Biblical scholar David Lull was discussing the Gospel passage in which Jesus tells a wealthy man asking the path to eternal life to sell all he has and give the money to the poor.
When the man walks away sad, according to the passage in Matthew, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Lull suddenly looked up and asked the class at Yale Divinity School:
“Who is the rich man?”
I didn’t give the question much thought on that morning 22 years ago. My wife was not excited about the cockroaches that scurried around when you turned on the bathroom light in our two-room, linoleum-floor apartment in married-student housing. I was taking out loans, and working 20 hours a week, to go to school. I felt sure this passage did not apply to me.
And that was when Lull looked out at us and declared: “You are the rich man.”
It was true. My wife and I had safe housing, our own transportation, whatever food we wanted and money to go to the movies or see a play. By any standard in comparison to the world’s population, or even just the poor of New Haven, Conn., I was rich.
It was a powerful revelation, one I often have tried to reflect on when I succumb to the temptation of forgetting how fortunate I am and thinking how I am less well off financially than others.
Yet the idea competes with a human tendency — pushed into overdrive by a secular culture that equates success and happiness with money — that the only people who are rich are those who earn more than we do.
In a society where every person is valued, we would be talking about raising taxes so every child has a decent education and every person has affordable heath care.
But with a national median household income of roughly $45,000, should not individuals and families earning 21/2 to three times the national median income be expected to contribute more to meet the pressing social needs of the nation?
The idealized vision of American history is one in which everyone in the community contributes to help the poorest members. Now it is politically untenable to ask even the richest 15 percent of the country to forgo some deductions so they are required to make minimal contributions to the common good.
Our household is not in the six-figure category, but I know the answer to my professor’s question has not changed.
Who is the rich man? It is I. And I — and we — have to share more of our resources to help meet the basic needs of our neighbors.
David Briggs is a columnist and religion reporter for “The Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio.