The pursuit of wealth is diametrically opposed to the pursuit of God or the kingdom of God. Mammon and God are like two masters. If you love and serve the one, you must of necessity reject the other (Mt. 6:24 par; compare MK 4:19 par) No compromise is possible.
Jesus’ sayings about money and possessions are frequently regarded as amongst the hardest in the gospels. The most astounding statement about the kingdom of God is not that it was near but that it would be the kingdom of the poor and that the rich, as long as they remain rich, would have no part in it (Luke 6:20-26). It is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom as it would be for a camel (or is it a fisherman’s rope?) to be threaded through the eye of a needle (Mk 10:25 par). Mark tells us that even Jesus’ disciples were astounded by this (10:24,26). What kind of kingdom will this be? ‘In that case’, they said to one another, ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus gazed at them. ‘For men,’ he said, ‘it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’ (Mk 10:26-27)
In other words it would take a miracle to get the rich man into the kingdom of God. And the miracle would not be getting him in with all his wealth, the miracle would be getting him to give up all his wealth so that he could enter a kingdom of the poor. This is what the rich young man in the gospel story was asked to do (Mk 10: 17-22 par). But, because he relied too heavily upon financial security, the miracle did not take place. God’s power was not able to work in him to achieve the impossible.
There will be no place in the kingdom of God for the rich. There will be no rewards and no consolations there for them (Luke 6:24-26). In the parable about the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus, one is given no other reason why the rich man should be so dramatically excluded from all rewards except that he was rich and that he did not share his wealth with the beggar (Luke. 16: 19-31). This too is all that this rich man wants to warn his brothers about. But who would believe it?
It follows that setting one’s heart on the kingdom of God and subscribing to its values entails selling all one’s possessions (Luke. 18:22,24 Mark 10:28-30 Luke. 14:28-33).
To the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and …Lend without any hope of return (Luke. 14: 13-14).
But the best example of Jesus’ attempts to educate the people to share what they had, was the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:35-44 par). This incident was interpreted by the early Church and by all the evangelists as a miracle of multiplication- although this is never explicitly said by any of them. The customary way of drawing attention to ta miracle is to say that the people were amazed, astonished or dumbfounded; we are told that the disciples did not understand (Mark 6:52, 8:17-18, 21). The event has a deeper meaning. But the event itself was not a miracle of multiplication; it was a remarkable example of sharing.
Jesus was preaching to a large gather of men in a lonely place. It was time to stop for a while to eat. Some had no doubt brought food, others not. He and his disciples had five loaves and two fish, but they suggest that the people be told to go and ‘buy themselves something to eat’. Jesus says no, ‘You give them something to eat yourselves.’ They protest but he tells the people to sit down in groups of fifty and taking the bread and fish he tells his disciples to ‘share it out’. Now either Jesus told the others who had brought food to do the same within their group of fifty or else they, seeing Jesus and his disciples sharing their food, began, of their own accord, to open their of food baskets and to share the contents.
The ‘miracle’ was that so many men should suddenly cease to be possessive about their food and begin to share, only to discover that there was more than enough to go around. There were, we are told, twelve baskets of scraps left over. Things do tend to ‘multiply’ when you share them. The first Christian community in Jerusalem made the same discovery when they tried to share their possessions. Luke may have given us a somewhat idealized picture of this community. Nevertheless even that would be an extremely good testimony to what the early Christians understood Jesus’ intentions to be.
‘The faithful together owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed…they shared their food gladly and generously’ (Acts 2:44-46). This does not mean that they sold absolutely everything they had. They must have kept at least their own clothes, bedding, cooking utensils, houses and furniture. Their point was that ‘no one said [or claimed] that anything he had was his own but everything they owned was held in common (Acts 4:32).
What then, did they sell? All those who were owners of lands or houses would sell them and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any embers who might be in need (Acts 4:34-35). It is obvious that what they sold was not the houses in which they lived. They did not all live under on roof. We are told that they met together in one another’s houses (Acts 2:46). What they sold must have been the house they had rented out to others. In other words they sold their real estate, their capital or investments. These were their possessions, their surplus, the extras which they did not really need.
We have another example of this in Luke’s gospel. When Zaccheaus is converted he gives away half of what he owns and undertakes to pay back four times the amount to those whom he has cheated(19:8):
‘This then is what selling all one’s possessions means; giving up the surplus and treating nothing as your own. The result will always be that ‘none of their members was ever in want’ (Acts 4:34).
Jesus did not idealize poverty. On the contrary his concern was to ensure that no one should be in want, and it was to this end that he fought possessiveness and encouraged people to be unconcerned about wealth and to share their material possessions. But this is only possible in a community. Jesus dared to hope for a kingdom or world-wide community which would be so structured that there would be no poor and no rich.
His motive here again is his boundless compassion for the poor and the oppressed. When he asks the rich young man to sell everything, it is not because of some strict and abstract ethical principle. It is because of his compassion for the poor. This comes out very clearly in the version of the same story handed down to us in the Gospel of the Hebrews. After the first part of the story, which is familiar to us, the author continues:
“But the rich man began to scratch his head, and it pleased him not. And the Lord said unto him: ‘How canst thou say, I have kept the law and the prophets.’ For it is written in the law: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, and lo, many of thy brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth, dying of hunger, and thine house is full of many good things, and naught at all goeth out of it unto them.”
According to J. Jeremias, this saying of Jesus has much claim to historicity as the average saying in the four gospels.
It follows that any society that is so structured that some suffer because of their poverty, and others have more than they need, is part of the kingdom of Satan.
*Excerpt from “Jesus before Christianity” pg. 50-53 by Albert Nolan Copyright 1976
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