Jesus can be an embarrassment, not least to disciples. Peter Brown points to an example in his recent The Ransom of the Soul, Jesus’s statement to the rich young ruler to “go and sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Brown has found few studies that take up the point, and notes that those who do do their best to neutralize its obvious meaning: “Klaus Koch insisted that, when Jesus spoke of ‘treasure in heaven,’ he must have meant something very different from the meanings that came to be attached to it in later centuries. Belief in the direct accumulation of treasure in heaven through almsgiving on earth . . . was dismissed by Koch: It was ‘fur den Protestanten eine abscheuliche Vorstellung‘—‘a notion abhorrent to any Protestant’” (28). Catholics and Jews express similar reservations. An inscription at the tomb of bishop Hilary of Arles states that the bishop had “bought up heaven with earthly gifts.” Brown writes, “The editors of a 2001 catalog of early Christian monuments of Arles suggested, somewhat timidly, that such a phrase might strike a modern person as ‘a formula which certain of us . . . would not doubt have found somewhat abrupt or heretical.’” Commenting on a story of the Jewish King Monobazos, who spent his family fortune on the poor of Jerusalem, Ephraim Urbach looked in vain for “traces of a more refined doctrine . . . [some] sublimation of the materialistic simile of collecting treasures above through squandering them below’” (29). Gary Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Brown notes, is one of the few studies to take Jesus quite at His word (28).
Brown finds no trace of such side-stepping embarrassment in early Christian texts, and wonders “Why is it that a way of speaking of the relation between heaven and earth that late antique and medieval Christians took for granted seems to very alien to us? Perhaps it is we who are strange” (29).
Searching for an explanation for this disparity, he points to John Parry’s observation that “economic transactions [have] become increasingly differentiated from other types of social relation” in the modern world, with the result that “the transactions appropriate to each become ever more polarized in terms of their symbolism and ideology” (29). Religious and economic exchanges exist in realms so distinct that we are virtually “unable to imagine the mechanisms by which they are joined” (quoted, 30). These are not entirely modern attitudes. Brown observes that “ancient philosophers, from Socrates onward, made a clear distinction between ordinary exchanges for ordinary goods and the existence of goods so precious and nourishing to the mind and soul . . . that they would be tarnished and diminished by being connected in any way with mere money” (30). Early Christians were aware of this tradition, but stuck with the biblical “images of the transfer of treasure from earth to heaven and of the preparation of heavenly mansions through regular almsgiving.” They believed, in Anderson’s words, that alms “allowed the individual to enact the miracle of God’s grace” in a small scale on earth (31).
In Brown’s summary, the early Christians didn’t think of the heavenly treasure house as a mere bank account, storing their goods for future use. Rather, by giving alms Christians “brought together two zones of the imagination that common sense held apart.” And if heaven and earth might be joined by the miracle of charity, perhaps all other divisions might also be overcome through generosity, including the division between rich and poor: “It tingled with the sense that almsgiving created a bridge over a chasm that was as vertiginous as that which separated earth and heaven, and human beings from God” (32).