Reference Hebrews 3:1-6, Mark 10:17-27
Any parent is likely to have heard that word uttered by their child at a very young age. It does not take long before we develop an acute sense of what belongs to us, and to become very unhappy when someone else tries to take it.
As life progresses, so does the sense of ownership. Not only individuals, but groups, corporations and entire nations express their views on what belongs to them, often in the strongest terms. Major wars have been waged, legal actions abound, neighbors feud, children cry and fight, words and blows are exchanged in the course of protecting what is mine.
And it is all in vain. The writer of Hebrews notes (3:4-5), in common with other Biblical authors, that God is the builder of everything. He is the only one who can authentically say “mine!” The rest of us are only borrowing stuff from him for a time. Hebrews goes on to say that we ourselves are God’s house. We do not even own ourselves, reinforcing St. Paul’s comments that our bodies are temples of God (1 Cor 6:19-20, 2 Cor. 6:16).
This should make property law much simpler. There is no such thing as private property. In case that appears to comfort Communists, it must be pointed out there is no common property either. There is only God’s property. Native Americans had the right understanding in this, in seeing all creation as owned by the Spirit and not by humans.
Following Jesus and following your acquisitions is not compatible. The rich young man who yearned to follow Jesus wanted to “have his cake and eat it too,” as the saying goes. Mark tells us “Jesus…loved him” (10:21). He didn’t simply dismiss him as someone trying to self-righteously justify himself and his wealth. Instead, he assessed the situation and told him, in love,”Go sell all you have and give it to the poor…then come, follow me.” But that made the rich man very sad, because he simply couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering his property. He wanted to follow Jesus, but ultimately he wanted his things even more. As we see the life of the disciples unfold, before and after the Resurrection, we can understand why it is important to be clear on this priority.
Today, we are not at all clear on it. I remember an ad that ran for years in “Christianity Today.” “Serve the Lord and make money, too!” it offered. Many preachers today explicitly promise that serving the Lord will bring you great prosperity. “God helps those who help themselves” is often mistaken for a Bible verse.
The Gospel message is the exact opposite. God helps the helpless. Furthermore, we are all helpless to save ourselves, none more so than those who are convinced of their own righteousness and ability to lift themselves into heaven, usually while accumulating significant earthly rewards. In our society, where affluence is admired and often seen as God’s blessing, the challenge of Jesus has particular relevance.
It is not that Jesus despised things. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, not fasting and demanding austerity. His Father’s world is a place that is full of good things. When he had made creation, he saw that it was good, material and spiritual together. The challenge of Jesus is not to give up the material creation, but rather to offer it up.
The analogy of Hebrews is that of a house. The earth is God’s house, as are we. The Son is in charge of the household. We are most welcome to live in the house and use anything in it if we take care of it. The word to describe our condition is that we are tenants. Our “rent” is that which we do to maintain the house in accordance with the wishes of the owner. Jesus is quite explicit that part of the rent is to help the other tenants, as he has helped us (see Matthew 25).
It all works until someone assumes that he or she, and not God, is in charge and own the property, which they can thus use as they please. When someone in the world refuses to pay rent, does not care for the property and begins to think of it as their own, the normal and predictable outcome is eviction. Whether or not that is true in God’s house as well is debated. It is certainly implied in Mathew 25, but we also know God as merciful. Fortunately, it is above our pay grade to be the judges.
It is not, however, above our pay grade to decide on our response to the challenge of Jesus to follow him. This plays out not in what we have of the material creation, but how we use it. Forget any notions that a tithe to the church fulfills the rent payment. This is about the totality of what you are and have. It expects the dedication of your life to the will of God, and the use of the resources given to you in accordance with that will. It includes your participation in public discourse to urge the same right use of resources, human and otherwise, to care for, conserve and protect the earthly house God lets us use. Pope Francis says it well in the subtitle of his encyclical “Laudato Si'”: “On care for our common home.”
We are currently failing in the task. In our nation, many Christians are part of the problem and have even equated Christianity with their “right” to own and use the earth’s riches as they please. Instead, Christians are called to prophetic witness, both in the public forum and in each of our individual lives. The Lord’s earth and its creatures, human and otherwise, are hurting, crying out to us for better care. Our Government is not hearing the cries, nor are the leaders of our economy. We as Christians know whose house it is. We need to be its voice.