Over on the Book of Face, somebody posted a reading from Matthew followed by a favorite passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I will reproduce both here:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible.”
Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you
that you who have followed me, in the new age,
when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory,
will yourselves sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or lands
for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life.
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:23-30)
And here is Chesterton:
“But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.
Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable.
You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt.
There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.”
These two readings prompted an interesting question from another reader:
I find the response of the disciples unfathomable and in need of explication. “Who then can be saved?” I think we today start with a distrust of the rich. If the rich are going to have trouble getting into the Kingdom, fine, most of us are poor. It would seem that the disciples, poor though they were, thought it obvious that the rich would enter the Kingdom, and if not them, then who? Why would the disciples have thought that way?
To which I reply:
One can only guess. Given that their tradition begins with three exceedingly rich Patriarchs, not to mention Isaiah’s repeated prophecies (Is 60-61) that the “wealth of the nations” would flow to the Chosen in the messianic age, it is entirely possible that Jesus’ statements on wealth were as surprising and counter-intuitive as his statements on taking up your cross or on his immanent resurrection. It is doubtful they thought they needed riches to be saved (since social mobility was extremely rare in that world). But it is quite possible that (as many Christians still do) they read riches as a sign of blessing (think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and therefore thought, “If even these guys could not be saved, then how can we?” (Not that Jesus is implying Abe and Sons are not saved.)
Some subtext to their question along these lines seems to be reinforced by what immediately follows, which is their question about what their status will be in the messianic kingdom they are expecting Jesus to establish:
Then Peter said in reply, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” .Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. .But many that are first will be last, and the last first. (Mt 19:27–30)
So far from having no messianic expectations of some sort of Davidic kingdom, they clearly do. But Jesus’ work is to affirm their messianic expectations while radically reordering those expectations away from earthly power and wealth toward a kingdom that is not of this world. I think something of that order lies behind this whole conversation.