This is one of those gospel passages that may hit us right between the eyes before we have time to duck. It’s guaranteed to make everybody squirm in their seats, at least a little, with at least a vague sense of inadequacy. We know that camels can’t go through eyes of needles. But then there’s that “for God all things are possible”, which adds a note of ambiguity to the whole thing. It sounds as if it might indeed be possible, with God, for a whole caravan of camels to ride through the eye of a needle. So did we get hit by a piercing arrow, or a bean bag?
Jesus’ teachings are often couched in ambiguity and exaggeration and seem designed to get us to puzzle it out. He sends us off scratching our heads, giving us the freedom to arrive at conclusions as best we can.
Today he tells a certain rich man—is it a certain rich man, or is it all of us?—he tells a rich man that he can inherit eternal life by giving all he has to the poor and following him. The man goes away sad because he has many possessions. But, here’s another note of ambiguity: we don’t hear what the rich man actually did. Did he overcome his sadness and actually give everything away and follow Jesus? Did he reach some kind of compromise so that he could continue to support himself and his family? Was it 100%? 50%? 20 or 10%? We don’t know how the story turned out.
Some people have heard this “counsel of perfection” and actually given up everything to follow Jesus: 100%. St. Anthony of Egypt did. He heard the gospel read in church one day and did exactly what Jesus said to do: after providing for his sister, he gave the rest away and followed Christ into the desert to be a monk.
But there are some complexities to this approach that make it not a viable option for many of us. Actually, if everyone suddenly tried to unload all their assets it would wreak havoc on the global economy and cause untold suffering to billions of people. Besides, it may not be as easy as it sounds, given the nature of assets in the modern system of banking and investment. Given the intricacies of how today’s economy functions, the most feasible option for most people most of the time is wise and compassionate management of resources.
I don’t mean to let us off the hook or minimize the radical invitation of the gospel, but there is ethical complexity in giving. Most of us most of the time would prefer to give of our resources in ways that do the most good. So, we might prefer to support a homeless shelter than to give out cash on the street in front of a liquor store. Somewhere in the gospel it says to give to whoever asks—but does that mean I give cash to someone who is clearly intoxicated or a drug addict? Thinking there must be a better way to help people is not unreasonable. And, of course, advocacy and community organizing can be as effective as gifts of money.
Another complexity, of course, is whether we have dependents. St. Anthony had one sister to provide for. Many people’s incomes support more people than that. It’s unreasonable to make beggars of one’s own children and spouse in order to follow Jesus’ advice literally. Besides, didn’t he say to do unto others what you would have them do unto you?
Another complexity is age: a twenty-something can sometimes be more radical than an eighty-something. One of our interns at Emery House went to see the Pope in Philadelphia—and, following Jesus’s advice to the apostles, took no money with him! He came back safe and sound and all the better for having done it. That’s the kind of adventure a very young person can undertake that would not be a good idea for the elderly or infirm.
The Church down through the centuries has not been consistent in its teaching on the subject of giving. The most frequently heard number is 10% of one’s income, that is, the tithe. But there has often been flexibility. Ten percent is more than many can afford and less than others are able to give.
So, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this, whether it’s 10% or 100%. Giving it all up, 100%, may be just the right thing for a few of us, a particular vocation. However, probably not for very many of us, for any number of reasons. But it only seems right and good to share what we have with those in need–if not 100%, something.
But I don’t think this is ultimately about percentages. It’s about more than that—with Jesus, it’s always about more! It’s about following Jesus in the Way, the Way that leads to eternal life, the Way that is the liveliness of eternity breaking in on our lives even now. It’s about opening our hearts and minds to the presence of Christ in others.
All human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. And Christ identifies with all of us in a very intimate way, especially the poor, the weak, the marginalized. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” [Mat. 25: 40, 35]
There is a special grace in beginning to see Christ present in all human beings—even when that presence in heavily veiled, even when our sight is so limited, so impaired. It is the liveliness of eternity beginning to dawn upon us.
It’s also about opening our hearts and minds to the presence of Christ within ourselves. Whether we give 1% or 100% or something in between, it’s about finding our way to the kind of generosity that begins to see Christ present not only in others, but in ourselves. Acts of compassionate generosity are our responding to Christ’s animating spirit within us. It’s good, it’s very good, when we give to others for no other reason than that it’s just the right thing to do.
But there is a special grace in discovering within ourselves the springs of compassion and generosity that have their source in the very heart of God. This is to know the liveliness of eternity quickening our souls even now. This is to know Jesus Christ risen and ascended that he might fill all things. This is to know Christ deeply and intimately as the animating spirit, the quickening spring enshrined within our very own hearts.
All compassion and generosity have their source in the heart of God. God is love—and the gift of compassion is God’s gift to us of his own self—there is no greater gift. Jesus points the way and leads the way into the greatest gift of all, into the largest place of all, the largest life of all, the way of life he calls “eternal”.
The journey is long and the way is arduous. But, “come along” he says—“Forget about the math and do what you can. Follow me…and we’ll get there together. I in you and you in me…”
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