The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts. (Is 3:15)
The bull market economy has made millionaires of many. But the boom has another side, an underside, filled with growing numbers of people who are slipping further and further outside the community and into poverty and destitution.
As Isaiah makes clear, the gap between rich and poor is not just an economic issue, but a profoundly spiritual one as well. The particular circumstances of the wealth gap in our day and age may be new, but the division between rich and poor is not. For over two thousand years, our faith tradition has had something to say about this division, and what our God asks us to do about it. From the prophets to the Gospels, from Jewish Law to the life of Jesus, God's teaching about wealth is clear: The irresponsible and unjust use of money destroys relationships, with our community and our God. God does not condemn money or things, but calls us to use them in ways that preserve and enhance our relationship with one another and with God.
In Exodus 16:16, God instructs the Israelites, who are wandering in the desert to gather only as much manna as each of them needs so that each has enough. The passage symbolizes how we, as God's people, are to treat wealth and material needs. First, we are to take only what we need, freely sharing excess to ensure that the whole community is provided for. Second, we are not to hoard, for to do so deprives others, and prevents faithful dependence on God's providence. These basic teachings form what I call an "Exodus mentality." An Exodus mentality keeps us connected to each other and to God. With an Exodus mentality, there is no room for idolatry when we truly place ourselves in God's hands and trust that we will be cared for. There is no room for a wealth gap when we freely share what we have been given in the interests of the common good.
Choosing not to live with the Exodus mentality has a corresponding side effect: separation from God and one another. Instead of living as one community, serving God and each other, we become separated; divided into those with too much and those with too little. More critically, by placing individual material gain over the common good, the role of money becomes distorted and the vulnerable pay the price.
When money, not God, becomes our focus, we risk idolatry. The unjust use of money separates us from God and from our covenantal relationship with him. God warned the Israelites to remember their identity, not as possessors, but as a people dependent upon their God and one another. Our God continues to call us out of the slavery of idolatry to relationship of dependence upon him and one another.
The Exodus mentality continues to the life of Jesus, and composes a key aspect of his ministry. Much of Jesus' mission was restoring outcasts to community. Jesus took special care of those who were excluded, whether because of sickness, perceived sinfulness, or poverty. However, Jesus also invited those who were separated from the community because of their wealth. In two instances, Jesus invites wealthy people to follow him, and to do what was necessary to rejoin God's community by sharing their riches. Jesus is saddened when the rich young man cannot give up his wealth and therefore enter into discipleship, (Mark 10:17-24; Matt 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30), and overjoyed when Zaccheus the tax collector elects to rejoin the beloved community by repaying debts, doing justice, and giving freely in Luke 19:1-10.
Questions concerning money and its just use are serious ones for any Christian. Which is precisely why we as Christians must pay special attention to what role they play in our lives and to make intentional, discipleship decisions about them. How do we maintain an Exodus mentality, especially in a consumer-driven society like our own? Does our use of resources and wealth help to restore outsiders to community, as Jesus did, or to further exclude them? How free are we to share our riches with our community, and to take only what we need? Do we spend more time worrying or thinking about money than we do giving to others, being with them, and caring for 'the least of these?'
Exodus 16 represents one aspect of God's teaching about money and material things. The life of Jesus serves as another. Both are powerful invitations to deepen our relationship to God and one another through the just and loving stewardship of what we receive. God has made clear how we can show our gratitude for what we have, and how we can faithfully fulfill our covenant with him: "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them..."(Is 58:6-7). God continues to invite us, through these living scriptures, to a new freedom, one that material wealth cannot offer. It is up to us whether or not we accept the liberation that living in Exodus promises.