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Wealth and poverty: a Christian biblical reflection in dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

Christianity is a sibling religion with Rabbinic Judaism, whose founder is Rabbi Yeshua ha Notzri, Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, concerning the attitude toward wealth and poverty, Christianity is built on the first biblical book, Genesis--accepted by all three Abrahamic religions as revelation--where it is recorded that everything that exists was created by Yahweh God, and everything was tov (Hebrew, "good,") and even mod tov ("very good"). Further, all creation was given over to the care of ha adam (Heb., literally "the earthling"), who was created out of "earth" (Heb., adamah), and made to live by God's "spirit" (Heb., ruach). (It is interesting to note that the Qur'an uses similar language for the creation of humanity--earth and God's spirit, ruch.) (1) Hence, Christians are expected to cherish all creation, earth\y and spiritual. This is a profound principle with manifold ramifications, one of which is that all parts of creation, from the tiniest to the tremendous, are to be treated with the appropriate respect as creations of God.

Hence, wanton use of any material, "earthly" thing, let alone that crown of God's creation, a human person (ha adam), is totally rejected. This is why in both later Jewish, and even Muslim, traditions it is recorded that "Whoever saves one human life, it is as if s/he saved a whole universe, and s/he who destroys one human life, it is as if s/he destroyed a whole universe." (2) In a like vein, Rabbi Yeshua so identified himself with the lowliest of the low that when he said: "Whatever you have done to the lowliest," he added: "You have done to me." (3)

This early biblical teaching of creation was reinforced especially concerning humans by the extraordinary prophetic tradition. Here was the magnificent Israelite contribution to the "Axial Age" (800--400 B.C. E.), linking with that of the Greek philosophers, Zoroaster's teaching, and Confucius's doctrine. The great Israelite prophets proclaimed a twofold message:

1. God is not interested in the exterior--burnt offerings, fasting, attending services, and the like--but, rather, in the intention (kavenah) of each of our hearts, and that in our treatment of others we should "walk with justice";

2. God wants each of us to care for those who cannot care for themselves: the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor, etc.

It was in this light that Rabbi Yeshua lived his "public life." When you read the Gospels, you see a man engaged in two activities, healing and teaching--and the two are really one: caring for, guiding, both the body (adamah) and the spirit (ruach) toward goodness and truth. When asked what one must do to gain the heavenly reward that God "has prepared from all eternity" for the good, Yeshua was very concrete. He did not say that one had to believe in a long list of doctrines --no creeds!--nor did he say that one had to follow all sorts of rules, but one should "feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit those in prison." (4) Thus, Rabbi Yeshua stood in the long line of Israelite prophets, stressing neither the externals, nor rules, nor doctrines, but action to care for those who cannot care for themselves--and "when you do this, you do it to me."

So, is the teaching of Yeshua and the Christian tradition simply to give away all one's wealth to the poor--as some deviant "Spiritual Franciscans" claimed in the thirteenth century? If all followed such an admonition, then soon all would be poor, and there would be no one to relieve their poverty! Since all are good creations of God, then obviously material wealth is not to be spurned but cared for and cherished. Hence, when Christianity became the majority religion in the Roman Empire, starting in the fourth century and on into the European Middle Ages, the Christian church built many schools, orphanages, hospitals, and other institutions for those in need of one kind or another, physical and spiritual--thus following the great Israelite prophets and their Rabbi Yeshua. (Muslims have over the centuries carried out similar "works of mercy" with their mandatory zakat, alms.)

However, the whole world began to change in the sixteenth century in ways that it never had before. For one thing, the Earth was seen now to be not flat but a globe--and Europeans sailed all around it, beginning to make it One World. Then came the scientific revolution with breakthrough geniuses such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow"--an unending tomorrow. Then arose the intellectual and political revolutions, reaching a first peak in the American, and then the French, revolutions with their focus on reason, freedom, and democracy. This was matched by the economic revolution of capitalism with Adam Smith and others, followed by the rise of Socialism, and even Communism (the latter only to implode at the end of the twentieth century). The world has radically changed, and Christianity, Judaism, Islam, as well as all other religions and ideologies, must run to keep pace with the exponentially increasing rate of change--lest all become superfluous museum pieces.

What then can Christianity, in dialogue with Judaism and Islam, say to the world of the twenty-first century and beyond? First, as noted above, according to Genesis, humanity is the apex of God's creation, and it is to us that the rest of the Earth (adamah) has been given to care for. It is our responsibility. Second, we humans are expected to use our minds, spirits (ruach), to cherish the Earth (adamah) from which we sprang, and, following Rabbi Yeshua's example, we need to work to heal the human body, the adam, and teach the mind, the ruach.

Well, then, should Christians, and others, seek wealth or eschew wealth, advocate capitalism or promote socialism, embrace welfare or restrict it? The answer, I believe, is yes and no to each of these and to similar pressing questions. There is no answer written down somewhere to each new question--that comes endlessly. For the Christian, the biblical guide is to care for the Earth (adamah) with the reasoning, thoughtfulness, and, above all, creativity of our mind and our spirit, both of which come from God.

(1) Qur'an 15:28-29.

(2) Mishnak. Aboth Rabbi Nathan 31, and Qur'an: 5:32.

(3) Mt. 25:34-46.

(4) Ibid.
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Author:Swidler, Leonard
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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