We learned the story in Sunday school:
The rich ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The ruler says that he has kept the commandments since his youth. Jesus then tells the man to sell all he owns, distribute it to the poor and to follow him. The man went away sad (Luke 18: 18-30).
In the early church, members sold their houses and land. The apostles "distributed to each as any had need" (Acts 4:35).
The story of the rich ruler teaches us that Christian discipleship requires the willingness to give up everything to follow Jesus. It reminds us that we cannot serve both God and mammon. In our emphasis on what Christian discipleship requires us to give and to give up, we often fail to appreciate what we stand to gain.
Jesus promises: "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:29-30). For the rich ruler, living human relationships would have replaced his relationship with his lifeless material possessions.
The heart and soul of our faith walk is a righteous relationship with God, humanity, and creation. When we value our relationship with our wealth over relationship with God, humanity, and creation, we are guilty of idolatry. Our highest value is the created thing rather than the Creator and the Creator's commandments.
Further, we are building relationships with that which is transient and easily lost. Jesus taught: "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19). Jesus knew that the stuff we own owns us. And, if the financial crisis in late 2008 taught us anything, the lesson is that we may think our money, investments, and value of our real estate is secure, but it can all be gone in an instant. Thus, generosity is a value and a virtue that the ethics of Jesus teaches. It puts us in right relationship with each other no matter the vagaries of the financial system.
When we apply this value to the health-care debate, we can say that the rich ought to pay more to help fund health care. When 20 percent of the nation's population controls 85 percent of the nation's wealth, we see a political economic system that is skewed to the rich. Distributive justice requires higher taxes on people who have more for the sake of providing necessary services to the entire population.
Since the United State is a nonsectarian republic, we cannot argue that the rich ought to pay higher taxes because Jesus teaches generosity. We can, however, let the teachings of Jesus influence the shared values and beliefs that we live in our society. These common values undergird our laws.
When the founders of our nation signed the Declaration of Independence, they pledged to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. We pledge allegiance to a nation that strives for liberty and justice for all. This ought to include the just claim to health care for all. And to whom much is given, much is required.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.
To learn more about health-care reform, click here to visit Sojourners' Health-Care Resources Web page.