Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wealth in the NT 4

... continued from yesterday
But it is also no surprise to find that the New Testament has almost nothing positive to say about wealth or the wealthy. Virtually everything it has to say is not only negative but virtually condemnatory. "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). Rather, "we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (6:7-8). "Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (6:10).

James is of course even starker in what it has to say about the wealthy, and it assumes such individuals are cheats. "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you...  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty" (5:1, 4). James pictures a land owner who severely underpays the captive labor he has at his disposal.

James 4 similarly mocks the "industrialist," the merchant who is preoccupied with making a profit.  "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (4:11-12).

These verses remind us of a parable in Luke sometimes called the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). In this parable, a wealthy man wants to store up his surplus grain so he can "eat, drink, and be merry" for many years. He wants to tear down his barns and built bigger ones. The parable mocks him, because he is destined to die that very evening.

These are parables and proverbs. They are not absolute, without exception. It may be "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25).  But it is possible.  There are prosperous employers who pay fair wages to their employees. There is a time to store up grain in a time of prosperity so that you can help others in the years to come (e.g., Gen. 41:49). Notice that the authentic purpose in Joseph's case was to help others.

Paul thinks of it this way in 2 Corinthians.  "At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: 'The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.'" (7:14-15). In so many words, Paul says that God is prospering you Corinthians right now, so your obligation is to share to others who do not have enough at this time.  A time may come when it flows the other direction.

John Wesley summed up the most appropriate application of these values well when he said, "Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can." [1]  You will find no acceptance of laziness here.  But by "save all you can" he did not mean to store up your excess prosperity in bigger barns or brokerage accounts.  For him, save meant not to buy a more expensive brand when you can get by with a less expensive one.  Then "give all you can" is self-explanatory.

This biblical value of not storing up treasures on earth but dispersing God given prosperity to as many others as we can is difficult for us today.  It goes against the grain of our capitalistic spirit.  Indeed, the famous libertarian Ayn Rand once wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness.  To be sure, there are, I believe, legitimate claims to be made that everyone prospers more under the Western capitalist system. But most people arguably lose sight of this fact, that the only Christian justification for capitalism is the conviction that it helps more people in the end. The danger is that we come to mistake Rand's "selfishness" as the Christian value itself...

[1] Wesley source

1 comment:

FrGregACCA said...

Since, Ken, you get to spend time in Germany, you would know better than most that we cannot speak of a single "Western capitalist system".

Germany and other European countries with similar systems have much to teach us about how to do capitalism in a much more sustainable, economically just, and democratic manner.