My old buddy James Dobson says you are a baby Christian who recently accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. ¡Felicitaciones! Who am I to question the conviction of your heart or the resolve of your newfound faith? So I’ll let Jesus do so.
One day, a certain CEO came to Jesus asking him, “Good teacher, what must I do to be saved, how can I obtain eternal life?” Jesus responded by reminding the CEO of God’s commandments. Although this particular CEO gloated about making money when the real estate market crashed, forcing many to lose their homes, was engaged in multiple infidelities and declared multiple bankruptcies so taxpayers could increase his net worth — still, in his own mind he saw himself as hugely pious.
Unlike Dobson, Jesus does not provide the response commonly given in modern Christianity. He does not invite the young CEO to repent of his sins, asking that he accept Jesus into his life as a personal, individualistic Savior. No doubt, having a wealthy CEO profess Christianity can provide financial resources to carry out conservative political ends. But rather than simply accepting the young man as a follower, Jesus, out of love for him, tells the young CEO to sell all and distribute the proceeds to the poor. Only then can he follow Jesus. But when the CEO heard this, the price to pay was too high, so he left full of sadness.
Looking at him, Jesus proclaimed how difficult it is for the rich to enter the reign of God (Luke 18:18-23). A faith solely based on individual belief and disconnected from public responsibilities and actions allows all rich young rulers in our time to claim to be followers and disciples of Jesus without costing them anything. Nevertheless, Jesus determines salvation by how the rich interact with the poor.
Jesus’ pronouncement asks way too much, so to soften the blow, many ministers today interpret the text assuring us that Jesus really didn’t mean to give away everything to the poor. Rather, Jesus was dealing with the specific sin of this particular person. It was his riches that held him back from following Jesus. For others, it might be their jobs, their hobbies, or even their families. Whatever it is that we do not want to give up, that stands in the way of following Jesus is what we must be willing to offer up. And the emphasis is on the willing. We don’t actually have to give anything up, just be willing to do so. Hence, Jesus’ words are so watered down that his interaction with the rich CEO loses all potency.
Anyone who claims power and privilege forfeits his or her claim to God’s eschatological promise, just like the rich young ruler. God’s reign is not promised to those who are oppressors or benefit from oppressive structures, no matter how “good” they may be or which commandments they keep. Believing in Jesus is insufficient for obtaining salvation. Jesus forces the rich young man, as well as all who are rich today, to move beyond an abstract belief in Jesus to a material response to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, alien, sick, and incarcerated.
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Even though the Gospel of Luke fails to show how the rich young man was responsible for the plight of the poor, or even if he enriched himself at their expense. Because he is rich, he automatically becomes linked to their poverty. To ignore the cry of those who are marginalized is to deny Jesus’ message, regardless of whether or not we confess our belief in Jesus and proclaim his name with our lips. The author of Luke must have known many would read this passage in such a way as to ignore Jesus’ radical call. So in response, Luke gives us, in the very next chapter, the story of Zacchaeus.
While the righteous rich young ruler did not, the despised tax collector Zacchaeus did. As Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus, who was the chief tax collector, making him a very wealthy man, wanted a glimpse. Tax collectors of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus were despised by the Jewish common folk. They were perceived as unsaved, unclean publicans because they interacted with the Gentile Roman colonial overseers. These publicans squeezed as much taxes as possible from the people. Jewish tax collectors were stigmatized in their time the way many today would stigmatize pimps. No self-respectable Jew would eat, let alone associate, with a tax collector, the perceived scum of the earth.
Being a short man, Zacchaeus was unable to get a good view of Jesus, so he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore-fig tree. Although a popular children song about Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree exists, few recall the significance of this event. For when Jesus came to the spot where Zacchaeus was, he looked up and told him that tonight he would stay at his house. The oppressive activities of Zacchaeus are not condoned by Jesus, but compassion, not condemnation, is offered. By recognizing the tax collector’s humanity, grace makes salvation possible.
The grace and loving compassion shown Zacchaeus by Jesus was immediately manifested in his actions toward the poor, for Zacchaeus decided — then and there — to give half of his possessions to the poor, and from those he cheated, to repay fourfold. Jesus responds by proclaiming that on this day, salvation entered Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:1-10)! In effect, Jesus links the salvation of oppressors to the actions they take toward the oppressed. Salvation entered Zacchaeus’ house when God’s grace was manifested in actions toward the poor, when Zacchaeus publically died to the power and privilege that had supported his lifestyle. Zacchaeus, unlike the rich young ruler Luke depicts in the previous chapter, recognizes what Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the renowned and dynamic pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, called “cheap grace,” a concept eventually learned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. God’s grace devoid of a praxis-based, justice-seeking response indicates a lack of salvation.
Now, Donald, assuming you have taken your first step toward eternity, let me, as a new brother in Christ, encourage you not to follow the example of the rich young ruler who assumed that some profession of faith, minus praxis, is all that is required to be a disciple of Christ. Remembering the words of James, the brother of Jesus — faith without works is dead. I look forward to witnessing how you will follow Zacchaeus’ example in working out your salvation in fear and trembling. ’Till then,
The American Way(s) of Life, by Bill Leonard
The gift of Donald Trump: uniting a diverse constituency, by Kyndall Rae Rothaus
When religion turns hateful, it loses its moral voice, by Molly T. Marshall