Jesus once said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven – and while it’s impossible for man, it’s possible for God. Jesus wasn’t telling us to become poor per se, but warning against attachment to things, and reminding us we need God’s help.
The Kingdom of Heaven has at least two meanings in Christian thought: literal heaven, of course, but also, following the ways of Jesus here on Earth. Things aren’t important to God: He can make as much stuff as He wants. But each person is unique. God cares, and Jesus asks us to care for each other.
Worrying about making sure we have enough stuff is practically important, and Jesus doesn’t ask us to forget about it: in the Parable of the Talents, He suggests that we need to take care of the resources that we are given, and that those who invest their talents wisely will be rewarded many times over.
But for every verse which praises responsibility, three exhort us not to worry about possessions. When a young rich man asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Perhaps following was more literal during Jesus’s ministry, but many verses in the Gospels take a similar tack: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles strive after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
Jesus is doing more than just telling us not to worry. The Parable of the Rich Fool portrays a man who builds bigger storehouses to hold all his wealth, only for God to say to him: “You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?”
This story isn’t about God being a jerk to a rich guy: it’s about the very real possibility that we won’t live to take advantage of what we’ve saved up for tomorrow – and questioning our priorities. The Rich Fool’s wealth was grain, stored in warehouses – and rather than share it, the man built bigger storehouses.
I feel the man’s pain – I’ve worked a number of years to try to provide for I and my wife’s retirement, and we ended up buying a bigger house to better house my vast library and her equally bulky art studio. But is that the best use of our wealth? What would happen to all this if something were to happen to me?
There’s a story about the house in which I’m writing this blogpost: supposedly, the man who owned it died just three years after renovating it – on the back porch added during the renovation, I might add. A good friend tells a similar story about his father, who fell ill before he could ever enjoy retirement.
Our wealth is transient – and provided by God. A friend told a story once about getting a surprise bonus – I don’t recall the precise story, but let’s say he found a twenty. He gave the twenty away in the collection plate, and ended up getting forty bucks from someone who remembered they owed him something.
He donated the forty, and got eighty or a hundred bucks in a gift card. He continued giving away this windfall over and over again, and the rough doubling continued, until finally at several hundred dollars, he said, “Alright, God, I get the point – I don’t need any more.”
Similarly, I can confidently say that I’ve “earned” far more money from following my Christian values and treating people the way that I wish I was treated than I’ve ever earned from just hard work. Putting your nose to the grindstone sometimes just throws sparks; treating people with respect wins you far more.
Jesus sent His disciples out with minimal provisions. Now, He could have provided them with mana from heaven – paraphrasing Dennis Leary, God has the budget – but He sent them out as mendicants, living off the largesse of the people they preached to – because the Kingdom of Heaven is also here on Earth.
For each story in which Jesus exhorts us not to worry about possessions, there’s another about us taking care of each other – and not just the overt “give to all those who beg of you”; the feature implicit in the story of the Rich Fool is that he is not sharing his abundance – and yet, he should.
This goes back to Leviticus: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.” Many passages in the New and Old Testament teach us our society should not be structured to maximize exploitation, but to leave space at the margins.
Jesus spoke in parable, hyperbole and metaphor. When Jesus says to forgive someone not seven times, but seventy times seven times, He doesn’t mean 490 times: He means to forgive endlessly. Similarly, when Jesus says “give to all those who beg from you,” this is a general principle, not a strict rule.
Once, a Christian girl I dated – named Christian, interestingly – and I were waiting for a table for dinner when a thin, trembling woman in a knitted cap came up and asked us for money. Even before I could speak, Christian politely but firmly gave her directions to the nearest shelter, just a few blocks away.
The woman left, and just as she did, the server ran out to us. “Did you give her any money? No? Good. She’s a recovering heroin addict with an assigned social worker. Please don’t give her anything. What she really needs is not to get any money.” Christian’s take on this was, “Jesus is not an enabler.”
In trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here on Earth, we are bound to make mistakes. Trying to use our talents wisely can distract us from the needs of others. Creating the standard where we give to everyone without discretion can lead to people taking advantage of the system to their own detriment.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. If you’re down on your luck, of course, maybe you don’t have anything to give – but that just means God appreciates what you do even more than someone who has it all. And if you have it all, it’s worth asking … do you really need all that, or can you pass some of that forward?