Thursday, February 20, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 3: Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?)

In my James Through the Centuries, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reception history of James is how people interpret the sections where James highlights the most challenging and radical aspects of Jesus’ message about wealth, poverty, power, and social justice (e.g., from the Sermon of the Mount). James inherits in many ways the heart, mind, and message of Jesus (Patrick Hartin and others make this case as well), but these challenging statements have usually been domesticated (or ignored altogether) since the time of Jesus and James. The reception history of Jesus’ parables shows a similar dynamic.

Clement’s Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? gives an interesting example of how later Christians interpreted Jesus’ radical teachings about the dangers of wealth. In addition, the treatise includes an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example story almost completely free from allegorization.
Clement begins his work with harsh words against those who “bestow laudatory addresses on the rich.” They are dishonorable flatterers and “godless and treacherous,” because instead of praising and glorifying God, “who is alone perfect and good,” they “invest with divine honors” those rich who wallow “in an execrable and abominable life” (1). Such flattery even further corrupts the rich whose “wealth is of itself sufficient to puff up and corrupt” their souls.

So Clement does not excuse the wealthy, but he also looks at the other side of the coin: Salvation appears to be more difficult for the wealthy for a number of reasons, but some (presumably wealthy people) who hear Jesus’ admonition that “that 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 heaven” (Matt. 19:24) begin to despair of the possibility of their salvation, although others (correctly) comprehend that all things are possible with God (2). Clement obviously doesn’t want the wealthy to despair of salvation, so he explains further.
Clement then paraphrases the story in Mark 10:17-31 about the rich man who came to Jesus and was told to sell all that he had and give to the poor. Although the story seems straightforward, Clement says that since Jesus always teaches with a “divine and mystic wisdom,” there is more to the story than meets the eye. Therefore, “we must not listen to His utterances carnally; but with due investigation and intelligence must search out and learn the meaning hidden in them” (5). There is a “superabundance of wisdom in Jesus’ words which must be contemplated figuratively, with a “supercelestial depth of mind.” Jesus’ words are actually about the condition of the soul, says Clement:

And what is this? He does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life (11).

Clement thus says that Jesus really means that it is one’s attachment to wealth that is the problem, not wealth itself. It is not the outward act of giving away one’s possessions that Jesus wants; instead it is “the greater, more godlike, more perfect, the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself,” the ridding one’s soul of “the lust and desire for money” (12).

Clement’s reasoning also has a practical benefit, one that I will examine tomorrow.

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