Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fair Balance

2 Corinthians 8:13-14a “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

Friday night I was at an event co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society and the Boston Faith and Justice Network. It was called “The Gratitude Economy” and featured three people who told about the ways they have adjusted their lives to increase their giving for the poor.

One woman explained that she has joined with a group of thirty other women who all pledge to give 1% of their income (over and above their tithe) to a cause they would select jointly. That group gives $35,000 - $40,000 per year, living frugal lives to enable their giving. The next speaker was moved by a photographer’s exhibit of 70 orphans to render those photographs as oil paintings. He painted 70 oil portraits and sold them for $70 each, money that was contributed to services for orphans. More than that, each purchaser was required to pledge $70 per year for the remaining years of his or her life to that same cause. All 70 were sold and so he painted another 70.

The third speaker, a well-paid technology executive, told of his family’s decision to live on the income of the average American household and to give the rest away. When they began, that average income was $38,000. Today it is closer to $50,000, but he makes $200,000. They give away about $150,000 per year, and live in a poor area of one of California’s poorest cities to make ends meet. They find themselves in ministry in many ways in that setting, from leading Bible studies for gang members to taking neighbor children to school.

The most notable thing about the evening, however, was not the stories of any of the speakers. It was the audience. We were in a room at a local Lutheran church with about 80 chairs set up. Not only was every chair filled, but people lined every wall and were jammed in so tightly that some couldn’t even get in the door and strained to listen from outside. This to hear about how to live simply and give more. But (as they say in cheap advertising) wait! There’s more! Not only was the crowd spilling out the door, I was one of only about 5 or 6 people in the room over 30. That’s right, it was young people, many of whom have joined economic accountability groups themselves through the work of Boston Faith and Justice in order to address the concern Paul speaks about above—the “question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” When the third speaker cited a Bible passage, about a third of the young people there pulled out Bibles.

As I sat there in the midst of this sea of young faces, I thought of the many, many churches that have trouble attracting people under 60, let alone under 30. In fact, even churches with healthy numbers of 30-50 year olds have significant gaps in under 30. “What do they want?” our committees moan, often spiraling down into conflicts about whether or not to change the worship style. While worship styles are not unimportant, Friday night’s event taught me that the under-30 crowd wants relevance. The world they are inheriting is spiraling out of control and it will be up to them to right it. They organized in massive numbers to bring change to government, and they are taking seriously the need to live balanced and just economic lives. Maybe there wasn’t a bigger over-30 crowd because we might feel too threatened. We make too much.

The Bible has much to say on this topic. In fact, if you cut out all the economic passages in Scripture, you would be left with tatters. The passage above is just part of two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians that Paul devotes to urging the churches across Asia Minor to support an offering for the poor of Jerusalem. While his goal is specific to the time, his urging is straight from the prophets. There is abundance in God’s economy. God has created a world where there is enough for everyone. But if some of us keep more than our fair share, others will experience scarcity. While we have seen through history that legislating that balance leads to abuse, the way of God is different. These two chapters in 2 Corinthians are where you find Paul’s famous statement, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Our economic crisis has already caused great pain. But it also provides great opportunity for people of faith to get back to our roots in God’s economics. It is up to each of us to figure out “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” We need the help of our religious leaders and institutions both to learn what that means and to have the courage to live it out. Our young people, at least, are hungry for it.

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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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