Christian readers of Scripture hear nothing exceptional in the second reading (I Tm 6: 11-16): "Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses."

Eternal life is our goal. Faith revolves around the hope of living forever with the risen Jesus. Yet almost no author of the Hebrew Scriptures shares that hope. Those who write before the first century know only this life. They presume God's salvation will be experienced between the boundaries of one's birth and death. No reward or punishment extends beyond those limits.

That's why Amos prophesying toward the middle of the 8th century before Christ (Amos 6: 1, 4-7) threatens his audience only with being "the first to go into exile." He can't tell those who refuse to care for the poor that they're going to hell. Their punishment will be experienced before death, not after.

Concern for poor

But no matter the reward or punishment, concern for the poor and helpless runs throughout the Bible. No one should think of himself or herself as a true follower of God if he or she doesn't champion the rights of people who don't have enough clout to champion those rights themselves.

"Woe to the complacent in Zion!" Amos warns. "Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall....They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oil; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!"

The prophet never accuses anyone at this point of oppressing the poor. The sin of these wealthy Israelites doesn't consist in actively doing anything to make or keep people poor. Their crime simply revolves around not noticing that the poor even exist.

The rich man in the Gospel (Lk 16: 9-31) is condemned for the same sin. At no time does Jesus even hint that he caused Lazarus' suffering. He just walks by him every day without noticing he's there. Wandering dogs are more aware of his existence than the man at whose door he lies.

Attentiveness and care for the poor is so pervasive in Scripture that we can presume Timothy's author's call for "righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness" is a call to show those virtues to the less fortunate around us. But to return to the beginning of this article, it isn't enough just to note differences between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures over the afterlife. It's important to understand the source of the insight which eventually led God's followers to take that first huge step into eternity.

More to come

Belief in an afterlife started when people began to reflect deeply on their relationship with Yahweh. They reasoned that if they formed a relationship with a person who was immortal and that person eternally remembered them, then they also would live eternally. When God thinks about anyone or anything, that thought causes the person or thing to exist.

If that's the case, then the most important question in anyone's life must be, "How do I form a relationship with God?"

Both Amos and Jesus tell us how to do it. Each reminds us that God is the constant champion of the poor. So when one develops a relationship with the least in the community, one also forms a relationship with the God who continually relates to them. No one can truly be "God-connected" who refuses even to notice the existence of a whole class of people who shares this earth with us.

It's no accident that the author of Genesis reminds his readers that we're all created in God's image and likeness.

The Gospel's rich man will suffer eternally only because he habitually ignored God suffering around him. Those who isolate themselves from entire segments of society might eventually find themselves isolated from eternal happiness.

(09-27-01)