December 13, 2008

The Rich Man and the Kingdom of God

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
That’s not my opinion, but a statement made by our Savior. How are we to interpret the words? One possible way is to say Jesus wasn’t referring to the kind of needle used for sewing, at all, but rather the low and narrow entryways through the outer walls of many ancient Palestinian communities. To enter such a city, a camel was unloaded of its burden and forced to crawl on its knees through the opening—a difficult, but not impossible, task.

For several reasons, I think the interpretation smacks of wishful thinking. First, it’s inconsistent with the reaction of the disciples, who were “exceedingly amazed” by the claim. If it’s true that Christ was speaking of the process required to lead a camel into a city—an event that must have occurred whenever a trade caravan appeared—why were His followers amazed?

Second, the interpretation isn’t consistent with other teachings of Jesus. For example, when a follower asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, Christ told him to: “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” A host of other scriptures, too, point to our obligation to use personal resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick.

Finally, enlightened communities have lived Christ’s gospel by sharing all things in common. The history of 1st and 2nd century Christianity, for example, is replete with accounts of true heroism. When plagues caused cities to be abandoned, only Christians remained to tend the sick. Among these charitable saints, the discarded of society found homes and an extraordinary people who were willing to share all they had.

If it’s true then that a rich man can’t enter the kingdom of God, what must we (who live in a country of excess) do? I believe we should, at the very least, wrestle with a tough—perhaps the toughest of all—questions. Here it is: If we have money in the bank while people are hungry, can we truthfully say we love our neighbors? In this way, the gospel is more than an abstract philosophy, but a pragmatic economic ideal, as well.

Take the two greatest commandments. Christ said that all the law and prophets—the entire Mosaic framework—hangs upon them. They are:
  1. Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind
  2. Love thy neighbor as thyself
I find the second commandment interesting in that Christ appears to offer a third great law (love thyself) that is, at the very least, tacitly approving of self-interest. Otherwise, Jesus would have said, “Love thy neighbor,” and left the remainder unspoken. Perhaps He was pointing to the necessity of self-interest, without which life is unsustainable. (Can any creature, without a desire to perpetuate its kind or protect itself, survive?) Yet, self-interest does more than insure survival. It is, at its core, Adam Smith’s invisible hand that directs the allocation of scarce resources to their most efficient and productive uses.

John Steinbeck, in his novel Cannery Row, points to the underlying friction that a self-interested follower of Christ might sense.
The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
Is there a generalized answer to that toughest of all questions? Are we required, as Christ demanded of a follower, that we sell everything we own and donate the money to the poor? Or should we join a commune and share our resources in common? For some people, that might be the correct course of action, however, here’s an idea to consider.

Giving people ownership is a way by which varied individual interests can be put on the same equal footing. I’m appalled, for example, that Bank of America, which stated over a decade ago that it would put a greater share of its stock in the hands of employees, has not done so. In fact, less than a tenth of a percent of the company is owned by insiders, but that isn't unusual.

On the other hand, huge advantages are derived when wealth creating enterprises and resources are owned by insiders. Creating incentives by which people are provided ownership opportunties is, in my mind, an important step toward a true democracy. I’ll have more to say about this in future blogs.

No comments: