The first passage today is inspired by my post, Incoming Question, and some of the commentary that followed it. From the Gospel of Mark:
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21 And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.”
This passage, and its companions in Matthew and Luke, is one that has been misinterpreted quite a lot since the time of Christ. Many Christians have interpreted it as meaning that riches are incompatible with attaining heaven. Along with that, they have adopted a binary mode of thinking and conclude that poverty is essential to Christian piety. This is simply not supported in Scripture or Tradition, but it is one of those constant heresies (which is what it is) that pops up every now and then. To understand what Jesus is saying, look again at what he tells the rich man to do. Jesus gives him two commands: the first is to sell his possessions, and the second is to give the proceeds to the poor.
The first part is later explained by Jesus: riches make it difficult for us enter heaven. How so? Well, the eye of a needle was a type of narrow gate/entryway in the city walls at the time of Jesus. Camels were the common transport animal used by merchants in that part of the world for long distance caravans, thanks to their ability to carry a lot of goods and to sustain themselves on only small amounts of water. In caravans, they were loaded up with goods, so that they ended up quite bulky. As a result, a camel would have a very difficult time indeed to pass through one, thanks to all of the possessions, or baggage, piled up on them. What Jesus was saying to his disciples is that riches are often baggage that pile up on us during our life, and keep us from entering the narrow gate that leads to the path to heaven. The more possessions we have, the more worldly distractions we have to keep us from focusing on God and entering the gate. If we want to enter through that gate, we need to cast away the baggage that we have piled up on us.
For some of us, we don’t have to cast a lot away. For others, we have to cast most or all of it away. For the rich man, his worldly possession were blocking him from entering the kingdom; he needed to give them all away. While he didn’t go out and do wrong to others, as he explained, they were keeping him from putting God at the center of his life. They were an impediment to him, and so he needed to get a rid of them.
There is another component as well, namely that of giving the proceeds of his possessions to the poor. The rich man had indicated he kept the commands, he didn’t do wrong to others. But he never expressed that he was going out and affirmatively doing right, either. Alms-giving was something he didn’t mention. So it seems as thought he was refraining from evil, but that is not the same thing as actively doing good. Jesus was encouraging charity in him, which is one of the essential virtues of Christian faith. In other words, Jesus was trying to get the rich man to think of others, and not merely himself. One result of this would be to also help the rich man think of God more as well.
The subject of alms-giving is one that the Old Testament touches on as well. Here is what the Archangel Raphael had to say on the subject from the Book of Tobit:
8 Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. 9 For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life; 10 but those who commit sin are the enemies of their own lives.
The Book of Sirach also had this to say:
30 Water extinguishes a blazing fire:
so almsgiving atones for sin.
31 Whoever requites favors gives thought to the future;
at the moment of his falling he will find support.
9 Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake,
and because of his need do not send him away empty.
10 Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend,
and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.
11 Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High,
and it will profit you more than gold.
12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury,
and it will rescue you from all affliction;
13 more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear,
it will fight on your behalf against your enemy.
I find the language on alms-giving helping you to escape death to be especially powerful. As Christians, we can understand this in a way that the writers of Tobit and Sirach could not- it is not simply that charity helps one to escape death, but helps us to achieve life, and lasting life at that.
Another thing that I found interesting is how Jesus’ warning against wealth builds upon earlier scripture. The Book of Sirach contained a similar admonition, along with praise for those who use wealth well:
5 He who loves gold will not be justified,
and he who pursues money will be led astray by it.
6 Many have come to ruin because of gold,
and their destruction has met them face to face.
7 It is a stumbling block to those who are devoted to it,
and every fool will be taken captive by it.
8 Blessed is the rich man who is found blameless,
and who does not go after gold.
9 Who is he? And we will call him blessed,
for he has done wonderful things among his people.
10 Who has been tested by it and been found perfect?
Let it be for him a ground for boasting.
Who has had the power to transgress and did not transgress,
and to do evil and did not do it?
11 His prosperity will be established,
and the assembly will relate his acts of charity.
Being rich and serving God are not impossible, as all things are possible with God. Money is not evil in and of itself, but it is a constant source of temptation. So we always need to be careful that we don’t acquire money for the sake of having it. Instead, money needs to be a tool for us to achieve good in the world, and to carry out the works of God. Let us keep in mind these words of our Savior:
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’