This series of blogs is a bit like the 10 commandments: they try to define behaviours that are unacceptable in the Jesus community.
Surely wealth is not a crime, many will protest. Jesus would reply that it is a crime and the mother of crimes. He did not ask the rich young man how he used his wealth, but told him how to get rid of it, and to become a disciple. The rich man was honest enough to refuse because he wanted to keep his wealth. The co-existence of wealth and poverty was offensive to Jesus, whose communities made sure that no member went without anything they needed. This required a disciplined sharing of personal possessions.
This discipline should not be mistaken for socialism which is a political movement committed to a just distribution of wealth and power in societies. Some followers of Jesus may be drawn to socialism, others may not, but all are obliged to eradicate poverty within the local, national and international church, and to minister to non-members in the same spirit. The church has not always made this clear to its members, but it seems to me such a central characteristic of Jesus and the first churches.
I suppose someone could argue that the society of Jesus’ Palestine was so different from say, modern Scotland, that we cannot transfer his teaching and example from his milieu to ours. As with the determinants of power, so indeed the determinants of wealth and poverty in Jesus’ society were different from those of 21st century capitalism, but the lived experience of being poor, or being rich was very similar. It is also the case that Jesus was not simply against wealth because it should be shared with the poor, but also because of its corrupting influence on the human soul: arrogance, irresponsibility, selfishness and greed, Jesus thought, were the results of wealth, leading him to ask his famous question, “what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
The discipline of refusing to be wealthy and sharing one’s resources within the partnership of the church is, on the other hand, the source of other virtues, such as solidarity, generosity, equality, compassion and the humility to receive the gifts of others. The beauty of this kind of community is its own justification.
The power of the economic system in which we live is a permanent temptation to forget or dismiss Jesus’ teaching and example. Many followers of Jesus, like me, will confess that we are only half- converted in this regard; but when we look at the appalling ugliness caused by the love of money, we are all the more encouraged to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”