18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” 21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18.18-30 (NIV)
Occupy HK has occupied much of my Facebook news feed. Many organizations have paid attention besides just the newspaper. The blatant human rights violation of the police crackdown even has Amnesty International on alert. During this time, I’m also in dialogue with people with all different opinions. One consistent argument that comes up is finance. It goes something like this. China won’t crack down on HK because it wants HK to do well financially, but the protesters do not. The logic goes, if HK remains peaceful, it’ll thrive like China and will eventually provide more freedom. No money? No freedom.
I think it’s worth our while to see what Luke had to say about the issue of money from one passage that is apparently about money. Since I’m writing on Luke, I might as well share my thoughts in how Luke’s message is relevant to the present discussion. In the NT, the passages that often have less to do with government may have the most to say about the present situation. I’ll have to ask my readers to think outside of the legalistic box for a moment. That passage is Luke 18.18-30. In this familiar passage, this rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The word Luke used to describe the young ruler indicates that he was possibly part of the religious elite, perhaps even a ruler in the synagogue. In Jesus’ day, the religious elite held both power and money. To his question, Jesus answered with a series of commandments dealing with sexuality (adultery), life (murder), private property (stealing), words (false testimony) and family (honor parents). These commands are sample texts from the Bible that deal with almost every facet of life. It even deals with enemies with the prohibition to murder. The rich young ruler answered that he had kept all such commands. Jesus then told him that he lacked one thing which was to sell all that he had and to give to the poor. Thereafter, he would have eternal life, presuming the command to follow Jesus was part of the deal. The narrator of the story says, “When he heard this, he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth.” Luke never failed to mention his wealth in his rich description. He sprinkled the passage with wealth. Jesus then said that it was very hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God, maybe even harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle. Some commentators prefer to see the word “camel” as a Greek misreading of the word for “rope” in Aramaic, but whether it is camel or rope, Jesus’ point remains the same. It’s damn near impossible, barring divine intervention that something this large can pass through the eye of a needle. The disciples themselves also focused on how much they had left to follow Jesus. The contrast then is between those who had hoarded and those who gave their wealth. The story of Zachaeus only makes it clearer that salvation came to Zachaeus and that sign was the fact that he was willing to leave it all behind for the poor and for reparation of those whom he wrong (Luke 19.8-10).
Although we often like to focus on money when reading this passage, I want us to read it from a first-century peasants’ eyes for this exercise. When Jesus called people to follow him, many were not rich like the rich young ruler and Zachaeus. The rich who followed Jesus were rare in the Gospel records. For the poor, they too left something to follow Jesus, but didn’t have to leave very much. For the rich here, Luke characterized him by his social advantages: he was rich. In other words, he was unwilling to leave his social advantages because if he did, his action wouldn’t just affect him but also others around him. Surely, the rich young ruler was obedient to the sample commandments. Those commandments made him a moral man. Society endorsed such a moral man. In fact, his morality was convenient because any decent man wouldn’t cheat on his wife, murder people, steal, lie or dishonor parents. These are convenient truths. Jesus however was after an inconvenient truth. Jesus was after what held him back, his social advantages. What does this have to do with our Christian worldview when arguing a social issue such as Occupy HK? A lot!
When people argue that society would be better off in the long run, they are arguing about financial advantages. They think that financial advantages would result in the ultimate good for the society. In fact, the very leader who ordered the murder of hundreds of students on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping, also argued the very same thing: if the country was prosperous, progress would come. Nothing got better! Only the rich got richer in China.
To make matters worse, people that tend to think of HK as a relatively good society tend to be the same ones who stand to benefit from it. I’ve never met taxi drivers or cleaning ladies who think that they are benefiting from the economic growth of HK, and I’ve talked to plenty of them. Did you know that one out of seventy people in HK are either in poverty or on the verge of falling below poverty line? In fact, I know of some young people who graduated from reputable European universities making wages that aren’t much more than when I was young and HK is one of the most expensive places to live on earth. Their parents might argue that if they study hard, they will benefit from the system the way their parents benefitted from the system. Such is not reality. At the same time, every single person I talk to who argues for financial welfare as part of social wellness benefits from the system. Essentially, they are arguing for their own benefits and have mistaken their personal advantages as advantages for the whole society. Someone asks me why many Diaspora Chinese, especially those in North America can’t appreciate the plight of the HK poor. The answer is simple. If they didn’t benefit financially from the system, how in the world would they be able to move to Vancouver (or any big and comfortable North American metropolis) to begin with? You need money to move and you need money to buy a house in rich metropolitan areas in North America. Have you check housing prices in Vancouver or San Francisco lately? To argue from financial advantage when you’re part of the privileged from afar is immoral!
When I hear Christians argue in terms of finance, alarm bells also go off because the argument once again is often about financial benefits for the city. Then, we need to ask the next question, “Beneficial for whom?” Unlike the US, HK’s social hierarchy separates the rich from the poor drastically. As if this is not bad enough, only recently did the government impose minimum wage, something we take for granted here in North America. That is the HK society. Its wealth was developed around disparity. Thus, there is no reason for Christians to argue in such terms even if they do so based on what they see. Yet, there’re even more reasons scripturally not to argue in terms of finance. Based on Jesus’ discussion with the rich young ruler, the financial part, his social advantage, was the very thing that kept him from inheriting eternal life. Barring a miracle, he would NOT enter the kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus was calling for all his disciples to give up their social advantages for others. Jesus called for radical sacrifice. I suspect that if Jesus were here to listen to our debate, the first call he might make would not be for us to be a little bit more moral. Rather, he would immediately call the Christians to stop using finance as an excuse to gain further personal advantage on the one hand and to support such an oppressive system on the other. He would especially be on the case of the Christian leaders (much like this rich young ruler) to lead by example. How many of us who are moral, religious and know our stuff would heed this call?
What was Jesus after when he was talking about eternal life, salvation and the kingdom of God? He was after an inconvenient obedience. The place to start is to abandon the logic of financial advantage or convenience as the ultimate good for Christians. Jesus was not against rich people or wealth. He was against using wealth to justify living a life we WANT to live rather than living a life God wants us to live. Someone asked a multimillionaire, “How much is enough?” The answer he gave was, “It’s never enough.” That seems to be the argument of many middle-class Christians because to say “enough” requires inconvenient obedience to Christ.