Camel versus needle

              Some preachers say that the city of Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle. Other gates were high and wide, but this gate was low and narrow. People could pass through the gate and enter the city if they went single-file and crossed through the gate one at a time. But for a camel, the gate was almost impossible to navigate. To get a camel through the Eye of the Needle, one first had to remove all the packs from the camel’s back. Then the camel had to be forced down to its knees. On its knees, without any baggage, the camel could pass through the Eye of the Needle and enter the city of Jerusalem.

              Now that I have painted this picture in your minds, I have to work to erase it again. Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of the Needle. Even if it had such a gate, no sensible person would have tried to get a camel into the city that way. There were plenty of other gates one could use to enter Jerusalem without forcing a camel to its knees. I can see why a preacher might think that Jesus was pointing to a gate called the Eye of the Needle when telling his disciples how hard it is to get a rich person into the kingdom of heaven. But the preachers who make a metaphor about removing the baggage from a camel and forcing the camel to its knees are preachers who do not understand Jesus and the message he was sharing.

              Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of a Needle. If Jesus had been pointing to such a gate as a metaphor, his conversation with the disciples would have been very different. If the disciples had seen a camel removed of its baggage and forced to its knees, they would not have asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Nor would Jesus have answered their question with the words, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

              Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible. Rescuing a sinner from evil in this world is also impossible. Our possessions, our burdens, our attachments to worldly things all make it hard for us to find our way into the kingdom of heaven. Like camels, we simply cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Any effort of preachers and teachers to change the message of Jesus, to make the impossible merely difficult, misses the point. We cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life. We cannot defeat our enemies—the sins we have committed, the sinful world around us, and the devil who masterminds the evil that exists in God’s creation. All things are possible for God; but I am not God, and you are not God. We cannot do the things God does. Things that are possible for God remain impossible for you and for me.

              We know that good deeds cannot earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven. From childhood we have been told that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Some people who were wealthy might give away all their possessions. Others might use those possessions to do great things for the poor in this world and for the work of the Church. Some people commit their lives to work in the Church; other people have different callings, but they give their spare time to serve the Church. Some sinners have turned away from their sinful ways and are trying their best to imitate Jesus. We salute their good works and rejoice in the good things they are accomplishing. But we remind them—and ourselves—that those good works are not good enough to earn God’s love and approval. Like the rest of us, they are forgiven by God and granted eternal life as a gift. Heaven is not a reward for their goodness; heaven is a benefit they receive because of the good things Jesus did for them.

              While we know that we cannot earn a place in heaven, many Christians still confuse their good works with the gift of forgiveness. After all, they want to be certain of their salvation. How do you know that you have enough faith to be saved? How can you be sure that the promises of God are true for you? Some preachers fall into the trap of saying that, when you come to faith, your life is changed. You turn away from sin; you become better at imitating Jesus. They tell Christians to look at the good things they are doing and to be confident of their salvation because they have been changed, because they are acting like Christians and no longer acting like sinners.

              Jesus never said that. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles never said that. They said that our good deeds would be signs to other people, but they did not tell us to measure our good deeds. We teach other people about Jesus by trying to imitate Jesus, but we cannot prove to ourselves that we are Christians. The more we measure ourselves, the more we realize that we still fall short of the kingdom of heaven. We still sin every day and need a Savior every day. Our lives as Christians are a paradox: at the same time, we are saints and sinners. We belong to God, and we know that he has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. But none of us has arrived yet at perfection. No matter how hard we try, we still are not pure and righteous. Measuring our good deeds honestly shows us that we still are not good enough for God and for the kingdom of heaven. Left to our good deeds as proof of our salvation, we must despair. We still fall short of saintly lives. We are still stained by the sin and evil of this wicked world.

              We can be saved from our sins and from the evil in this world only by God’s gift of grace. This gift enters our lives through faith. Many Christians are confused about faith. They treat faith as a work, as something we do for God. They measure faith the way they measure works: do I have enough faith? Is my faith strong enough to save me? When we think of faith as something we do for God, then we are certain to conclude that we do not have enough faith, or that our faith is not strong enough to save us. We know that we must believe. But when we treat that requirement as a burden placed upon us, we are forgetting God’s grace. God’s grace rescues us from sin and evil; God’s grace also gives us the faith we need to be saved. We come to Jesus, not by our own reason and strength, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us, purifies us, and keeps us in the true Christian faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and even the faith that saves us is God’s work in our lives, not our work for God.

