In so many ways the Gospel reverses the ordinary way that we think about things. It certainly reversed the ordinary expectations that first century Palestinians had about God and the signs of God’s favour. In the society of the time wealth was a sign of God’s favour, a sign of God’s blessing. The underlying logic ran that the wealthier you were the more God was smiling on you. Therefore, those who were poor were looked upon as those who had missed out on the blessing of God, and at worst, who were cursed.
Jesus, however, confronts this logic. And he confronts this logic by putting forward poverty as a virtue. The first hearers of the gospel would have responded, what good can being poor be? We, too, would like to add to their dismay and ask, what good can being poor be? Most of us have worked hard to make for a comfortable life for ourselves, our families. The call to dispossess ourselves of what we have worked hard for seems utterly unreasonable.
Yet, time and time again, Jesus puts poverty, not wealth, before us as the sign of blessing. How on earth can this be?
I think the writer Megan McKenna explains it very well. She explains that really what is underneath the confronting rhetoric in the Gospel about the problem of wealth is the recognition that “anything that distances us from people and makes us more independent” from one another is what Jesus is really confronting in his promotion of poverty over wealth.
Megan McKenna tells on old English tale that states this in another way:
“Once upon a time there was a great forest. It ranged over hills for miles all the way to the western seas. One day one of the great standing trees, an oak, was having a conversation with an elegant, tall pine. As they often did, they talked about the other trees, life in the forest, the weather and all the news that the birds brought with them from the outside. Mostly they spoke of the other trees.
The oak mentioned the lovely delicate azalea with its pink, soft white and lavender blooms . . . Then the pine said, “And look at that rowan tree . . . Such a creation.” They went through the trees one by one, and then the oak nearly spit out, “And look at that ash tree. I just don’t know why God created that tree. And there are so many of them!”
Days later a woodsman came through the forest looking for a tree. He needed to make something. His house and workshop were falling to ruin. He spoke finally to the great trees, the oak and the pine, for in those days humans and trees and animals could still talk to one another. He asked their suggestions on what tree to choose. They conferred and quickly said, “Take an ash tree. There are so many of them.”
And he did. He chopped the nearest ash tree down and went home. There he made an axe handle for his new blade and then returned to the forest and started swinging. One by one the trees were felled. Down they all went . . . Finally, he drew near to the oak and the pine, and they realised rather late what was going to happen to them. The oak ruefully spoke his thoughts aloud to the pine and said, “Pine, we made a mistake. We forgot something basic in our quick giving away of the life of the ash tree. We are all trees at root, and the death of one means the death of us all.”
And with those words echoing in the air, the woodsman started on the great oak with his new axe with its ash handle”
The call to poverty in the Gospel is therefore the call to remember our utter dependence on God, and not just God, but also, importantly, our dependence on one another. Why is wealth a problem for Jesus? Because it can lure us away from the profound recognition of the truth that, in the end, we are utterly dependent on God and one another.
And perhaps this is the greatest invitation to us of the last 18 months of pandemic. As Archbishop Justin Welby has remarked this last week,
“it has been the clearest possible illustration of our interdependence. We cannot pretend that we exist separately in isolation from one another. We cannot ignore others and only care about ourselves. As the saying goes with Covid, nobody is safe until everybody is safe . . . people are naturally questioning how we live and how we relate to each other. . . the great issues of our age affect us all and we are deeply diminished when we fail to address them. There are so many to work on: Covid, the environment, peacekeeping . . . The list goes on and the issues, like us, do not exist independently of one another. One of the greatest ways in which we can deal with these problems is our relationship and solidarity with one another.”
Perhaps this brings us back to the rich young man in the gospel story. It is a remarkable encounter. The man comes looking for Jesus; he is not a wicked person in any sense. In fact, he is a very good person. He has kept all the commandments. But his religious life has made him proud. And when we are proud, we have a heightened sense of our own agency, our own self- sufficiency. Jesus loves this man, but the man cannot receive the gaze of Jesus, and this is the tragedy of the situation. For the gaze of Jesus is calling the man into something more than the achievement of his own efforts; it is calling him to discover himself not by looking at himself for which the outcome is an isolating self-enclosed absorption, but to discover himself in something more than himself. If the man were able to receive the gaze of Jesus, if the man were able to look back into the eyes of Jesus, then he might be able to let go of the anxiety that has clearly defined him up to this point, the fear that keeps driving him into a relentless, but illusory, search for perfection and therefore for control.
Jesus invites us to live constantly with the awareness that we are dependent on one another and never to forget this. When we do forget this, we end up with nothing. But when we give up the lie of self-sufficiency then we discover a richness of life beyond imagination.
 See Megan McKenna. Parables: The arrows of God, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 74.
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