The Gospel: A Scandal and Stumbling Block to the First World
If we are honest with ourselves, the gospel story of the rich man is not disturbing. The “first-world” church’s difficulty with this text is rooted in the recognition that Jesus’ call to discipleship and man’s inability to respond to that call challenge us directly. Non-poor people of faith have found this story very threatening because we have understood Jesus to mean that a contradiction exists between possessions and the demands of faith. Can we be who we are as middle-class people and still be faithful followers of Jesus? We must remember that Jesus looked upon the young man, loved him, and invited him to join his community. The non-poor are children of God and loved by Jesus. But when we open ourselves to this text, we are faced with the contradiction between authentic Christian faith and possessing more than we need while others lack the basic necessities of life.
The “first-world” church’s difficulty with the encounter between Jesus and the rich man is not surprising. Even the discipleship community around Jesus struggled to come to grips with the radical nature of what Jesus was proposing. As we move to the second section of the text, we see that Jesus is openly skeptical about the ability of the rich to respond to the call of discipleship. To underscore this point, Jesus uses the metaphor of the camel and the eye of the needle, a bit of peasant humor that leaves no doubt about the conflict between wealth and discipleship. The disciples respond with astonishment, “Who then can be saved?” Our reaction as “first-world” Christians echoes that of the disciples themselves. Like them, the non-poor today have squirmed uncomfortably with this metaphor. We have softened its impact with interpretations that dilute the meaning of the story.
It is very difficult for “first-world” Christians, to “be with” this story for long without trying to find a theological loophole through which to escape. We have simply eliminated the contradiction by rewriting the gospel to suit ourselves. We have taken this challenging story and the hundreds of other scriptural passages that address economic justice and put them in a jar on the shelf.
The easiest way to resolve this dilemma has been to ignore it and to pretend that no contradiction is posed here. The contribution of Francis was to take the witness and words of the historical Jesus quite seriously and to strive to apply them radically to his own life. At the very least, we as people of faith must remain in dialogue with this gospel story even if it means being uncomfortable.
Continuing the dialogue, one might ask: What about us, the non-poor? Does this mean there is no place for us in the gospel story? The God of the poor does not reject us because we are non-poor or love us any less than the poor. Yet the oppression and impoverishment of our brothers and sisters demands a response from us. Christ beckons to us from the margins, in the human face of the poor, the “least of these,” inviting each of us to join this struggle. If we, like Francis, are seeking to follow Jesus, we must begin to find ways to journey to the margins of society to encounter those on the “other side.”