              “But we have to repent,” someone might say. “We have to say we are sorry, or God won’t forgive us.” Even when we understand that grace and faith come from God, we still think of repentance as our responsibility, something we do for God. After all, the sinner who refuses to repent is a sinner who cannot be forgiven. The sinner who loves sin more than he or she loves the Savior cannot be brought into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we are back to the camel that must get rid of its baggage and drop to its knees before it can enter the gate. We are creating that false picture of a camel at the imaginary gate to Jerusalem whenever we say that something must be done on our end before the gift of salvation and eternal life can belong to us.

              If we had to do anything to enter the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom would be a reward and not a gift. We must repent and believe the Gospel. But repenting, as well as believing, is work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. God’s Word changes us; it gives us the ability to do what was impossible for us before God spoke. Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand and walk, to carry his stretcher home. That man stood and walked and carried his stretcher. The Word of Jesus made him able to do what he could not do earlier. Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus could not have left the grave without that Word of Jesus. Lazarus was dead, and dead people do not move. But when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus was no longer dead. He was alive, able to obey the command of his Lord. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to repent and to believe, we can repent, and we can believe. His Word changes us, making us capable of doing what once was impossible for us because we were sinners trapped in a sinful world.

              With God all things are possible. When Jesus acts, we are no longer sinners trapped in a sinful world. Jesus enters this world as one of us to do the things we have not done. He obeys the commandments of God and earns his rewards; then he passes those rewards on to us as a gift. In exchange, he takes on himself the burden of our sins. He pays our full debt on the cross. He battles our enemies and defeats them, and he shares with us his victory. The only-begotten Son of God pays to adopt us into his family so that we also are children of God. His kingdom is our home, not because of anything we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

              With God all things are possible. Jesus dies and is buried, but he returns to life and leaves the grave. He also promises us a resurrection like his. Even if we die, we will not remain dead forever. Jesus will appear in glory and will call us out of our graves as he called Lazarus from his grave. We too will answer his call and will rise, healed and able to live forever in the kingdom of God. Because we belong to his kingdom, we possess eternal life. We will be with Jesus and with all his saints forever in a world without sin or evil or death.

              That guarantee belongs to us today, even though we remain sinners living in a sinful world. We are not trapped; we are already free because of what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us faith; he also gathers us into the Holy Christian Church. His gifts are found in the Church, because his gifts create the Church. We gather in the name of Jesus—we gather around that Word that causes us to repent and believe, to be his people and to have life in his name. The work that Jesus did for us, dying for us and rising again for us, is transferred into our lives through Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ and are buried with Christ; in Baptism, we rise with Christ. We leave behind our old sinful lives, and we rejoice in our new holy and purified lives. Jesus feeds us at his Table. He shares with us his body and his blood, welcoming us into his kingdom and guaranteeing us forgiveness and eternal life with him and with all his saints.

              Because we are given power to repent and to believe, we also are transformed. We can imitate Jesus now, because he has changed us. We are not perfect yet, but other people can see our good works and know that God is shaping our lives. Peter could boast of all the worldly things he had left behind to follow Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter (and the rest of us) of the things we gain by God’s grace through faith. While we measure the burdens we have left, we are not yet focused on the kingdom of God. When we measure the blessings we receive by grace, we no longer care about the burdens we have lost. Belonging to God matters more to us than any worldly riches and wealth. We can be poor in spirit, using what we have today to serve God. We can be good stewards of our worldly blessings while we focus our attention on the heavenly riches that we possess. Those heavenly treasures are not earned by works we do in this world. The heavenly treasures are gifts. But their existence changes how we see the things that God has given us for this lifetime in this temporary world.

              With Jesus, everything turns upside down. In this world, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; but in eternity, the wealth we have today is nothing compared to the treasure already stored up for us in heaven. In this world, the past shapes our present and the present shapes our future. In eternity, our past is erased and has no effect on our present, and our guaranteed future shapes the lives we live today. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of God, makes himself last, suffering and dying on the cross for our redemption. He moves us to the head of the line where we are given as a gift the rewards Jesus earned. J.

