Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)
On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.” Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.
It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.
But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.
According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”
Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms. He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.
Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.
Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.
Nearly! That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth. Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.
Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).
Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:
“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”
On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.
Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?
Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?