We’re heading home from our week here in Guatemala, working on the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to learn more and/or support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:
As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee in Luke 4, his first sermon.
A fifth component to the Jubilee command in Leviticus 25 is that every fiftieth year all property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners. Naturally it strikes many as seditious even to mention the word ‘redistribution’ in Church. It sounds like a political term.
And it is political.
Just not in the way people would expect.
In Jesus’ day, to be a wealthy Jew in a land occupied by Roman invaders meant that in all likelihood your wealth was ill-gotten. Odds were that a wealthy Jew in Jesus’ day was a collaborator, against his people, with the Roman invaders.
This is why tax collectors were despised in first century Israel. Caesar hired Jews to collect excessive taxes from their fellow Jews- taxes that went to pay for the Roman army occupying their land and crucifying those who protested- and Rome encouraged those tax collectors to raise the rate and skim off the top for their own gain.
An analogy would be the US military hiring Iraqis to collect taxes from fellow Iraqis to pay for US military personnel. You can imagine how popular that would be in Iraq.
So when the rich young man approaches Jesus asking about spiritual matters (eternal life) we should be suspicious immediately about how he’s earned his wealth. And we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus turns his spiritual yearning into a question about riches.
Jesus’ instruction to him ‘Go, sell all you own and give it to the poor, and then follow me’ should be heard as an echo of the Jubilee command.
He’s telling the rich man that for salvation to be made available to him then he must give back to the poor the wealth he has taken from the poor.
The rich man refuses, walking away weeping.
In the very next chapter, Jesus encounters Zaccheus, a tax collector. He and the rich, young man are meant to contrast with one another.
Luke describes Zaccheus as a little man but you can be sure he was a big shot, making a fortune off the backs of his oppressed fellow citizens. Zaccheus, though, is transformed by the grace shown to him by Christ. Though despised, Jesus wants to eat at his house for dinner. Such unexpected grace prompts Zaccheus to return his ill-gotten wealth to the poor, a response that provokes Jesus to declare: ‘Today salvation has come to your house.’
What’s this mean?
Are we to indict ourselves for the wealth we have and enjoy?
Are we to give everything away, examine what we have that’s been by another’s disadvantage or just feel guilty and pray for forgiveness?
Maybe none of the above.
I think we’re to realize that if Jesus’ Gospel isn’t simply an otherworldly, spiritual message but a message about righting the wrongs in our present world and living graciously towards the poor, then whatever ‘salvation’ means it has to mean more than our soul’s escape from this world.
Jubilee, the rich young man, Zaccheus: they all remind us that salvation is about more than going to heaven after we die. Salvation isn’t in the future. It’s not something that happens one day.
Jesus says ‘Today, salvation has come to your house.’
In the present.
Our salvation has to include our willingness to put our wealth into the practice of compassion.
Salvation is realizing, like Zaccheus, that oftentimes our wealth stands in the way of what God wants to do in the world and with us.
Salvation is participating with our whole selves- our hearts, souls, hands, feet and RICHES- in what God is doing through Jesus Christ.
Like Zaccheus, we are to feel so transformed by the grace shown to us in Christ, we’re ready to give our everything to his service.
Does some of our wealth come from unjust systems?
Of course, maybe even a lot it.
And part of any Christian’s discipleship is discerning those complexities and choosing to live in an alternative way.
This is why mission is as much a means of grace for the doer as it is for the receiver. Part of what mission does is to lead you to places you never would have gone were it not for Jesus, and to introduce you to people you never would have met were it not for him.
Mission here in Guatemala exposes you to the fact that such economic injustices aren’t abstract ‘systems.’ They’re not reducable to soundbites or political slogans.
They have faces and names that belong to people who are members with you in the Body of Christ.
Your salvation depends on you learning to see in them a greater value than the value you place in your riches.