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The Needleís Eye: Christians and Their Money

by Doris Donnelly

Dr. Donnelly is associate professor of pastoral theology and spirituality at St. Johnís University, New York City, and visiting lecturer in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 27, 1983, pp. 400-402. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The conversation was about whether money helped or whether it stood in the way of getting into heaven. Most of those talking admitted that they were looking for a way to have their money and heaven, too. When they asked their leader for his opinion, he said that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:24) than for a person with an MBA or an All Savers Certificate to enter the kingdom. It was an outrageous image, the camel and the needleís eye; but the rest hit a little too close for comfort for anyone to be amused.

This is how another remembered the advice: "The gate to life is narrow, and the way that leads to it is hard and there are few people who find it" (Matt. 7:14). Think of an airport security gate; all possessions -- even the contents of pockets and purses -- have to be put aside before one goes through the gate alone. It made sense, of course, that all one needed in heaven would be God. But the idea was frightening so not many were consoled.

After a time, reports trickled back about those who tried to get through the gates loaded down with gold chains, their pockets bulging with municipal bonds. There was an occasional embarrassing scene whenever someone refused to surrender his or her treasured possessions to the conveyor belt. Rebuffed, some turned away, clutching their belongings and settling wherever they were welcome with the things they clung to.

Once in a while someone surfaced who tried to explain that God, who had more important things to deal with, most certainly had nothing to say about money, or that Christianity was indifferent to it, or even that a hefty bank balance was a sign of Godís favor. There were always takers for these positions, but not everyone agreed and so the issue never totally disappeared.

The money issue is simmering again, fueled by inflation, unstable interest rates, and the disconcerting fact that lifestyles which Christians were accustomed to simplifying for the noblest of reasons are now being involuntarily modified by forces beyond their control.

The subject is a touchy one. The Quaker author of a Pendle Hill pamphlet suggests that money is to our generation what sex was to the Victorians -- which is to say that many people are willing to read about how others handle it or mismanage it, but few are ready to disclose their own involvement with it. When a publisher informed columnist Abigail McCarthy that "money" was selling better than "lust" (A Woman of Property. A Woman of Substance, The Money Book, Merger, Noble House), McCarthy pinpointed that phenomenon as being symptomatic of degenerative and obscene greed permeating our society and suggested that we consider banning books on money, rather than sex, from our libraries.

The Christian gospel has some things of its own to say about money, and says them directly and simply. First of all, it tells us that money itself is not the issue; the real issue is how we get it and what we do with it. In other words, money may not be intrinsically evil, but in its comings and goings in our lives it is frequently the root of evil.

On the subject of how we get money, "Thou shalt not steal" is more than a directive to employers to pay just wages and to employees to do a fair dayís work. In its "Second Letter to the People of God," the Taizé Community itemized some subtler ways of stealing, such as depriving the poor of access to what belongs to them, and of using up resources, thus making them unavailable to succeeding generations. Getting our houses in order on this score frequently means agonizing over employment that supports ethically questionable enterprises, or collecting fees that widen the gap between those who can afford our services and those who cannot.

On the subject of what to do with money, Jesus was unambiguous: "Sell your possessions and give alms: Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it. . ." (Luke 12:33, JB). Iím not sure I want to believe that such counsel is as radical as it appears, or as personal, or as nonnegotiable, since it fails to thank us for the share weíve already given. Instead, it leads us to places where we would rather not go and asks, making us increasingly uneasy, questions we would rather not hear.

How much does the gospel tell us to give away? Excess, for sure, because to hoard is to exploit the poor who are demeaned by the brutal poverty of imbalance. But the fact that the widowís offering (Mark 12:42-44) was not declined might give a clue about divesting even when it cuts into basic needs. "She gave from her want, all that she had to live on." That kind of giving is always a powerful sacrament of solidarity. It says that even though we cannot take the suffering away or really share it, symbolic action (fasting, living with less, sharing -- not renting -- space in our home, opposing consumerism) is one way of lessening the distance between our own lives and the terror, deprivation and despair of the suffering poor. And something more. It also opens our eyes to the reality that we are all needy -- not only the suffering poor, but we, the suffering rich, as well. The slave-making forces at work in our world exempt no one.

