Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sell! Sell!

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Where did we go wrong?

We read on good authority that the early Christians "would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

If I could speak on behalf of Michele Bachman or Glenn Beck - which I can't, but if I could - I'd grab an existential bullhorn to transcend the tiresome dimensions of time and tell these primitives what us modern Christians think of them.


What the hell are you doing, giving away all your stuff? Not only does Luke's subversive prose plant treacherous ideas in modern brains - like, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need"? - it was inevitable that these early share-the-wealth deals died with the disciples. The history of the last 2,000 years vindicates the Tea Party platform that we all have a God-give right to keep whatever we can get our hands on. The Christian monarchs of Europe, most of whom believed they reigned by divine right, were wealthy beyond our wildest imagination, and most were careful to keep their abundance in the family. Perhaps the closest any of us get to first-century socialism is when our grandmothers invite us to their cluttered parlors and tell us, "If you see anything you like, put your name on it and you can have it after my funeral."

There are, of course, generous Christian philanthropists who endow new church roofs, soup kitchens and ecumenical programs, but none of them give everything they have to the poor. And why would that surprise us? Who expects anyone to give everything to the poor?

Who? Well, that's a bit of an awkward question. Bill Gates doesn't expect anyone to tell him to do that, nor does Warren Buffet. But chances are, neither of them have put the question directly to Jesus: what good deed must I do to have eternal life?

The question leads us to another meddlesome scripture verse in Matthew, chapter 19, verses 16-26.

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him ... ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ ... The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Poor dude. No one knows what happened to this rich young man or what he thought of Jesus' two-step salvation plan. Maybe he eventually wiped a tear from his eye and gave all his money to the poor, but our instincts make us doubt it. For one thing, there was no tax incentive for that kind of largesse, and for another, none of us know any rich people who would give the idea a second thought. So, good-bye, Jesus.

Each Sunday when I climb the staircase of North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y., I pass a black-and-white print of a painting by Johann Michael Ferdinand Heinrich Hoffman, a German painter in the late 19th and 20th centuries whose paintings depicted the life of Jesus.

The center figure in the picture is Jesus, gesturing with both hands toward a bearded old man who represents the poor and sick. At the right of the painting is a well dressed young man who places his left hand on his hip and turns his sad face away from Jesus. The young man has clearly heard something that appalls him. Daughter Katie, who also passes the picture every Sunday, loves it. She thinks the young man looks like her when she is told something she doesn't like - right down to the hand on the hip and the diverted pout. Katie is almost correct. In fact, the disappointed young man looks like all of us.

The Hoffman painting is "Christ and the Rich Young Ruler." The original can be viewed across the street from the God Box, where Martha and I work, in Riverside Church. Two companion Hoffman works are also there: "Christ in the Temple," and - one of the most reproduced paintings in the world - "Christ in Gethsemane."

The paintings were purchased and given to the church by the same man whose fortune endowed its construction: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller - known as St. John the Divine among American Baptists who benefitted from his generosity over many years, including those of us who enjoy the fruits of the ABC Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. Junior was by all reports a good man. The turning point of his life may have been in April 1914 when a riot occurred at a coal-mining company where Junior owned a controlling interest and served as an absentee director. Twenty men, women and children died in the incident and Junior was called to testify in January 1915. He encountered the charismatic union organizer, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, and in his testimony admitted fault. Some historians say his courage restored the family's reputation; others say his honesty introduced a new era of union relations in the United States. At the end of his life, there were few parallels to the sheer volume of philanthropy he initiated.

But, as we strict biblical constructionists are bound to point out, he didn't give away all that he had to the poor. His sons and their heirs sit on a leftover bundle that makes Scrooge McDuck's money bin look like chump change.

Martha and I met Steven Rockefeller, professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College, at last year's rededication of The Interchurch Center where we work. Steven, son of Nelson, was there to represent his grandfather, the late Junior, without whose generosity the God Box would still be a series of breezy tennis courts on the Hudson. Tall and bald, as if he emerged from the Daddy Warbucks school of central casting, Steven's dignified demeanor makes you forget his youthful escapade in which he married one of the family's downstairs maids. He's a respected theologian and academician, with the minor caveat that when you're a Rockefeller, people tend to think every mumble and belch that comes out of your mouth is deep. When I shook Steven's hand, Jesus' admonishment to the rich young ruler crossed my mind. I might have asked him if he had plans to give all his money to the poor, but I'm not as dim as I look. I smiled and thanked him for his brilliant - brilliant - speech.

So, what about Jesus' message to the rich young ruler? Was Jesus baiting the poor dude, just to see how far his crest would fall? Or was the young man asking for it, ingratiating himself with the famous rabbi, and arrogantly limiting the price of admission to heaven to one "good deed"?

No doubt it has been argued by thousands of ecclesiastical lawyers that Jesus is not really setting an impossibly high bar to heaven. Initially, the young man asked how to win eternal life, and Jesus told him to obey the commandments, which the young man said he did. Score. Then Jesus said, if you want to be perfect, give away all you have to the poor and follow me. Ah, there's the catch. You don't have to be perfect to get into heaven. If you did, heaven would be as empty as a hotel bar during an American Baptist biennial meeting.

The gospel writer took pains to record the scene when the disconsolate young man slouched away from Jesus. You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he comments: "Truly, I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven." He adds the famous line that Elton Trueblood believed was a messianic wisecrack: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:23)

But the apostles didn't laugh. They choked on their matzos and shouted, "Jesus Christ! Then who can be saved?" Jesus stared into their eyes and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (25-26)

The rich young man should have stayed to listen. Heaven is not a meritocracy. Good deeds won't get you there, and you can't buy your admission by bartering everything you own. As Jesus perseverated throughout his ministry, it's faith, not fortune, that opens those doors. Faith first - then good works.

The farther back in Christian history you go, the more likely you are to find Christians who got it right. The church in Acts was an example - symbolically enduring but historically fleeting. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

As the years passed, the disappearance of this utopian community was sudden and heart breaking. A few centuries later, Christians were gathering opposing armies, burning each other at stakes and beheading the apostates.

Some church historians blame the decline of the church on the end of the Sunday school movement, or the rise of liberalism, or the ecumenical movement, or - probably more to the point - the rise of Sunday morning athletic events and the end of Sunday evening prayer services that conflicted with the Ed Sullivan show. But it may well be that church decline began the first time a medieval bishop or monarch heard a sermon they didn't like, and ordered the preacher burned or beheaded.

We don't know a lot about the first century church described in Acts, and a lot of modern bishops and monarchs fret that the second chapter of Acts bears the seeds of the Communist manifesto. Down with the rich. Down with the upper classes. Up with the workers. Up with the same standard of living for everyone.

Too bad. Those early Christians were on to something. And while they were living a life style of equal sharing, they were never more popular. "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple," Luke writes, "they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

What a great period in history. These were not perfect people, nor were they devoid of comfort or home or food or goodwill. But their faith taught them that was all they needed. And each day, more people joined their little group to share the experience.

I sometimes wonder if the rich young man who walked away from Jesus ever discovered this Christian community. In their midst, would he have found it easier to sell all he had and give it to the poor? Or would he, like so many of us, stand like reeking camels before the eyes of impossibly tiny needles?

For us, and perhaps for the rich young ruler, entrance into the kingdom would be impossible. But for God, all things are possible. And in that grace lies our salvation.

1 comment:

  1. Phil
    Check out my review of the new book "Christians and the Common Good" by Charles Gutenson. Right on point. www.terryspicks.blogspot.com