Putting the Rich on Notice

Ted Turner recently committed one billion dollars to U.N. efforts over the next decade. Speaking in round figures, that's about one billion dollars more than I even expect to make in the next decade, let alone give to charity.

Still, I have to say, big deal. Charity is cheap—compared to justice. Turner's net worth increased by a tidy one billion dollars in the first nine months of 1997 alone. He was already worth just over two billion dollars at the end of last year, and suddenly it dawns on him, I could give away everything I've made so far this year—and I'd still be obscenely wealthy. And then, riding on the euphoric wave of this insight, he declares, "I'm putting the rich on notice. They're going to be hearing from me about giving money away."

Well, as someone sitting well within the lower tiers of the economy—and as a Christian—I'm unimpressed.

See, Jesus put the rich on notice long before Ted Turner did. Among other things he said, "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor...; and come, follow me" (Luke 18:22). And "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). And finally, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25).

Although I suspect that Jesus' views on wealth sit rather uncomfortably beside our own, he didn't have a problem with material goods. After all, he knew how to throw a party; he entertained thousands (albeit on rather simple fare: loaves and fishes) and still had leftovers (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10). He turned water into wine, and not just into Mogen David (or worse, Boone's Farm!); we're talking a vintage wine that impressed the connoisseurs (John 2:1-10). And he didn't seem to mind at all when a woman of some means (regardless of her reputation) bathed his feet with costly perfume in a scene so suggestive that it unnerved even the Calvin Kleins of the first century Jewish community (Luke 7:36-50).

Yet Jesus saw a clear priority between goods and people. Goods are here in order to serve the needs and celebrate the joys of people. People are not here in order to accumulate goods; nor simply to labor so that others might accumulate goods; and least of all to become pawns in a system in which wealth takes on a life of its own and bends human lives at all levels to its own inhuman and inexorable yearning to see more and more of itself.

When Jesus said, "The Sabbath is made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28), he was extending the critique made by the prophets centuries earlier. They had railed against Israel's Sabbath practices both because the wealthy spent the day impatiently waiting for the stock exchange to reopen the next morning (Amos 8:5) and because they failed to see that the injustice rampant in their social life could not be reconciled with the piety pretended at the altar (Isaiah 1:13).

Jesus seems to discern that in his day the powerful sought even to sacralize injustice, employing the Sabbath to keep oppression in place. And once even the Sabbath becomes twisted to serve human designs, then the cause of the poor is truly precarious, because now the rich "put the rich on notice." Now "charity" flows freely. Now Ted Turner can claim the spotlight. And now the God of justice can be quietly kept back in the shadows.

What's so wrong with charity? Nothing—except this: It has the frightening capacity to dull our senses to God's call for justice.

The early church fathers knew this well. St. Symeon represents a much broader company in declaring, "Charity which flows from your surpluses is merely the return of stolen goods." Instead of celebrating Turner's huge gift to the United Nations, maybe it's worth asking why he gets to run his fencing operation in the public limelight with accolades all around—perhaps all the better to distract us from asking why one man can have so much to spare (and get praised for it!) in a country where poverty (especially among children!) is on the rise.

So, why is it that Jesus sees it so difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom? Surely not because God doesn't love the rich, though perhaps it begins in that the rich may find it difficult to love God. If indeed our hearts make their homes in our treasures, the rich are ever in danger of having hearts tethered to treasures that not only can't be taken with them—but may instead keep them from going anywhere worth going in the first place. But even this stops short.

The real reason for Jesus' ominous lament lies in the character of the kingdom itself. When Jesus' phrase "the kingdom of God" is cast into English we inevitably lose some of the dynamic character of the Aramaic expression. Jesus isn't talking about the place or the time where God is king, he is describing the dynamic and omnipresent activity of God as king. The kingdom that the rich find it so difficult to enter, to participate in, is this: the activity of God making justice.

God doesn't give Pharaoh a billion dollars to ease the life of the Israelites; God says "Let my people go!" (Exodus 5:1). God doesn't just thank the rich for their charity, but may as likely counter, "It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:14-15). Indeed, when God in Jesus took the decisive action of the kingdom, he "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant....[A]nd he humbled himself and became obedient unto death" (Philippians 2:7-8). No wonder the rich would rather serve up notice on their own terms.

I don't think charity is bad, per se. And I certainly don't suggest that the United Nations spurn Turner's gift. (Even the Israelites accepted the silver and gold of the Egyptians as they left the land; Exodus 12:35-36). But let's not make it out for what it isn't: some heroic gesture of generosity. Charity is cheap—compared to justice.

Until Mr. Turner and the others in his league dismantle the economic empires that suck the wealth of the many upward into the fortunes of the few, I refuse to be impressed. God put the rich on notice long before Ted Turner did, and the challenge wasn't to lead the way in charity. The terms are the same for all of us: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

When this article appeared, David R. Weiss was writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame on faith development, justification by faith, and Lutheran ethics.

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