Jesus may have given the best answer to the "how much" question when he urged the rich young man (Matt. 19:21) to rid himself of whatever stood in the way of acknowledging that Jesus alone sufficed. The costliness of Christian discipleship boils down to just that: detaching ourselves from material goods, from prestige, power, advancement, or whatever else stands in the way of attachment to Christ. However much we would like to keep economics and faith separate, the gospel forges them together, establishes a mysterious but real connection between them, and asks for a continual reckoning from each of us concerning the blocks we place in the way of their unity.

Second, the gospel says that our attitude toward money can be dangerous. Jesus frequently warned about greed that encouraged people to work not only for what they needed, but for more and more. "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a [personís] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15). Jesus knew that in the amassing of money, people sometimes became obsessed by it. When his followers wondered what was wrong with that, he told them the story of an enterprising entrepreneur (Luke 12:16-21) who built silos to store his extra grain. Buying (or building) on margin has always been a risky business, and the inherent anxiety in that kind of gambling may well have triggered the coronary, or whatever it was, that unexpectedly did in this hustler.

The manís death, however, was not the issue. The moral of the story, it seems, had to do with security. Even (or especially) in the eyes of Wall Street, this fellow lost out because he invested imprudently. The mistake was tragic, but Jesus offered a redeeming lesson to the survivors, claiming that he is our security -- our only security. To make anything else our "ultimate concern," or to let anything else deflect us from recognizing that he is all we need, is not only idolatry but a fatal flaw. For, at least in this parable, the manís concern was responsible for destroying the very thing he hoped to save.

That, insight seems eerily apropos as we hear arguments supporting a staggering military budget for defensive (as well as offensive) arms in the name of providing for our security. "Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?" (Luke 12:20, JB).

Finally -- or maybe this is what he was saying all along -- Jesus was convinced that money hindered the internal freedom which he called the poverty of spirit.

Jesus spent a lot of time talking about money and what it could buy because he knew that it creates the illusion that it is all anyone needs. Therefore, people who had a lot of money, or those who hoarded it or were greedy with their relative share of it, tended to need him less. The Christian gospel is, at its heart, about loyalties and dependencies, and Jesus set down some specific guidelines for those who would be his disciples: divest, deaccumulate, resist the urge to consume. The bottom line, as they are wont to call it these days, is whether you believe that Jesus saves or money saves, whether money talks or the gospel does. Jesus was sure you couldnít have it both ways: "You cannot serve two masters" (Matt. 6:24).

Because there can be only one way, it is necessary for the follower of the gospel to sense a real and blessed harmony (Luke 6:20) between external poverty and interior poverty, because that harmony validates Christian discipleship and keeps us honest about what our commitments really are. On the matter of honesty, Elizabeth OíConnor tells a story of the early days of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., when the proposed constitution and disciplines of the community were submitted to Reinhold Niebuhr for his comment. He offered only one remark, and it had to do with money. "I would suggest," Niebuhr said, "that you commit yourselves not to tithing but to proportionate giving, with tithing as an economic floor beneath which you will not go unless there are some compelling reasons."

OíConnor responded that anyone could figure out 10 per cent of gross income, but that "each of us had to be a person on our knees before God to understand our commitment to proportionate giving." The wisdom of the rewritten discipline, she relates, shielded the covenanted faith communities from egregious hypocrisy and "has kept us from mistaking . . . churchgoing for Christianity."

