I’ve been reading a biography of Tussy Marx, daughter of Karl, who spent her life working with people in Victorian England, both men and women, whose conditions of work and housing meant that scarcity was the constitutive experience of their lives. She could see that there were abundant resources for life on earth for everybody but that most of them had been appropriated by the possessors and managers of capital. For Tussy as for her father, a shared abundance would only come at the end of revolutionary changes in the economy, but she laboured actively for small but vital improvements, such as the eight-hour working day.
Nothing seems further away from Tussy’s life of agitation than the teachings of Jesus about wealth. He told his disciples not to fret about food or clothing because God the Father had made a world of lavish abundance which could be seen in the feeding birds and the flowering plants. He spoke of the unrealibility of worldly wealth and advised them to work rather for God’s treasure, the sharing of justice, compassion and peace. At times indeed he recognised that His Way involved material and emotional sacrifice, but even then he promised rewards which would be humanly rich. He was very firm with people who wanted to hang on to their wealth, even to the point of mockery in his story of the rich farmer who is about to “grow” his enterprise when death takes him away.
So did Jesus live in a more prosperous society than Tussy Marx, or is his teaching unrealistic in simply not dealing with the struggle of many people for mere survival?
One might argue that Jesus’ society lacked the sheer oppression of the urban working class of Victorian England, but we need reminding how much work in Palestine was done by slaves, who had no rights at all. Jesus was aware of slavery and told many stories about slaves, and, as far as we know, he did not seek their emancipation. But he did want every person to share the abundant life, which, he taught, was available now.
One method for understanding Jesus’ improbable conviction of abundance is to look at his own ministry, especially his gathering of disciples, and to ask how it was funded. We know that St Paul funded his ministry at times by his own trade of leather-working, but the picture given in the Gospels is of a leader and disciples who had left their trades behind. This is asserted specifically of the disciples, but appears to be true of Jesus also.
There is no evidence however, that like early Francisans, Jesus and his disciples begged, nor that like certain other religious orders, they were funded by rich supporters. If we look at the communal life of the first believers as described in Acts 2 and 4, in which goods and possessions were shared for the benefit of all, we may suppose that they were continuing a life- style pioneered by Jesus’ disciples. Doubtless Jesus had been able, out of money saved from his business, to help fund his ministry. Perhaps some disciples were able to do the same. The women whom Luke describes as travelling with Jesus and his group as helpers, may also have made contributions. The gospel of John mentions a common purse, to which perhaps people who liked Jesus’ message could contribute: it will have been a hand-to- mouth existence.
But why did Jesus call this precarious existence, abundant?
He knew the distance between prophecy and fulfillment; he knew that he and his disciples were not living in the fulness of what he called God’s rule; the reality of suffering was all too evident. Recognition of that distance is the source of the sobriety of Jesus’ gospel. But he also knew that it was possible to live tomorrow’s life today; that in the midst of the present evil age committed men and women could establish bridgeheads of the age to come: outcasts could be welcomed into community; the sick could be healed; the powerful could be challenged; the sinners could be released from guilt; the poor could know the happiness of shared life.
Even now abundance is within reach for those who place their trust in the future rule of justice, freedom, peace, and goodness. Jesus never pretended that this was a substitute for the complete establishment of God’s rule; rather it was a foretaste, a pointer and a summons. Tussy Marx in the midst of so much busyness, so much endurance, so much achievement, so much responsibility, knew the fierce joy of living the future now, as well as the abiding pain of defeat and loss, as Jesus also did, believing that only those who share the scarcities of the poor, can share the abundance of God’s rule.