Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, Armenian icon
It’s easy to avoid any sort of conviction with Jesus’ parables or teachings. I think this is natural given our human nature. After all, who in their right mind would genuinely want to be unsettled, disturbed, or left in limbo? Comfort is far safer and it’s easier to assume that other people ought to be the ones convicted.
But nevertheless, such disorientation is incredibly powerful. Let’s take the story of the rich young ruler, found in all three synoptic gospels. This man of great wealth and status gives all the correct “Sunday school” answers while conversing with Jesus. Everything is fine and dandy. Then Jesus, in a climactic moment, tells of something missing for this young man. Take all you have and give it to the poor. That’s what you’re lacking. The young man leaves Jesus, saddened because obtaining treasure in heaven is truly costly.
This story absolutely fascinates me. We can obviously fiddle with what it means to be wealthy in various contexts. If you’re reading this blog, you’re wealthy compared to so many others who do not have access to the internet, leisure time, or the disposable income required to maintain the two. Even if you make minimum wage in America, in some ways (but not all) you are still better off than others in extreme, chronic poverty across the globe.
Of course we can spiritualize this teaching. Perhaps Jesus calls us to abandon anything that has hold of our heart. For some it’s pride or self-image. For others it’s material possessions like cars or houses. But hopefully it’s not money–abandoning that would be quite a task (surely it’s not money for me, right?). Having money while others do not is not intrinsically bad, we may argue with spiritualized hermeneutics, but the rich young ruler probably obsessed over money so it became problematic.
Even if we are more literal and see this story as a warning against habitual wealth accumulation, what is our typical response? How do we avoid being like this young man? We give a percentage of our money to charity, of course. It’s admirable and we might even be recognized for our generosity. This is our response to Jesus’ command to “give to the poor.”
Note that Jesus does not say “give money to a well-established international non-profit organization that uses no more than 25% of funds for administration costs and at least 75% for programs and services.” But this is exactly how we interpret this message in the modern day. As capitalist consumers, our vision of “ending poverty” almost always involved giving countless dollars to yearly campaigns, child sponsorships, and food drops. More partnership-oriented programs like micro-lending, though rising in popularity, pale in comparison to the amount of money given to massive relief organizations. There are times and places for relief work, but I’m a bit uncomfortable about evading Jesus’ conviction while shifting the blame to others who may not donate money to the charity of our choice.
I don’t think Jesus’ response would change much if he were around today and witnessed youth groups sponsoring Compassion kids, bloggers promoting Kickstarter campaigns, or even socially-conscious adults giving away 10% of their income. Christians can be incredibly generous, but there’s more to working with poverty than simply funding programs. I imagine he’d say something along the lines of:
Give all that you have to the poor. Don’t just write a check and call it quits. Don’t assume that giving money is the most effective response to a problem. Think critically about how you work to liberate others. What about your time, vocation, what you’re chasing in life, and your own self? Truly giving to the poor will change the way you live.