By Harris Franklin Rall
We have studied Jesus' thought of God and man. We have now to take up his teaching concerning the world. How did he think of this world? What was to be the attitude of his disciples toward this world? How were they to live in it?
The Love of the World.—It will help us to understand Jesus' teaching here if we first consider two notable attitudes toward the world which men have held. There is first of all the love of the world. Sometimes it appears as a philosophy of life and then we call it secularism. As such it declares that the only real world is the world of sense and time, therefore we should live for this world and get out of it all that we can. More often worldliness is simply a spirit, absorbed either in trying to get possession of things or trying to enjoy them. In either case, the world of things is alone real and good.
The Fear of the World.—Directly opposed to this is the attitude of those for whom the world is wholly evil. It is not simply that they realize that there is evil in the world. The world itself is evil, it is the kingdom of the devil. The natural appetites, social pleasures, business activities, political activities—these are sometimes considered as actually evil; oftener they are viewed as not necessarily evil but as having no moral or spiritual meaning. One fruit of this theory is seen in monasticism, where men flee the world to find God. The Roman Catholic use of the word "religious" is suggestive here.1 When the Roman Church speaks of "the religious," it always means the monks and nuns, those who have fled the world. Of course it is not merely the privileges of the world but its duties as well that are avoided, the obligations to home and state and the world of industry. Common folks, no matter how faithfully and purely they live, are considered as being upon a lower plane because they do business and own property and marry and establish homes. The Protestant Church too is not free from this idea. It appears with people who divide the world into sacred and secular, who are suspicious of play and pleasure, who think of this world as the devil's and cannot find God in its great movements.
No Fear of the World.—It is a very different opinion that we find with Jesus. First of all, he rebukes by bis teaching and life those who fear the world or scorn it, and flee it. For him it is the Father's world, not the devil's, and he has no fear. He prays to his Father as "Lord of heaven and earth." This Father arrays the flowers in beauty, and gives the birds their food. There is evil in the world; he does not explain it, but he knows that it is being overcome. He himself heals men and casts out demons "by the finger of God." And so he walks through the world as through his Father's house, with confidence (Matthew 6. 26-30; 10. 29-31).
No Flight from the World.—Jesus was no ascetic. The Gospel pages reflect his simple pleasure in the beauties of nature, the flowers, the birds, the sprouting grain, the bending harvest, the glowing skies. Nor did he refuse the simple joys of human relations. He loved companions, and had his special friends. He was a guest in men's homes, and he did not shun their feasts. His enemies, indeed, contrasted him here with John the Baptist (Matthew 11. 18,19). As Jesus did not fear the world, so he did not flee it. He goes apart to pray, but he will not build tabernacles upon the mountaintop and stay there. He comes back from the wilderness to the crowded haunts of men. He is not afraid of the rich, and does not refuse their hospitality (Luke 14. 1). He even invites himself to the home of a man who represents what we to-day call "predatory wealth" (Luke 19. 2, 5). Nor does he hesitate to take from the rich gifts for his own need (Luke 8. 1-3).
Jesus' Words About Wealth
Warnings and Condemnation.—But if Jesus is not an ascetic, he is even farther removed from worldliness. The love of the world he condemned equally with the fear of the world. We must turn first to Jesus' statements concerning riches. When one considers their number, and how strong and sweeping they are, one realizes that teachers and preachers have passed them over all too lightly in the past. We hear him say: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth." "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6. 19, 24). "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" "It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Mark 10. 23, 25). Notice the pictures which the Gospels give of rich men. There are three of these. One is from life, the young man whose noble enthusiasm and high purpose dropped to a pitiful conclusion, who "went away sorrowful: for he was one that had great possessions" (Mark 10. 17-22). The other two Jesus drew. There is "a certain rich man," selfish and indifferent to others in this life, yonder in torment. And there is the rich farmer, so wise and prudent in his own eyes, so pitiably foolish in the eyes of God.
Not Rules, but the Spirit.—What is Jesus' teaching here? It is easy to say that Jesus condemns all wealth, all property even, as iniquity, that for those who will be "perfect" the only rule is poverty. But certain things are to be remembered. Jesus did not ask the wealthy Zacchaeus to sell all that he had, nor did he require it of those well-to-do friends who ministered to him. It was not by rules that men were to be saved, but by a new spirit. It is not wealth or poverty as such that Jesus is concerned about, but the life of God in man, and that appears when we study these sayings more closely.
What Jesus Teaches
A False Philosophy Condemned.—First of all, Jesus is condemning a wrong philosophy of life. It was a philosophy common then as it is now. The rich farmer is the great example. For some men the problem of life centers in things; to have money, land, stocks, houses, automobiles —this is the great end; to lack them is the great misfortune. It is not really a question of rich or poor here; the poor in his envy and fear and anxiety may be as much of a sinner, or a fool, as the rich man in his possessions. Once for all Jesus branded that delusion: "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12. 15).
