from the fact that “socialist” was used as a smear when every other developed nation but ours has some form of socialized medicine, the “spreading the wealth” contempt hit me well beyond any political preferences. When Obama raised that concept to “Joe the Plumber,” he was not speaking from his inner socialist. He was merely voicing what his Christian faith had taught him.

Spreading the wealth is nothing more than the Golden Rule applied to economics. Do to others what you would have them do to you. It could equally be seen as an economic consequence of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the notion of the wealthy sharing resources with those who have less were some obscure part of the Bible, then I could understand why so many might have thought the concept came from some political philosophy. But in both the Old and the New Testaments, such a notion is front and center. Jesus talks more about the use of money and possessions than anything else except the Kingdom of God. And if you read the opening chapters of the book of Acts you will see that the immediate result of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Yes, they spread the wealth around.

Of course that experiment didn’t last a long time. While God tells us in no uncertain terms that sharing resources is the way God’s people are to live, we resist it mightily. It is much easier on both our wallets and our consciences if we pretend that spreading the wealth is some discredited form of government practiced by less discerning nations. But in order to do that, you will have to chop out huge sections of Scripture. The Gospels and the Prophets would be in tatters.

The passage I quoted above is in the story of the Rich Young Ruler, who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. He told Jesus that he already kept all of the commandments, and Jesus seems to have believed him. Notice that Jesus is so impressed with him that he invites him to take the final step and become a disciple. “Then come, follow me.” This is the only story in the Gospels of a disciple that refused the call. The fishermen gave it all up. The tax collector who authored this Gospel gave it all up. But the Rich Young Ruler just couldn’t do it. He came seeking eternal life but when he learned obtaining it and following Jesus would involve “spreading the wealth,” he “went away sad.”

It is not surprising that those with great wealth, or even those with moderate wealth, would resist giving it away. It is not surprising that we would do all in our power to name the concept something else, so that we could pretend that Jesus has nothing to do with our economic lives, either individually or collectively. We want our money and our Jesus, too. But that’s not the way it works. In the Kingdom of God you can only receive if you give.

With the economy of greed collapsing around us, it is time for Christians to reclaim Kingdom economics and to talk openly in our churches about the teachings of the Bible regarding money and possessions. It is time for Christians to stop wanting to be popular and to stand up for the ideas of the One we claim to follow. When a fellow Christian takes such a stand, allowing others to condemn it as “socialism” while we stand silently by is tantamount to being ashamed of the Gospel. I’m not saying it’s easy. Nothing Jesus asks of us is easy. But according to Jesus, it leads to eternal life.

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