Saturday, March 19, 2011

Money, Sin, and Obedience

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the temptations of wealth, and there is simply no getting around that. Even if the older translation of “The love of money is the root of all evil” could never have been true, the more accurate “…a root of many evils” is still pretty clear. (What were they thinking of, BTW? David took Bathsheba because of money? Peter denied Christ for money? How can you come up with that translation and not say “Hey guys, we’ve clearly made some mistake here.”)

Similarly, Mammon is the one god Jesus specifically identifies as a competitor who will steal away his flock. Wealth is declared a particularly dangerous temptation at many points.

Yet I think we have oversold wealth as a sin in our (wealthy) western culture over the last two centuries, and I doubt that is accidental. Jesus’s message is that anything one might give up to be part of the Kingdom of God is worth it. An eye or a hand are as nothing (Matthew 18:8). Family, even wife or children, are of infinitely less account (Matthew 19:29). When we see these verses, we do not rush to conclude that God has something against families, or against whole bodies.

But when we read the story of the rich young ruler, with all its camel-extruded-through-needles imagery, we conclude pretty rapidly that there is something about wealth that is in and of itself evil, or at least suspect. Considering the lilies we seem to regard as rather a sliding scale, that those with much are somehow more at fault than those with little. A lot of biblical mentions of money, wealth, riches seem to get slid into this whole idea of the unseemliness of money for Christians. Generosity is applauded, certainly – yet I think it is applauded in a somewhat different way than expected.

We have the eyes of our culture, and it is difficult to have others. We can borrow other eyes only with intention. We learn that in other ages Christians were fully cognizant that the rich had more tendency to arrogance, or were more easily tempted to believe in self-sufficiency, and conclude from these that other eras believed much as we do. They didn’t. Western cultures started moving in an anti-aristocratic direction three centuries ago, and we have acquired resentments of various aristocracies along with that.

I have heard critics attribute this censure of wealth largely to Marxism, or other socialist and utopian schemes, regarding it as an infection entering Christian thought. There’s something to that, but I think it misses a great deal more. The western, and especially American idea was more general – that aristocracy had proved exploitative - that it was bestowed by the more unfair mechanism of inheritance rather than accomplishment. If anything, wealth was regarded as an equalizer against aristocracy, a neutral tool which could as likely combat privilege as reinforce it. (Which is perhaps why Marx saw capitalism as a necessary step toward socialism.)

Rulers and the privileged were resented in earlier eras largely because they were from outgroups to one’s own: factions within one’s general tribe, or worse, foreign conquerors. Resentment and contempt of wealth per se comes as much from the aristocracy as from the poor. They are wealthy in birth, wealthy in the accidentals of status, wealthy in certain types of education or initiation. Those parvenus with mere money are crass invaders. The resentment of those in the aristocratic classes for those in “mere trade” goes back centuries. In modified form it is much present in the some American aristocracies now. Christians from those aristocracies display contempt of wealth for what they believe are spiritual reasons derived from the NT. Darker motives of protecting their own sort and providing cover for political allies is fairly obvious to everyone but themselves. Not that they are devoid of pure motive – they are likely no worse than others - but that their unawareness leaves them no hope of remedy. The unforgiveable sin is the one that cannot be confessed – the one which should be obvious but you can’t see it.

This thread runs more strongly through preaching of John the Baptist, and then explosively with Jesus, than any condemnation of the rich. We are commanded to obedience if we serve God, and what the specifics of that obedience might be are disconcertingly left out. St. Paul gives some specificity to gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and to remember the poor. Even that isn’t a lot to go on, frankly. But NT obedience is largely open-ended, and one has to think intentionally so.

There is no hint of Jesus saying to the Pharisees “learn to be more generous, learn to be meek, and you will begin to get the Kingdom of God.” That idea is popular now, but it has nothing to do with Jesus. They didn’t kill him because they were afraid to be generous. Give them credit for knowing a good deal about generosity long before Jesus shows up. Jesus’s message is much harder: “The fulfillment of the promises is at hand. If you had believed, you would know that nothing you have is worth keeping compared to this. I tell you one more time – this is the test whether you ever understood. Sign on to open-ended obedience or all this opens up to the gentiles.”

Who is my neighbor? The lesson is not “gee, ain’t it great to be generous and to expand the circle a little.” The lesson is “A Samaritan who is in the kingdom is more your neighbor than the Jews you grew up with.” Loyalty has not been expanded (that’s more of an American idea, and one that I generally like, but Jesus isn’t encouraging International Food Fairs (mmm…) or Diversity Awareness here) – loyalty has been changed. You were loyal to family, to Judaism, to your village, to your sect, to social roles – all that is now secondary, or even eliminated. Kingdom loyalty, to Samaritans or Romans is higher. A woman in the kingdom is now the superior of a man outside it, though he be wealthy, or a priest, or sinless according to the law. A slave is now valued more than master – but if-and-only-if. A great sinner now rises to the dais. Not because Jesus is turning the society’s values upside-down, but because he is ignoring them in favor of one single value.

We want to Americanise this and talk about the dignity of women, or the dignity of the outcast. Nothing of the kind. This is not about the dignity of women in general, or Samaritans in general, or sinners in general, or the poor in general. This is a single cut: Kingdom/non-kingdom. Infinite value/no value. There is nothing, literally nothing, in the NT about challenging the socioeconomic system of his day (no, not even beating the moneylenders, rendering unto Caesar, or the widow’s mite. Don’t impose ideas of the last two centuries onto the Bible.)

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

But, I don't think that following Christ's teachings on drawing that Kingdom/not-Kingdom distinction can do anything but dissolve the other, artificial distinctions we make.