Sunday, March 8, 2015

Philip Ng on the meaning of wealth

A friend of mine just posted on Facebook this article which was published almost a year ago about a talk on wealth given by Philip Ng, CEO of Far East Organisation, and one of the richest men in Singapore. Instead of talking about the strategies in accumulating wealth, Ng, who is a devout Christian, quoted St Matthew 19:24 which reads, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

This is a story from the Holy Gospel about Jesus' meeting with the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he has to do to "have eternal life". Jesus' reply is that he has to do good and obey the commandments. The rich man explains that he has done all that from his childhood. Jesus then says he has failed in one area - he should sell ALL that he has and give them all to the poor. The man is unable to do that and he walks away sadly. Jesus then turns to his disciples and tells them that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

If you look at the comments at the bottom of the article, you will see the comments by some of the readers who expressed surprise. Was Philip Ng going to sell all he had to give to the poor? Obviously not. Then why did he quote this part of the Holy Gospel?

Here is where non-Christians, quite rightly and reasonably, do not understand how a Christian thinks and I don't blame them one bit. Although I'm a devout Christian myself, I must confess that we Christians are so conditioned that we are unable to see anything that is wrong with our Gospel stories or how they don't gel with reality or how much at variance biblical teachings are from our own personal lives. We have through years of conditioning become so inured to biblical errors and discrepancies that we don't really see them at all. And when they are shown to us, we will find some way, however ludicrous, to justify the biblical text.

I'll tell you how a Christian mind works. This applies to followers of all other religions too but I'm more familiar with my own religion. I'll take an example from an article I wrote in this blog years ago. As I've shown in that article, Jesus promises in at least 5 different places in various gospels that his Second Coming would take place in the lifetimes of some of his disciples and hearers. Apart from these unambiguous words of Jesus, this is also how the early Christians and St Paul understood Christ's Second Coming to be - while most of them were still alive or in any case not later than the first century.

But as I wrote in that article, some scribes even tried to alter some of these verses around 200AD. They were worried that since it'd been 200 years after Christ and he still hadn't come, how likely was his coming, given that he had broken his own promise in the Gospels? But it's been 2,000 years now and we still continue in the same faith without a problem. How is that possible?

You see, the religious mind works this way. You put the cart before the horse. You first decide that the Bible is the word of God and the Holy Gospels tell only the Gospel truth. If reality tells you that certain things didn't come to pass as foretold by Jesus, it CANNOT be that Jesus was wrong because after all, he is God Almighty himself and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. And the Gospels can't be wrong either because they are a part of God's holy word.

So proper Christian exegesis will have you understand that Jesus DIDN'T MEAN that he would be coming back in the lifetime of the disciples. Why? Because it didn't happen so he couldn't have meant that. This has led some Bible scholars to concoct a principle of interpretation which is sometimes called the Principle of Compression. According to biblical scholars, Ridderbos and Leon Morris, prophecy usually compresses time so that the time of Jesus' resurrection up to his Second Coming is compressed to read as one event. So, Jesus' resurrection which the disciples must have seen (if you believe the Gospels) and Jesus' Second Coming which they didn't see because it hasn't happened yet - even though separated by more than 2000 years - are essentially one event. Leon Morris says, "They would see the early manifestation in the resurrection and what followed immediately, though the final fulfilment of the words is yet future."

But of course this is terribly dishonest. Jesus says in the Gospels that his hearers would see him coming in the clouds in all his glory with the angels and these scholars are saying that although Jesus' hearers didn't see that, they must have seen his resurrection and let's pretend both events (the resurrection and the Second Coming) are one and the same in order to make the words of Jesus true.

Leon Morris writes further, "Some such understanding of Jesus' words is surely required." Why is it required? Otherwise, Jesus wouldn't be telling the truth.

This exercise may seem strange to the atheist who is not familiar with the need of the religious person to justify the claims of his religion.

So when Philip Ng quotes Matthew 19:24, he fails to consider the fact that his words would be quoted to non-believers and they will find it hard to understand what he's saying.

From the clear words of Jesus, a rich man CANNOT enter the kingdom of God. He can't have eternal life (to use the rich young ruler's words). There is no mistake about this. It means the same thing whether you are reading the English translation or you're reading it in Koine Greek. But what constitutes "rich"? Bible scholars and historians are agreed on this. In the eyes of anyone living in the time of Jesus, all of us who can read my blog on their computers or iPads or tablets or mobile phones are filthy rich. We are all barred from entering heaven and there's no way you can honestly dispute that and of course Philip Ng, by virtue of his immense wealth, is barred a thousandfold.

So the Christian looks at the verse again and he tries to re-interpret it. One way is to pretend that the eye of the needle is really some other object and camels do go through it. This is a common way for Christian apologists to justify or alter the meaning of a biblical verse and its falsehood is usually not apparent to the deeply religious who are desperate to grasp at any straw. But if you read the entire passage, it's obvious Jesus is saying no rich man can enter heaven and that's that.

I recall reading in one of James Joyce's novels a priest reading this same passage in church. Joyce intends it to be satirical and I remember feeling rather edgy as I read the novel because naturally this is one of the many passages we Christians are uncomfortable about when it's handled by a non-believer.

If you look at the historical context, you will understand why the Gospel passage says that. All known writings at the time about the Christian community in the first century tell us that Christianity was the religion of slaves and very poor people. Even the early Church Fathers accepted this without question. Certainly at the time when the Synoptic Gospels were written, every Christian was poor. Those who had money or property had to sell away everything they had and give it to the Christian community. Early Christians were perfect Communists. This can be seen in Acts 5 where Ananias sold his property but kept a portion for himself and gave the rest to the church. Because he deceived the church into thinking he didn't keep any proceeds for himself, he was instantly struck dead by God, or so the story goes.

Given that this was how the early church was like, it's not surprising to read in the Gospel of Jesus slamming rich people. But of course unknown to the Gospel writers, the church became very successful and one of the richest men in history, the Roman Emperor, even accepted the faith 300 years later and then suddenly, this passage becomes painfully anachronistic. But the religious mind is very malleable. Christians no longer look upon the rich as automatically debarred from heaven. We merely say this passage is a reminder to us not to love Mammon and to hold our wealth as stewards for God. Hey, that's not what Jesus says in the passage but we have more important things (such as our investments) to think about.

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