Proportionate giving is one way of pointing to the internal freedom of the poor in spirit. Chilean pastor and theologian Segundo Galilea approaches that freedom from another angle: "Blessedness is not only a call to feel with the poor; it is a challenge to us to become poor ourselves." That view may explain why we are willing to listen to a Francis of Assisi, a Dorothy Day or a Teresa of Calcutta. These people came to recognize Jesus in his distressing disguise of poverty: in the beggar, the leper, the marginalized and terrorized peasant. They made the transition from solidarity with the poor to identification with the poor, and there is enough imagination, idealism and grace among the weakest of us to recognize the authenticity of lives that complement the theory of the gospel with its practice.

What does it look like to live the internal freedom of the poor in spirit? What, in other words, are the side-effects of living the gospel teaching on money and possessions? I count five things.

1. To live this way prevents us from thinking that because money is scarce, or even unavailable, nothing can be accomplished. We need only to glimpse the vitality of the church in the poorest areas of the world to know that the Holy Spirit is not confined to large budgets, endowments and foundation support. This truth also underscores the fatuousness of arguments holding that the ideal is to be a rich Christian who shares his or her plenty with the economically deprived. In the first place, that position suggests that the earthís poor want to be redeemed into a world of middle-class values -- a dubious-if not arrogant assumption. Second, even if that ideal were motivated purely, it doesnít work -- and never has.

2. The internal freedom born of the gospel teaching on money lets us see that no one owns money, any more than anyone is absolute owner of the earth. Money is a human invention that facilitates the transfer and distribution of goods and must always be at the service of-justice. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago commented recently: "Economic prosperity is to be assessed not so much from the sum total of goods and wealth possessed as from the distribution of goods according to the norms of justice." So be it.

3. Curiously, the gospel spirit of detachment and nonclinging with regard to money allows us to use it more freely. When a woman poured expensive ointment over the head of Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13), it was the disciples who computed the cost and calculated the gesture as an extravagance since, they insisted, the money involved could have been better invested. Jesus, on the other hand, did not reprimand the woman or condemn the gesture, possibly because he knew that giving with largesse is a form of poverty; such a giver is not bound to a cost-accounting process but responds, rather, to the inner logic of love.

4. Believing and acting on the gospel allows us to trust that the poor way -- the gospel way -- never fails. Ultimate victory results because the gospel persistently raises hard questions about the things everyone takes for granted. In particular, it calls into question certain perennial human assumptions: that suffering and pain are to be avoided at all costs; that the more one consumes, the better off one is; and that the goal of life is to have. James Carroll writes that "Jesus Christ comes as the horrible sign to us that religion without suffering is meaningless; that life without suffering love is a lie, and that an affluent Christian life is a sacrilege."

5. Finally, a political reality is altered. The most pressing issue in the world today -- political, economic and moral -- is the fact that a minority of human beings pursue without limits their own pleasure, while the majority pay for that privilege with their very lives. Living among the poor in spirit can have a ripple effect that reshapes and transforms the public and political reality which takes its form from us as human beings. The militarism of todayís ethic is simply our collective expression of a personal conviction that we do not trust God, or that we trust God a little bit while hedging our bets with nest eggs, pension plans and MX missiles.

Thinking about money, unpleasant as it may be, exposes the inner division many of us experience with regard to the subject, for our hearts so often tell us one thing and our heads another. Thinking about money also refocuses the issues of trust and security. A resource book on my desk from the Sojourners group is called My People. I Am Your Security, and that title is neither sentiment nor slogan but the very rock of reality. Of Francis of Assisiís "sublime dependence" on God, G. K. Chesterton wrote: "That we all depend in every detail, at every instant, as a Christian would say upon God . . . is not an illusion of the imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life."

Choices for freedom in our ordinary lives are frequently -- perhaps constantly -- connected with money. One sobering reminder of what is at stake appears on all of the paper currency that passes through our hands. Like a cancer warning on a pack of cigarettes, it calls us to consider that it is "In God We Trust." Once considered, the statement is ours to affirm or to deny, and to make peace with as best we can.


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