Here is a post where I raise a fundamental question that I find very hard to answer. I will not be able to respond to all your reflections, but I will read them all and am very eager to see what you have to say.
In connection with my next book I’ve been reading a lot of writings by the church fathers from the 2-5th centuries to see what they have to say about giving away wealth. A big issue for some of these writers was whether committed Christians should give away *everything* to the poor, or rather keep most of their wealth but still be generous in their giving.
Throughout history, of course, most Christians have been (and still are) attracted to the second option. I’ve argued in previous posts, however, that Jesus appears to have taken the first, urging his followers to divest completely and live lives of abject poverty. It’s not an attractive option, and very few see the point of it – to the extent that most people simply say that Jesus didn’t mean it.
But some of the church fathers I’m reading argue that it is what he meant. One argument in particular strikes me as interesting, and it’s one I’ve wrestled with for many years, even before I had any idea about what church fathers had to say.
Many people – even those who aren’t Christian – think that the core of Jesus’ message is in fact the core message of the entire Bible: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:31; Matthew 22:39, etc.). Jesus did not come up with this idea himself, of course; he was quoting the law of Moses, Leviticus 19:18 (I first typed: Leviticus 18:19, but I’m glad I checked; that’s a very different commandment).
In the book of Leviticus, loving your “neighbor” meant loving your fellow Israelite. Israelites were decidedly not expected to love the non-Israelites; in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua they are ordered to slaughter them. But fellow Israelites were to be treated as equals to oneself. What you do for yourself, do as well for others in your community.
Jesus broadened this view beyond the Israelite community. For him, a person’s “neighbor” was not only a fellow Jew, but any human, even one you don’t know, even one who is unlike you, even who is your enemy. That’s the point of a number of Jesus’ teachings, most famously the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
The idea as I understand it is actually very simple. Provide for others what you provide yourself. If you’re hungry, you give yourself food; if you need shelter you provide yourself housing; if you need clothes you go get them; if you are sick, you get medical help and take care of yourself – etc. And so you should do to those who have similar needs: feed the hungry, house the homeless, cloth those in rags, tend to the sick, etc.
Fair enough. But as some of these early church fathers argued, this “simple” understanding of Jesus’ injunction is very difficult on the practical level. Some of them point out that if you have surplus food when others are hungry, you have not fulfilled Jesus’ command. If you have more clothes, a bigger house, and excess of any kind when others have nothing, you are actually NOT “loving your neighbor as yourself.” You have a surplus, and they are completely without.
I find this logic hard to refute. If any of us truly loved others as ourselves, we’d be living barely at the subsistence level to allow them to do so as well. And so I think (virtually) none of us (even committed Christians) actually follows the central teaching of Jesus.
What do you think?