Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Unknown Debt to an Unwanted Creditor

"And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?”
The moral of an ancient sermon, also known as Luke 16:9-12

It is so easy to forget the poor.  And it is easier to blame the poor for the tragedies they face.  “If only they would work harder!”  “They are trying to steal from us!”  In the end, though, all oppression comes from two sources—“We are afraid of these lower class,” and “They would be better off if only they were like us.”  A person doesn’t become financially secure by being smarter than others or by being more like the middle class.  A person doesn’t become wealthy by doing good or by being wise. A person becomes financially secure because some Fate has granted them a huge amount of Fortune.  You can look at it one of two ways—either you get lucky, or God grants you a huge favor.

God, of course, sees wealth as a loan, a favor.  He picks certain poor and lowly and says, “Here’s someone I can make lucky” and he grants them wealth or power or fame.  Or some combination thereof.  And they are released from poverty, from debt, from a lower class lifestyle.

Personal wealth is, at that point, a debt that is owed.  Freedom is a debt that is owed.  And God demands a repayment of the favor.  His demands are not what some think.  Some think that if we are wealthy, we owe the government, or maybe a tithe to a wealthy church. (Or many think they have gotten their wealth themselves and they owe no one-- that is godless foolishness.) That if we are free, we owe it to veterans.  That if we have power, we owe the people who have given us that power.  

But God demands something different.  He says, “If you have wealth, you owe it to me to give it to the poor.  Not to wealthy churches, or to a greedy government.  Rather, you should use your wealth to help the poor.  And if you have freedom, you have a debt to those who do not yet have freedom.  Not to kill them, but to grant them life, to redeem them with your freedom.  If you have power, you have a debt to assist the powerless—the elderly, the sick, the helpless, the outcast. 

This is the message of the prophets—God set us free, and he wants us to grant freedom to others.  God gave us power, so he wants us to assist the powerless.  God gave some wealth, so he wants us to surrender that wealth to the poor.  It doesn’t matter if the enslaved, the powerless or the poor are worthy according to our middle-class standards.  That’s not our job, that’s God’s job.  It is our task to pay the debt to God.  And we pay it to God by giving to the needy.

Let me illustrate. It is a not well-known fact that for people who live on the street, socks are as good as gold.  If you are walking around all day, trying to go to a meal or earn some money, it isn’t long until the wear of boots and the puddles one walks in wears a pair of socks out.  On the street, if one’s socks have holes, then one’s feet will soon have holes. As a pastor to the homeless, it is one of my noble responsibilities to hand out socks.  Because our resources are slim, I hand out one pair of socks per request, so I can hand out socks again next time. 

But suppose, as sometimes happens, that I give to one of the folks on the street the responsibility to hand out socks to folks.  I am handing to them the great wealth of socks to grant them to others.  Some, whom I give this responsibility to, hand out two or three socks to certain people who really need it.  I understand that compulsion.  But suppose the person to whom I handed the bag of socks decided, in their anxiety, to keep all the socks for themselves.  After all, eventually they would need them all, so why not keep them?

Because it is clear that the socks were not meant for one person—there are a hundred pairs of socks there!  The socks were meant to be distributed, not horded by one.  But once a person has a hold of a resource, no matter how enormous, they begin considering it their own.  And once a possession is considered our own, we absorb it as a part of ourselves. 

This is what happens to everyone who has wealth.  It becomes a part of ourselves, inseparable from our own personal wants, needs and desires.  Perhaps other people need that wealth, but an array of excuses come up in our minds in order that we might not separate from that which Another once gave us.  The issue is not the need of others, or the worthiness of others, it is the fact that we do not want to separate our own from ourselves.

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