It’s an undeniable feature of the Gospel that Jesus Christ announces a radical kinship with those on the margins of society — the needy, the outcast, the sick and the destitute. In Matt. 25:31-46 he declares that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner is coterminous with doing the same for Christ Himself, and that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” In the Kingdom of God, “the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matt. 20:16; Mark 10:31).
In the 20th century there arose a strong current in Roman Catholic social doctrine which described this as the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ In Octogesima Adveniens (1971), Pope Paul VI writes that:
In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the most fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods generously at the service of others.
This acquires an almost exclusive focus in many strands of liberal Protestantism and post-Protestant spiritualism, as not just a significant aspect of Christ’s social teaching, but as essentially constituting the entirety of the true Gospel.
And who could deny Christ’s unique concern for, and identification with, the poor? But in one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, the gospels simultaneously witness to an oft-neglected counter-preference that, on its face, seems to run directly contrary to this ‘preferential option for the poor.’ It’s Jesus Christ’s special, unique concern for wealthy tax collectors.
Of course, this still falls under the category of concern for those on the margins of society. Only in this case it’s a person who is despised and marginalized, not for his poverty or weakness, but for his position of relative power and wealth, with its attendant potential for abuse.
When Christ is seen eating with “sinners and tax collectors”, to the disapproval of the Pharisees (Matt. 9:10-13; Luke 5:29-32) — the modern analog of which would be befriending IRS agents and Wall Street bankers, while the ‘social justice’ crusaders look on with rueful scorn — this caused some scandal. Of the various sorts of sinners he’s eating with, only tax collectors are singled out by name, signaling that their profession was seen as especially odious and sinful by many. In much the same way, the IRS and Wall Street bankers are widely despised today, given their intimate dealings with the money of others and possible, or actual, corruption associated with it. And why does Jesus choose such dubious company? “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Christ reiterates this ‘preferential option for the sick and lost’ when he asks what a man would do if he had a hundred sheep and one went astray. “Does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Matt. 18:12-13. And who is more afflicted, more sick, and more lost than a worldly person obsessed with wealth?
Ironically, this is made especially clear in the account of the rich man who had kept all the commandments from his youth (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27), which is usually cited to opposite ends. The rich man’s inquiry in this incident is “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ responds by telling him that “if thou wouldst be perfect”, in addition to keeping the commandments, he ought to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor. The central concern here is explicitly the eternal life and spiritual perfection of the rich man. Christ seeks to cure him of his worldly affections — which he knows to be inimical to the life of the eternal Kingdom — and laments when the man leaves dejected by this call to dispossession. Christ does not lament, you’ll note, because the poor will suffer so terribly without the man’s wealth, but because it will be so difficult for the man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
In Luke 19:1-10, Jesus singles Zacchaeus, “who was a tax collector and rich”, out of a crowd and treats him with kindness and love, again to the grumblings of the crowd — grumblings which are very familiar these days and can be heard coming from self-righteous liberals who treat the rich with naked animus, while expecting all enlightened persons to do likewise. In response to Christ’s love, Zacchaeus demonstrates repentance in deed by selling half of his goods to give to the poor, and restoring what he has taken illicitly fourfold. This brings him salvation (which again appears as the central concern), and Christ reiterates in this context that he came to seek what was lost. And who was lost? Zacchaeus with his earthly, worldly, self, and wealth-mindedness. This great affliction of Zacchaeus’ elicited special attention and care from Christ, precisely because he was lost; because he was sick; and because Christ has come to find the lost and heal the sick.
In the parable of the Publican (or tax collector) and the Pharisee, found in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus chooses — of all people — a tax collector to exemplify a stance of righteousness before God. If we replaced ‘publican’ with ‘Wall Street banker’ in this parable, we would see the Pharisee thanking God that he ‘isn’t like that nasty Wall Street banker’ and might get a sense of how this parable would strike the ear of its first-century audience, and what a scathing rebuke it remains today.
While Jesus is always calling the rich to dispossess and give radically and generously, it’s a distortion to say that he does so primarily for the sake of the material needs of the poor. After all, if he wished, he could turn all the stones in the world to bread instantly, so it’s clear that he has other, more lofty concerns in mind. Namely, the salvation of souls.
For the wealthy, this largely entails calling them to repentance for their sins related to greed, worldliness, and acquisitiveness, and to a new life of charity and dispossession, modeled after Christ’s life of total self-offering. For the poor this will mean other things, but in receiving charity from newly-minted Christians, they would experience the self-offering love of Christ manifested in his followers, which leads to repentance and salvation.
Christ’s desire, as it relates to wealth, is not so much that one should favor poor persons over rich persons (indeed, the Bible expressly forbids as much elsewhere e.g. Exodus 23:3), but that all persons would dispossess, would detach from the transient things of the earth, be healed of their disordered and worldly affections, and seek to obtain a heavenly orientation of self-offering love that leads to salvation.
Nathan Duffy is an Orthodox Christian from Rancho Cucamonga, California. He blogs at On Behalf of All and Tweets as @theillegit.