It is interesting to hear the echo of Jesus' words from such a man as the late William James, of Harvard: "When one sees the way in which wealth-getting enters as an ideal into the very bone and marrow of our generation, one wonders whether a revival of the belief that poverty is a worthy religious vocation may not be the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of. We have grown Literally afraid to be poor. The desire to gain wealth and the fear to lose it are our chief breeders of cowardice and propagators of corruption. We despise anyone who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers."
Pitying and Warning.—In the second place, Jesus is pointing out the actual danger in which rich men stand. It has been said that Jesus belonged to the party of the poor. That is not true. He belonged to men, not to any party. He showed one spirit toward all: the spirit of love. He had plainly a deep sympathy for the poor. He was himself a laboring man, and he flames at times with true prophetic passion against those that mislead or oppress the lowly. But his pity is for all men. It is a mark of his greatness that he could pity even the rich.
Divided Allegiance.—The first demand of his higher life was a single loyalty. A man must love God with all his heart, must seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The rich men whom he saw were men of divided allegiance. The young ruler wanted to be good, and wished it sincerely. But that was not enough for Jesus. "You want eternal life; how much do you want it?" With most men nothing acts more powerfully to divide the mind and seduce it from high desire than wealth.
The Danger of Pride.—A second danger of wealth is pride and self-sufficiency. The rich man finds himself envied of others, a most subtle kind of flattery. He finds himself consulted, deferred to, respected, or at least feared. He knows the power of his wealth; it secures the service of men, and commands those goods that all men seem to be striving for. Everything conspires to make the rich man self-appreciative and self-satisfied. But all this, as Jesus saw, strikes at the very root of the higher life. It is the poor in spirit that receive the kingdom of heaven. It is the meek that inherit the earth. Those that hunger and thirst are filled. Men gather possessions, but inner treasures disappear—the high ideals and noble aims with which youth started out. And these men accept the world's judgment and imagine they are rich. That is the "deceitfulness of riches" (Matthew 13. 22; Luke 12. 19).
Hardness and Selfishness.—A third danger that Jesus saw was that of hardness and selfishness. That is what Dives sets forth, and the brothers of Dives are still on earth and still "hear not Moses and the prophets." It is easy for the rich to become hard and suspicious. They meet the clamor for aid on every side. Everybody seems to have designs upon their wealth. They themselves are separated from real want, and cannot so easily feel what it means. Their very conditions conspire to kill off better impulses. The poor, on the contrary, are close to want themselves, and their sympathies are quick.
Men have tried to whittle away the meaning of Jesus' words about the camel and the needle's eye. Some have changed a vowel in the Greek word for "camel," and so have made it mean "rope." Others have declared that the needle's eye was the little gate for foot passengers that was in the big gate of the city. But the words stand. The rich man can be saved, as Jesus went on to declare, but he saw how hard it was.
The Christian Man In The World
Simple Enjoyment.—What, then, shall be the attitude of the Christian man in the world? (1) There will be a simple wholesome enjoyment of what is good, looking upon all this as God's gift to man. We are coming to see more and more the Christian meaning of natural goods such as health and recreation and money. So far from being evil in itself, money is one of God's great instruments when handed over to his use. To subdue the earth and make it minister to us is a Christian task. A sufficient income is one of the first conditions for lifting a people to a higher plane of living. Recreation is a part of normal human life and indispensable for education, while full physical vigor is a part of God's purpose for men.
Perfect Independence.—(2) There will be perfect independence of soul. The highest in life does not come from money or any of these other gifts, nor can their lack take it away. Instead of such dependence upon uncertain gifts, which make others slaves of fear, the Christian has confidence that what he needs will be given him by God.
The High Aim.—(3) The Christian aims for the highest. He will not let a lesser good stand in the place of a higher. He knows that the good may become the enemy of the best. Sometimes, therefore, he will renounce the good because it stands in the way of the best.
Using the Lesser.—(4) More often the Christian, instead of renouncing the lesser, will make use of it to promote the higher. He will not flee the world, but find it, rather, the place in which to grow strong and to serve. He will learn that this world, with its wealth and poverty, its labor and joy, its temptations and its encouragements, is God's place for growing men. He will see how this world brings forth industry and loyalty and strength. He will learn how to be strict with himself and magnanimous toward others, to be strong and yet tender, to join courage with patience, to hate all evil and yet love all men.
Directions For Study
Read the Scripture references: Matthew 6. 19-34; Luke 12. 13-21; Mark 10. 17-27; Luke 16. 19-3L
Go over in your own mind the life of Jesus. What was his attitude toward nature? toward the common pleasures of life, especially toward social pleasures?
Now consider the two attitudes first discussed in the lesson, and see whether either worldliness or otherworldliness describes Jesus.
Recall, however, his supreme interest, that of the life of man with God. Is not this, after all, a right kind of otherworldliness, since it lifts a man above all the limitations of this world or dependence upon its goods?
As you study next the question of Jesus' attitude upon wealth, read first of all his words upon this subject. Are they the words of an abstract philosopher, or of a lover of men who knows the real world and is trying to help men?
At the close, try to put constructively the principles that you think should govern a Christian man in his attitude toward material things.
What social evils of to-day come from the greed for wealth?
What principles should be followed in the choice of our recreations?
1) See The Catholic Encyclopedia, article, " Religious Life."