Freedom, government encroachment, and compromise

The range of options between pure socialism and pure capitalism is a spectrum which includes free market capitalism and the welfare state. Sometimes advocates of capitalism accuse their opponents of promoting socialism when those opponents only want more restrictions for the benefit of workers and consumers without desiring socialism. Sometimes people even call for socialism without realizing that what they truly want is not socialism but merely a more comprehensive welfare state. Labels can be slippery tools in our hands, especially when we exist on a spectrum of options.

One of the clearest guides to distinguishing capitalism and socialism is intent. Those who want a few more regulations to protect workers and consumers are still working within the free market system. Those who want to spread the wealth—to take money away from the rich and give it to the working classes, or to give away for free what was formerly bought or earned—by taxing and penalizing wealth are clearly working for socialism and against capitalism.

Here is one example I have seen online: imagine a society where the wealthiest people are earning $50,000 a year and the poor are earning only $25,000 a year. Imagine a change that brings the wealthiest people up to $100,000 a year and lifts the poor to $50,000 a year. Someone inclined to support capitalism will rejoice that all the people in the society have seen improvement. Someone inclined to socialism will complain that the disparity—the difference between the wealthy and the poor—has doubled because of the change, and that disparity is not fair.

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels, imagined a society that tried, by law, to make life fair for everyone. People stronger than average were forced to carry weights. People smarter than average were forced to wear earpieces that distracted them with random noises. People more attractive than average were forced to wear clothes and makeup that made them ugly. Such efforts to make us more equal in every way clearly cause more harm than good. Bringing the higher-level people down to average does not necessarily help lift the lower-level people up to average. In fact, every attempt to reduce the wealth of the richest people through taxes and other legislation only causes them to move their wealth away from the places where it is vulnerable. It discourages them from making more wealth by selling improved products, hiring more workers, and performing other tasks that increase the wealth of the rich and also add benefits to the working classes and the poor.

Government’s job is to protect the rights of all people and to defend citizens from those who would harm them. A right to life includes protection from invasion and from crime; reasonable people still differ and debate whether that right to life also includes guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter for all citizens. In a democracy, the government is chosen by the people to do the will of the people; however, doing the will of the people means more than following and obeying the latest opinion polls. Those elected to govern are expected to learn and understand what is best for the people. Elected officials and their appointed staffs consider proposals, research them, and ultimately vote whether to enact them. Opinion polls might show that more than half the population wants college to be free for all students. Elected officials must still study and learn whether free college would be a benefit to most citizens or whether the cost of free college, assumed by the government, would become a burden to most citizens. Those who govern balance benefits and burdens. They speak to each other about these benefits and burdens. Their votes represent, not only the opinions of the people they represent, but also the best interests of those they represent. As a result, their votes often disagree with the opinions of the majority of the population.

Moreover, a representative government cannot condone injustice, even if the majority wants to be unfair to the minority. In protecting human rights, the government considers all the people, not most of the people. Even though the government has fallen short of it duty in the past, permitting oppression and abuse of some of its citizens, the solution is not to be unfair to a different group. (Two wrongs do not make a right.) We cannot change the past; we can only start with the current situation and move forward, seeking to make things better for all people.

Every person running for office states positions to attract like-minded voters. Different candidates have different priorities among the number of issues that matter. Elected officials work together for the common good. Each official holds some positions that cannot be compromised and others that can be compromised. Negotiation and compromise are part of the art of politics; they are necessary skills for anyone who seeks and gains elective office.

When a government gives each benefit that some citizens wants and then forces all the citizens to pay for all the benefits, that government cannot last long. The value and cost of various benefits must be considered; agreements and compromises must be reached. The more a government encroaches upon the freedom of its citizens—even with the encouragement of many or most of those citizens—the more that government fails to govern wisely and successfully. Sooner or later, the government that offers too much and promises too much and charges too much will collapse. The social contract is canceled when government demands too much of its citizens, because they still retain their basic rights to life, to liberty, and to property. Government does not give these rights to people, and it cannot take them away. J.

The richest Americans

A frequent complaint against capitalism is that it permits the rich to get richer, even at the expense of the poor. Capitalists reply that the success of rich business leaders helps all people, providing jobs for workers and products for customers. Over the years, who have been the richest American citizens, and how did they make their money? For this study, I chose to take a snapshot of the country’s wealthiest citizens every fifty years, beginning in 1820.

