Founding a true Commonwealth upon a real common wealth
Last week, using a story found in the gospels of Luke (21:1–4) and Mark (12:41–44), I explored with you the asymmetry that Jesus saw existed between those who were financially wealthy and those who were financially poor. Let’s hear the story from Luke once again:
“And looking up [Jesus] saw the rich putting their offerings into the treasury. And he saw a certain impoverished widow there putting in two lepta [i.e. two coins of the lowest value], And [Jesus] said, ‘I tell you truly that this destitute widow put in more than all; For all of these donated their gifts out of their abundance, but this woman donated out of her poverty all the livelihood she possessed’” (Luke 21:1–4, trans. David Bentley Hart).
Today, I want to tease out from this story something else related to wealth that Jesus has seen.
When the word wealth is keyed to money and/or finance, as I explicitly did last week, it is obvious that the rich are wealthy and the poor are not. And, as I hope I showed, Jesus is deeply concerned with the cruel financial asymmetry that existed in his own age and which, today, in the neoliberal project, has only grown far, far worse. That asymmetry needed urgently to be addressed then, and it needs to be urgently addressed by us today.
However, despite wishing it were otherwise, it would be delusional were we not to acknowledge that within our own culture there is something about financial wealth that communicates to many, many people the idea that it must be respected and this, in turn, brings with it a tendency to honour and raise up those who are rich rather than honouring and raising up the poor. Even the most cursory reading of the tabloid press daily reveals this unpleasant tendency in spades.
Jesus seems to have seen this tendency clearly and so it’s important fully to realise that Jesus’ critique of asymmetric, financial wealth, depends ultimately upon understanding that we must not key the word “wealth” to money, but to something else, something ineffable shared by all people and all things.
Although in Jesus’ own 1st-century radical Jewish illuminating vocabulary, this ineffable something is most often given the placeholder names of “Father” or “God”, in his usage, they are names used to gesture towards to “the [ineffable] dimension of existence . . . which cannot be captured by descriptive language, and which escapes all attempts to put it to ‘work’ — either in the economic series of production, or in those of citizenship, technology, science, social roles and so on” (Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic, Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 10).
It can, perhaps, most universally be gestured towards simply by calling it “life.”
This “life”, this ineffable, always flowing and fluxing something shared by all things that have been, are, and will be, this is our true wealth and, simultaneously, it is no one’s and yet it is everyone’s. It is truly a common wealth. Borrowing an insight from the contemporary Italian philosopher, Federico Campagna, I think that what Jesus wants us to see, again and again, is that within every individual there is an incredible abundance of wealth which deserves the same respect and privilege that is usually assigned to other, inferior, types of wealth.
And this is why financially poor and powerless people like the widow continually show up to Jesus as being the truly wealthy because it is they who most often and often most fully reveal the ineffable abundance of life that is truly the common wealth. This can be seen particularly clearly in the first of the beatitudes which, in Luke 6:20 (trans. David Bentley Hart), reads:
“How blissful the destitute, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”
It’s important to realise that the Greek word “makarios” (μακάριος) — which is often translated into English as meaning “blessed,” “happy” or “fortunate” — can also be translated as “prosperous.” However, the prosperity and wealth which is the poor’s, is not money, but the aforementioned abundant, ineffable life of all things. It is by coming to know that this is theirs that Jesus suggests a person can begin to experience a genuine sense of divine or heavenly bliss, hence: “How blissful the destitute, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” This realisation is, of course, possible for all, financially rich and poor, but, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke:
“How hard for those possessing wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, For it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25 trans. David Bentley Hart).
Anyway, in short, the story of the widow’s mite, can, I think, be taken as Jesus helping us see that to bow down and show respect to financial wealth and abundance is, at root, an act of idolatry. Whereas, to bow down and show respect to “life” — that ineffable, always flowing and fluxing something shared by all things — that is a genuine religious act which truly expresses our gratitude towards the true common wealth and which can always help us always to be building a real Commonwealth on earth, that community which Jesus once named the Kingdom of God.
Let those with ears hear; those with eyes see.