Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold. Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them if they stayed together; their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together. There were quarrels between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and those of Lot’s.Genesis 13: 2, 5-7
“Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 7: 12
The whole journey of what we call “salvation history” begins with a break up. We are told that the possessions of both Abram and Lot were so great “that they could not dwell together.” The land was not able to support them and all their possessions “if they stayed together.” As a result, the herdsmen of the two were constantly at odds with each other. It is of our very nature to constitute our relationship to others based on our and their possessions. If we are to be reconciled, then we must see each other through a different lens.
That lens is the one that Jesus offers in today’s excerpt from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. “Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you.” Jesus says that the entirety of the Scriptures are contained in these words. Rabbi Hillel, an elder contemporary of Jesus, had taught this “Golden Rule” in a slightly different form: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” This rule invites us to examine our concrete actions so that how we act toward others might reveal to us how we see both them and ourselves.
As constituted by things, we are doomed to lives dominated by the will to power. It is the wealthiest, the strongest, the most clever and manipulative who will win the day. Martin Buber describes the difference between the “I-You” and the “I-It.”
The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann, pp. 111-112
The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).
Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.
Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.
Our possessions, material, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual are all potentially obstacles to our encountering the other in the mode of true conversation and relationship. The I as subject is always in conversation and relationship, with God, with others, with the world. The I as ego is always in a mode of defensiveness of its possessions, which are threatened by the possessiveness of the others. In this mode we are very apt to do to others what is hateful to us before they are able to do it to us.
For Americans it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to understand that possessiveness and possessions are, in fact, obstacles to the joy of a distinctively human life and to entrance into the kingdom of God. So completely have we been formed to associate wealth and property with “the good life” that we have distorted the faith tradition to accommodate it to our cultural formation. Witness how easy it is to convince us that poor and desperate immigrants are a threat to us, and to what we like to call “our way of life.” The truth is that we not only look down on the poor but that we somehow see them as spiritually as well as materially deficient.
Yet, signals abound that our sense of self as constituted by what we possess is woefully inadequate. When our humanity is measured by our wealth, we feed our human tendencies to greed and selfishness, and so those who become exorbitantly wealthy never seem to have enough. As we well know, the disparity between the very wealthy and the rest of the population is ever increasing. This phenomenon is apparent within our borders and in our country’s relationship to the world. A year ago, our administration withdrew $300 million dollars in support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). This UN agency has been responsible, among other things, for much of the educational effort in the West Bank and Gaza. Somehow, we think that depriving the desperate children of Palestine of education will somehow advance our own well being, or at least react to the threat we perceive them to be. At the same time just two individuals, the Koch brothers, have reportedly saved between $1 billion and $1.4 billion from the most recent tax cut.
Lot and Abram opted to settle their quarrel over resources by creating distance from each other. There was then plenty of space to do so. Today, however, we are experiencing that there is no getting away from the power and greed of international corporations and their subservient governments. To see the squalor of the migrant children in the U.S. and the Palestinian children on the West Bank and in Gaza is to realize that we can no longer, given the smallness of our planet, continue to relate to others out of our possessiveness and greediness.
Yet, to think about his at the global level can be overwhelming. To really begin to understand the conversion to which Jesus calls us, we need to reflect more personally. What does it mean for us to say that to truly be as a human subject is to live in conversation? The nature of the conversation to which we are called is a living in an openness to subjectivity, to the truth of who we are as human persons and to the communion in which we live. The sense of separation that possession creates is an illusion. This is the meaning of the evangelical counsel of poverty. The gospel does not call us to be destitute but rather not to confuse our identity, our selfhood, our humanity with our possessions. The insight of the way of life that is the threefold path is that a commitment to forego unnecessary possessions is requisite for community.
Possessions in this sense include money and material possessions, but also status, power, office, as well as intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual attributes. For us to know the communion that we are, we must radically acknowledge that we live only to be in conversation with others and the Other. When we are “brought low” through physical illness, or personal failure, or emotional abandonment, we discover that what truly sustains us and gives us life is our relationship to others, to the world, and to God. To know this is to live always in presence. It is, as Jesus says today, to pass through the narrow gate and into the “life to the full” that he desires to share with us.
The reason that the wealthy never seem to have enough is that their very wealth impoverishes them. When we have much, we must build walls around us to protect us from the thieves and robbers who are all the others are to us. Then, in our fearful and pathetic isolation, all we can do is try to gain more wealth and power. One of the fault lines in American religion has always been its tendency to conflate success, wealth, and power with virtue. So, we aggrandize the rich and powerful and, in large part, marginalize and imprison the poor. It is our loss every time we cease to be in conversation with other human persons. To exclude others from our own lives and from our “society” is not merely an ethical failing, it is the refusal of the true life that Jesus offers, a life of communion rather than possession.
But how beautiful and legitimate the vivid and emphatic I of Socrates sounds! It is the I of infinite conversation, and the air of conversation is present in all its ways, even before his judges, even in the final hour in prison. This I lived in that relation to humanity which is embodied in conversation. It believed in the actuality of persons and went out toward them. Thus it stood together with them in actuality and is never severed from it. Even solitude cannot spell forsakenness, and when the human world falls silent for him, he hears his “daimonion” say You.Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann, pp. 115-116