Stephen Girard was one of the richest citizens of the United States in 1820. He made his first profits from shipping, and then increased his wealth through banking. John Jacob Astor is another wealthy American alive in 1820. His initial wealth came from the fur trade, but he then increased his fortune through buying and selling real estate. Banker Thomas Willing and real estate mavin Stephen Van Rensselaer were also among the richest men in the country two hundred years ago.

In 1870, Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the richest people in the United States. His money came from railroads, as did that of another wealthy American, Jay Gould. Alexander Turney Stewart became wealthy from selling textiles and dry goods. In 1870 Frederick Weyerhauser was beginning to build his fortune from the timber industry.

One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller had become one of the wealthiest citizens of the United States through his profits from Standard Oil and the petroleum industry. Henry Ford was one of the richest Americans due to the automobile industry. Brothers Richard Mellon and Andrew Mellon began as bankers but increased their fortunes through steel, oil, and railroads. Andrew Carnegie barely misses the cutoff of 1920, having died the previous year, but his fortune came from railroads and the steel industry.

H. L. Hunt and J. Paul Getty both gained wealth through oil. But by 1970 the richest American was Howard Hughes, whose wealth came from air travel and the movie industry. Another wealthy American in 1970 was Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.

And in 2020, the wealthiest Americans include Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). Another wealthy American is Warren Buffett, whose fortune came from the clothing and retail business.

Of course, all these wealthy Americans are white and male. Their opportunities for success were probably greater than potential competitors who were female or non-white. Looking beyond that impression, though, all of these men became rich by giving what consumers what consumers wanted. Railroads, cars, gasoline, steel, computer technology, and innovations in shopping mark the majority of these highly successful individuals.

Beyond that, most of them are known for philanthropy, for using their wealth for the benefit of others. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Walton, and other men on this list devoted much of their wealth to projects that helped others—combating disease and malnutrition, establishing opportunities for future entrepreneurs, and making libraries, concert halls, and museums available to the public. Most of these wealthy men and their families created foundations to continue their work beyond their lifetimes. Meanwhile, as they made their wealth by giving consumers what consumers wanted, they also created bountiful jobs for American workers.

Would railroads or automobile travel have been as affordable under government ownership and control? Would they have opened as many jobs as quickly as private investment made possible? If Walmart and Amazon were operated by the federal government, would they benefit as many shoppers? It is hard to imagine a scenario in which government control of these businesses would have been nearly as successful as they became under private ownership and control. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.

What’s wrong with capitalism?

Two principle complaints about capitalism are that it perpetuates inequity of wealth and that it both causes and worsens poverty. While these might seem to be two sides of the same coin, they are not the same complaint at all. In fact, when advocates of socialism combine these two complaints into one argument, they are working to undermine the very strength of capitalism, its reason for existence.

People once believed that wealth is stagnant, that if one person gains wealth, another person must lose wealth. Adam Smith demonstrated that labor adds value, and that wealth is not stagnant. When capitalism works as intended, everyone benefits. Competition between the wealthy business owners helps their customers to have more choices and also provides their workers with more opportunities to earn wages and improve their lives and those of their families.

God in his creation (or Nature, if you prefer) did not make all people the same. Some people are stronger than others. Some are more physically attractive than others. Some are smarter than others—and there are various kinds of intelligence, so that one person may excel in one kind of thinking while the next is better in a different intellectual field. To hold that all people are created equal is not to hold that everyone must have the same advantages and the same benefits. The fact that some people are born into wealthy families and others are born into poor families is neither the fault of capitalism nor a reason to abandon capitalism. We are all different in several ways; but still we maintain that we all are created equal.

Deuteronomy 15 teaches that, if all people followed God’s commands, there would be no poverty. The same chapter warns us that the poor will always be with us. Capitalism might seem contrary to Christian and humanist principles of loving one’s neighbor, helping those who need help, and caring for the needy and the oppressed. A wealthy capitalist seeks to increase his or her wealth. As selfish as that sounds, the capitalist actually is a servant to his or her neighbors. To increase wealth, the capitalist seeks to provide a product that consumers want or need. The capitalist seeks to make that product more desirable—higher quality, more affordable, or in some other way better. At the same time, the capitalist creates jobs, paying workers to create the product and so providing for those workers and their families.

