The Rich Young Man and Redistribution of Wealth
Isn’t it interesting that Matthew puts this passage about the rich young man right after Jesus blesses the little children. Of course, these two events may have taken place on different days or even in different years, but switching from the innocent sweetness of little children to someone who has all the resources and sophistication that wealth and education can bring, must have taken a great deal of effort. I’m told that peace corps volunteers face this culture shock when they return from a third world country and re-enter a grocery store.
The wealthy man’s question implies he is coming to grips with the fact that you can’t take your riches with you when you die, and so he is wisely asking Jesus, the teacher and prophet, how he can obtain the one thing he doesn’t yet have: eternal life. He asks what “good” he needs to do to merit eternal life.
When Jesus answers that there is only one who is good; namely, God, and then launches into a recitation of the commandments, the young man counters with what amounts to: “Whoa! I am good! I’ve kept all of these commandments.” Jesus, instead of asking (as I would have): “Then why did you ask me ‘Which ones?’ when I said “keep the commandments?” Jesus must have looked at his clothing, his manner, the care he took of his skin, and then challenged him on the one thing he lacked in THIS life, detachment from his wealth.
As the young man went away grieving (“no eternal life for me—yi!”), Jesus commented on the extreme difficulty of getting into that eternal realm with your bags full of money.
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible makes the assumption that since the man was wealthy, he could NOT have kept the commandments Jesus quoted; that in that era and culture, he got wealthy by exploiting others, being greedy, and depriving others of what he had accumulated. The NISB adds: “Contrary to elitist values that often despised the poor and blamed them for their poverty, wealth does not equate with virtue” (p. 1781). “Wealth has blinded him,” NISB continues, “to unjust, hierarchical social relationships…To follow Jesus is to join a community that renounces domination based on birth and wealth, and where all are slaves (12:46-55; 20:24-28)…To live a life that deprives people of necessary resources, that maintains social inequities, makes it impossible to participate in God’s empire. Repentance and restructured social and economic practices are necessary.” Only God can effect that transformation.
Wow! Sounds like a call for the redistribution of wealth, doesn’t it? Such a call would be fought with great vigor in the United States and labeled “Marxist” by many. The poor are, indeed, blamed for their poverty, their lack of education, and their living conditions. We who have wealth act as if we can earn eternal life with some generous contributions or by looking after our own. We even go so far as to regard our wealth as a gift from God, as evidence of His love for and approval of us.
When asking that same question—what must we do to gain eternal life—the ironical answer is “nothing…just desire it.” More and more spiritual writers and thinkers are agreeing with Richard Rohr that grace is “the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere.” As Rohr puts it in a Daily Meditation adapted from Job and the Mystery of Suffering and The Enneagram and Grace: 9 Journeys to Divine Presence:
“I would go so far as to call grace the primary revelation of the entire Bible. If you miss this message, all the rest is distorted and even destructive. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.
The only perquisite for receiving the next grace is having received the previous one…Every moment is not obvious as God, as grace. It just looks like another ordinary moment. But your willingness to see it as gratuitous—as a free gift, as self-revelatory, as a possibility—allows it to be that way. God’s hiding ceases. God and grace become apparent as a gift each moment. And those who learn how to receive gifts keep receiving further gifts.”
The question remains as to whether Jesus is calling for a redistribution of wealth. Or was that then, and this is now? After all, there have been quite a few changes in society, science, technology, food, population, communication and economies in two thousand years. But poverty still remains. The exploitation and destruction of the earth accelerates. Wealth is more and more concentrated among fewer and fewer people. Why would the wealthy ever want to redistribute wealth? –For eternal life? Didn’t we just say it was free for those who desire it?
Ah. Maybe that’s it: redistribution of wealth, freedom from it, letting go of it, is NECESSARY in order to even DESIRE eternal life. You don’t want to be filled if you are already full. As poverty remains, so does the fact that wealth cannot be taken with you into that next realm of existence. In the U.S., the repeal of the estate tax tries to ensure that one’s wealth will be passed on to the “right people.” Pope Francis–no stranger to a knowledge about poverty–is calling for all of us to deal with it.
And so dealing with both wealth and poverty will take transformation, that’s for sure, and it needs to start with me. It will take grace. It will take God.