October 2000

The Challenge of Wealth ©

You can’t read, listen to or reflect on the teachings of Jesus very long without coming up against the thorny question of whether or not money is indeed the root of all evil. In fact, you can’t go very far down the mystical road without making sense out of the apparent inconsistency between the generosity of God and the insistence of Jesus “to sell what you own”.

Great saints and sinners alike have grappled with this issue through two millennia, seemingly without much impact on the rest of us who wager that we can reconcile our love of wealth and our love of God with little regard for the radical nature of the call to follow Jesus.

In fact, Jesus’ definition of what it takes to “inherit eternal life” was so shocking to the rich man found in the fifth chapter of Mark’s gospel, and to onlookers as well, that it caused them to doubt that anyone could be saved. To the astonished crowd, Jesus explained that indeed “for mortals, it is impossible”.

Had Jesus stopped here, there would be no point to fidelity to the Ancient Law and to the Gospels, and religious practice would be something discussed only by archaeologists. Fortunately, Jesus did provide the key to eternal life, albeit wrapped in mystery. He said: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.”

OK. So God gets to go to heaven. And were it not for the idea that God is made up of three persons, one might be inclined to worry about God getting lonely. Kidding aside, we begin to get the idea that it is possible for us as well to the extent that Christ is alive within us.

I called on God, and
the spirit of wisdom came to me.

– Wisdom 7:7

With Christ alive in us through grace and our own fidelity to the pivotal virtues of faith, hope and charity, we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love. The fruit of truth and love is wisdom, expressed in many forms: most particularly, as freedom.

This spirit of wisdom opens our eyes to, among other things, the enormous challenge of wealth.

As such, wealth is neutral; neither good nor evil. Into this neutral medium is introduced our own will, the active ingredient of spiritual life. Our will empowers wealth to become a force for good or a force for evil.

But as Jesus warns in Mark’s gospel, human nature inclines us toward the hazardous uses of wealth. In effect, Jesus warns that wealth typically compromises our freedom and, most particularly, our freedom to live according to God’s will.

The underlying argument is that the pursuit or maintenance of wealth demands our undivided attention. It obliges us to think in economic terms, rather than according to God’s terms, and to pander to the ephemeral whims of markets, rather than the essential exigencies of God’s kingdom.

Let the favour of the Lord…
prosper for us the work of our hands.

– Psalm 90

Attachment to wealth also justifies attitudes and behaviours that are incompatible with gospel values. It makes us fearful of loss; jealous and suspicious of others. In turn, fear triggers all sorts of destructive gestures and enables otherwise kind people to utter brutal words.

When we perform such acts or argue in favour of wealth for our own limited benefit, we see the error readily. But when we envelop selfishness with a veil of apparent altruism by saying that it is done for the benefit of others, such as family and community, we think ourselves immune from harm – and above reproach.

Far from inoculating us against the ravages of sin, such justification is merely a clever form of error-laundering, for – in the end – wealth that justifies brutal gestures or hurtful words significantly limits our freedom to serve those we love. It limits our availability to do God’s will; it limits our access to the dividends of virtue; and it creates a destructive addiction as physiologically and emotionally crippling as that induced by the most potent narcotic.

On the other hand, the casual use of wealth is not demonstrably harmful inasmuch as it is done in a spirit of gratitude and generosity. The material world is part of creation and, therefore, available for our sacred use.

So, for the sake of spiritual safety, we are wise to approach wealth with a cautious sense of detachment. After all, Wisdom’s clear counsel is to “account wealth as nothing in comparison to her (wisdom)…All gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her.”.

Wisdom’s own reward may at times be poverty, but never impoverishment: “All good things came to me along with her (wisdom), and in her hands uncounted wealth.”

As the psalmist reminds us, a focus on God’s love – which is most effectively achieved at the expense of a concentration on wealth – brings satisfaction (“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days”) and prosperity, counted either in common currency or coinage that does not tarnish.

Indeed, the challenge of wealth presents us with a daunting set of questions regarding our private and public life. Jesus makes no apology for the disruption caused by his disturbing answer to the rich man – and to those of us who hear or read his advice. In fact, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews we find this uncompromising view of his teachings: “The word of God is…sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit; joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit;
the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

– Matthew 5:

So, are we to literally sell what (we) own, and give the money to the poor…then (go), follow (Jesus)? For some of us, this may be the case. Yet, for most of us the emphasis should be more on following than on selling.

After all, Jesus did not say that the rich man would not enter the kingdom of God. What he did say was It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

In other words, wealth poses a daunting challenge but not an insurmountable obstacles, particularly for those whose heart beats in unison with the heart of God; for those in whose veins runs the blood of Christ; and for those whose life is animated by the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love.

Of course, these are monumental conditions. Hence the warning expressed by the most ancient religious traditions to steer clear of wealth and its numerous temptations. For those of us living in an economically ordered world, this means handling wealth cautiously. This means that, as we use wealth to provide our families with the fruits that sustain physical life, we must be mindful that at the heart of that fruit is an intoxicating seed, which ultimately paralyses those who are unaware of its dangers.

This challenge gives meaning to the American practice of printing “In God we trust” on paper currency as a kind of warning against trust in or the misuse of wealth, like the stylised flame on a chemical product signals flammability.

We would do well to read such a warning onto all things that wealth provides.

Meditations

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

– Proverbs 23:4-5

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

– Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

– Matthew 6:24-25, 31-33

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

– Matthew 16:26

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.

– 1 Timothy 6:9-11

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

– 1 John 3:17

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

– 1 Timothy 6:17-19