Lynn H. Cohick, Wheaton College, IL, author of Women in the World of the First Christians and Philippians (Story of God Bible Commentary), and with G. Burge and G. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:24). Jesus’ words have haunted believers down through the ages. Why is it so hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom? A pragmatic American believer might ask, “how much should I give, and why?” This blunt question is hardly idle, as most of us have some disposable income and are “wealthy” in terms of education, access to modern medicine, and employment opportunities, compared to many areas around the globe. No one wants to be that rich person who gets left out. These are not just our questions; they were asked with equal vigor in the fourth and fifth centuries as the church drew members from the elite class.
Peter Brown’s new book, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012), discusses the perspectives of Ambrose and Augustine, among others, and these insights are relevant today. The ancient church examined the “why” of giving, the “who” of giving, and the “so what” of giving.
First, “Why give?” For Augustine, it was all about right love. In his day, the rich might sponsor games or spectacles; the donor loved the city, but not the poor people who made up the city (Brown 73). In the end, the donor loved herself and the honor bestowed on her for her generosity. Augustine shifted the focus from the “I” to the “poor.”
Christianity blew apart the closed system of human reciprocity – I give money for games and spectacles, and you give me public honor – and replaced it with a vision of infinite possibilities of divine/human reciprocity: I give to the poor and God will bless me. For the gift to the poor is outside the system of human reciprocity – the gift is given in full knowledge that it cannot be reciprocated in human terms.But still the “I” is at the center – I give to something or someone, and expect something in return, either from other humans, or from God. The “poor” is a category I can use for my own benefit before God. The church addressed this as well in answering a follow up question.
Second, “Who receives?” Ambrose insisted that the poor were not useless dregs of Roman society, or even tragic figures that can be “saved” by wealthy Christians. Ambrose stressed that the rich were either their poor brother’s keeper, or his oppressor. The poor were not “the other” to be helped by the “I,” who can then slip through the needle’s eye and be saved. The “I” must see the poor as family, as brothers and sisters. Brown concludes, “the adoption of a view that saw the poor not only as beggars but also as persons in search of justice and protection reflected mounting pressure within the Christian communities themselves to engage in forms of social action that had wider effects than mere charity to the destitute” (page 80).
Third, one might ask, “So What?” Returning to Matthew 19, notice that Jesus is not asking the young man to become poor, but to give to the poor. In giving to the poor, he will gain no social honor, no reciprocal favors, and no earthly benefits. I suggest that Jesus is not primarily asking the man to give up money because money is his first love. The point of this teaching is not that God targets what earthly thing/person we seem to love most and then ask us to relinquish it. The command is more specific – give to the poor. This command reveals the biblical vision that giving to the poor is as though one gives to God. Proverbs 19:17 reads, “whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” The rich man is commanded to give his money to those who he has perhaps despised, or at least has not given much thought to previously. To give what he loves to those who are unlovely, or unworthy, that is offensive. But God loves the poor. So if the rich young man really wants to follow after God’s heart, he must love those whom God loves. Thus Jesus does not teach renunciation of goods per se, but giving of goods to the poor, thus modeling in a limited way God’s expansive giving.
And observe that Jesus promises reward (see also Matt 6:3-4). Peter picks up on this in Matthew 19:27, wondering what Jesus thinks about that fact that he gave up everything. Peter’s “everything” was much less than the rich man’s “everything,” so would Peter’s reward be less? Jesus reveals to Peter the amazing economies of God’s Kingdom – that the Giver gives gifts all out of proportion to the offering. We should not be shy about desiring our reward, for in desiring it, we proclaim the radical super-abundance of God’s great gift: eternal life. And we live out in the present the teaching of Jesus: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).