As the Industrial Revolution emerged, wealthy capitalists found an excess of labor on their doorsteps. More and better food from overseas expanded the population, and enclosure of agricultural lands drove more poor families off the land and into the cities. Craftsworkers were overwhelmed with new competition. At the same time, business owners were using steam and steel to become more efficient, offering products that were both better quality than before and more affordable. Work moved from homes into factories. Only wealthy people could afford to maintain factories and to purchase the new machinery of steam and steel. Often they combined their wealth, creating corporations. The rich became richer, but it was not inevitable that the poor had to become poorer.

I tell my history students that, for every Jane Austen novel they read, they must also read a Charles Dickens novel. Dickens captured the problems of the Industrial Revolution vividly in his fiction. Women and children worked in factories, because they would accept less money for their labor and would cause fewer problems for their managers. A large underclass of unemployed men frequently turned to crime, both out of need and out of boredom. Cities were dirty, overcrowded, and dangerous. Disease ran rampart through the population. For these reasons, nineteenth century socialists predicted the overthrow of capitalism. They expected working people to rise up and demand their rights, including a larger share of the wealth to which their labor was contributing.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families worked together, whether raising food on the land or producing crafts such as shoes, clothing, and candles. Women often were members of guilds, equal to men active in the same crafts. Factories tore apart families. They separated adults from children and women from men. Over time, the dream of the Victorian family developed: the family in which the man was the sole worker and breadwinner, the children went to school and played at home, and the women stayed home to raise a family. This idyllic picture never represented reality for most of the population. But, over time, society and government began to work in that direction. Labor laws took children out of the factories and put them in schools. Other laws began to clean the cities, reducing industrial pollution and untreated sewage. The free market found means of regulating itself so that capitalism did not imply poverty for the working class. More about this will be said in a future post. J.

Two masters

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Jesus mentions money as an example of a master that competes with God for our loyalty and obedience. Nearly every religion on earth speaks against love for money and for worldly comfort. Nearly every religion warns its followers to avoid being slaves to money and to the things bought by money. Nearly every religion treats worldly wealth as a distraction from the things that matter more: a life rightly lived, and a relationship with the powers which run and control the universe.

Later, the apostle Paul would write that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Jesus seems less negative than Paul about money, in spite of this one verse. Jesus allowed believers like Abraham and Solomon to become wealthy, and he never criticized either man for his wealth. Jesus frequently used financial matters to illustrate his parables. His acceptance of the reality of money in this world seems at odds with the suspicion that most religious people—including Christians—express toward money and worldly wealth.

Jesus makes the matter quite simple. If you are a slave to money, you cannot be faithful to God. The amount of money you make or have does not make you a slave; what matters is how much your money and your property own you. When you are working hard to protect your money and to acquire more, you cannot also be a faithful servant to the Lord. If wealth is your first priority—if you would sacrifice family and friends and career and health and ethics and your relationship with God for the sake of wealth—then you sin.

Since that is the case, we understand that Jesus uses money as just one example of the things that come between us and God. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot have two top priorities. If you would sacrifice all your money, your friends, your career, your health, your ethics, and your relationship with God for the sake of your family, then you sin. If you would sacrifice your money, family, friends, career, ethics, and relationship with God for the sake of your health, then you sin. If you would sacrifice your money, family, friends, career, health, and relationship with God for the sake of your ethics, then you sin.

God comes first. He comes before everything else, even before the things we do for him. We are to have no other gods. We are to love the Lord our God with our entire hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Whenever we break this rule, we are slaves to another master. The master might be money, health, good works, another person, or even ourselves. When we serve the wrong master, we hate God, and we are not worthy of any of his gifts.

We already know that we are not worthy of any of God’s gifts. Because God loves us, he blesses us in spite of our failures. He has forgiven us all our sins, even the times we served the wrong masters. Jesus paid with his life to buy us out of slavery and to bring us back to God. Now we are right with him. Now we can put him first in our lives, because he already is in charge of our lives. Being in charge, God will sort our other priorities for us and guide us in being faithful in all matters, because we are first faithful to God through the work of Jesus Christ. J.

Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Possibly Jesus is describing people who lack spiritual qualities, saying that even they can be blessed by God, in spite of their spiritual poverty. That possibility is unlikely, though; on another occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… but woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:20, 24). As uncomfortable as this truth might be for us, Jesus is talking about wealth as the world means wealth, and Jesus then says it is better to be poor than to be rich. He also said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).

Is there no hope for the salvation of the wealthy, as wealth is measured by the world? What about Abraham and Solomon, who were both very wealthy? There is hope, because Abraham and Solomon were not owned by their possessions. It is not how many possessions you own that determine whether you are poor in spirit; the question rather is how much do your possessions own you? What Abraham and Solomon possessed did not matter much to them, because their eyes were on a better world. Though they were wealthy, they were poor in spirit, not being owned by their possessions.

A pauper with nothing in this world might still fail to be poor in spirit, if that pauper envies other people and dreams of what he or she would do with a million dollars. “Poor in spirit” describes a person’s attitude towards wealth and possessions, whether that person has wealth and possessions or only wishes for wealth and possessions. Lack of interest in worldly wealth is a virtue to Jesus; it is also a virtue in other religions. Stoics and Buddhists teach their students to be disinterested in this world, not to care about riches or about poverty. Disinterest in worldly wealth is a common theme among the religions of the world.

How does one acquire this splendid ability to be disinterested in the world and to be more interested in higher truths? Stoics and Buddhists teach that a person must work at developing such an attitude. Jesus offers an easier way. He says that the virtue of disinterest in wealth is the result of a gift, a blessing from God. The name of that blessing is the kingdom of heaven.

No one can earn a place in the kingdom of heaven. We do not earn a place in God’s kingdom by forcing ourselves to be poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is God’s gift to us because he loves us. Through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are rescued from all our failings, including any sinful interest in worldly wealth. God claims us as his children and makes us citizens of his kingdom. We are promised eternal life with Jesus in a new creation. Even today we are already citizens of that new creation. Our membership in the Church that trusts Jesus, our invitation to speak within God in prayer at any time, our confidence that God is taking care of us today and meeting all our needs: all these good things are privileges of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.

Because we have these privileges, we can be poor in spirit. We can stop being concerned with the wealth and pleasures that the world offers, as our attention is diverted to the other kingdom where we are citizens. Those who are blessed with the gift of the kingdom of heaven will, by nature, become poor in spirit. This, according to Jesus, is one way we might recognize the people who have received his gift of the kingdom of heaven. J.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

Contentment

God says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exodus 20:17).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way that only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.”

Salvageable adds: Luther, like other Christians of his time, distinguished two commandments against coveting—one involving property bought with money, and the other involving relationships. (The prohibition against worshiping graven images was treated as part of the first commandment.) “Your neighbor’s house,” then, includes all the things in and around the house—your neighbor’s car, clothing, electronics, book collection, and so on. God makes certain property available to you, things you can buy with money you earned or received as a gift or inheritance. God has placed other property into the care of your neighbor. Each of you should take care of what God has given you, while also helping the neighbor to keep and maintain what is his or hers.

If your neighbor buys a new car and you admire the car but are happy for your neighbor, you are not coveting. You might wish you could afford a new car and regret that you are still stuck with your old car, but wishing and regretting is not coveting. When our neighbor’s good fortune annoys you and irritates you, then you are beginning to covet. Whenever it makes you unhappy to see someone else with a good thing you cannot afford, you are breaking God’s commandment not to covet. Envy toward the possessions of others is not part of the life God intended each of us to live.

Coveting is a sin against your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while you covet your neighbor’s property. Coveting is also a sin against God. You do not trust God while you remain convinced that he has not given you as much as you need. You cannot love God when you resent the size of the earthly property God has invested in you.

The opposite of coveting is being content. When we are satisfied with what we have—and thankful to God for what we have—we are not coveting. Paul wrote that he knew the secret of being content, whether he had a lot or only a little (Philippians 4:11-12). That secret is knowing Christ, trusting Christ, and being confident that Christ is caring for us in the way he knows is best. When tempted to covet, we look to Christ and not at our neighbor’s possessions. When we find that we have coveted, we ask Christ’s forgiveness and also seek his help to remain content. J.