What To Do With Wealth
Do you know that there is no where in the Gospels where Jesus talks about abortion or homosexuality? You know what he talks about over and over, again and again? Economics. In one parable after another, in one observation after another, he calls the people back into the biblical Sabbath. The rule is simple. It’s ok to be wealthy, so long as there are no poor… and if there are poor, then the wealthy have the responsibility to help them overcome their poverty. And like most of what Jesus said, this is not a conditional statement. It’s not a demand we meet only when the Kingdom comes. It’s a demand we must meet now as Christians. As Christians we are required to meet this.
The Sabbath echoes throughout the bible. Its fundamental notion, isn’t just taking a break on Sunday. It is about making human the activities in life that often forget that we humans, we the people, are important to God. The Sabbath is about putting humans as central to the economy. The Sabbath day off is a revolutionary idea: to actually take a break from work. How many people do you know work right through the Sabbath … have you notice that the Sabbath isn’t the Sabbath anymore?
The Sabbath is also extended to the Year of Jubilee spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures. The Jubilee demands that every 50 years, all debts are cancelled and all land returned to their original owners. And if you read the Gospels, you will find Jesus advocating this Sabbath and Jubilee over and over again.
In our Gospel passage, a rich man is judged. He ignores homeless Lazarus (this is NOT the Lazarus whom Jesus raised) and Lazarus dies. Soon after that the rich man dies. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. But even in hell he thinks he’s better than the poor man Lazarus. He orders Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. Abraham basically tells him he’s going to rot in hell for having not cared for Lazarus.
The rich man asks again of Abraham to send Lazarus to save his brothers. Note that the rich man never “lowers” himself to talk to Lazarus.
In this passage and in other passages where Jesus judges the rich, he undermines a common belief of his day: that a man is wealthy because he is favored by God. After all all good things come from God and so wealth, which most would say is good, must come from God.
So it is reasonable to ask, what did the rich man do to deserve his wealth? And had not Jesus told this story, we would be looking for an answer to this, so that we could also do the same thing and expect God to make us wealthy.
So why would God give this man wealth? Well, if we assume that this man was not a crook or a tyrant, then we can draw some conclusions from what would make for a trustworthy and honest business man:
He was probably a hard worker. He was a good steward of money and property inasmuch that he didn’t squander it. He also was a good judge of employees, particularly managers, to be sure they wouldn’t squander his wealth or embezzle it. He was probably business savvy with good business and trading contacts. He probably was political only to the extent needed to protect his business.
In some ways then business is the work of God, particularly if we believe that a good businessman by simply increasing his wealth will increase the wealth of a lot more people: his employees particularly and maybe his customers. If his business is growing, more people would be working for him and so forth … basically his prosperity is our prosperity. And since God wants us all not to be poor, we could assume that business is the engine of all of our prosperity and a tool of God.
Good economic theory … does this sound familiar? Does this make sense to you?
Now on the flip side of this theology of economics, is that if you are poor, then God doesn’t trust you with wealth and it is your fault that you are poor. You must be lazy, ignorant, and a parasite on the economy. Somewhere you have sinned. Somehow you are in debt to God (as well as probably a whole lot of business’ whether they are banks or medical clinics).
Does this sound familiar? If you read closely and listen closely to how our economic system is set up in this country and now in the world, it is exactly this. The rich know better than the rest of us (they are endowed with God’s wisdom). But the poor: the unemployed, the homeless, the immigrant, the ill cannot be trusted. They are lazy and feel entitled to state support. We give support to business and resist support for the poor.
Isn’t interesting how history repeats itself? Jesus saw this going on all around him and he taught how wrong that was.
So Jesus says no! to this attitude. Jesus says wealth is not a reward from God. The poor are not poor because they sinned. They are poor because of the way the economy is structured. Indeed, wealth is a burden and the wealthy must be good stewards of it. But what does Jesus expect that good stewardship to be? In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus is accosted by a rich man who wants to be sure he has been rewarded with eternal life. Jesus in fact calls him to follow him, but first he must give his wealth to the poor. The rich man refuses to follow Jesus.
The man has been blessed with wealth. Now was the time for him to return it to those who made it possible. Jesus viewed us as in community and relationship. No one was an island unto themselves. The rich man had all of this wealth. What good is it if it just sits in his storehouses? Wouldn’t it serve the community better if it was put in the communal store house as the Prophet Malachi preaches about?
Being wealthy requires being responsible not just to yourself or your family or your stockholders or your employees, but to the whole of the commonweal. If you are wealthy, you cannot tolerate poverty. And you are called to account in proportion to what you have: the more you have, the more you give. This is Sabbath economics … and just economics for isn’t God just.
A wealthy person doesn’t just get their wealth out of the air or solely by their own efforts. Their wealth is generated by the labor of others. For example, if you invest a dollar in a business and get a dividend of 10˘, where that that dime come from? It came from the managers managing the business. It came from the assembly line workers. It came from the janitors who keep the offices clean. It came from the security guards that protect the work place. It came from the technicians and engineers who designed the process. It came from the teachers who educated all of these people. For that matter it came from the parents who raised this laborers. Without these laborers, the rich man would have nothing.
The wealthy owe society. Without society they are as poor as Lazarus and a homeless man in Penn Station.
Now having reached this point, I don’t want to suggest that rich people are evil. They are people too! They are our neighbors and possibly even ourselves. They are not demons. There are those who are conscientious in their wealth and others who are quite selfish … just like you and me.
Some wealthy people are wonderful philanthropists, giving of their wealth to charities and foundations they chose or even organize. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for global development and health.
This is a wonderful program, but there is a flaw in this. The Gates choose it. When they are gone, it is gone. It is not sustainable. And therein lies why society itself has an investment in managing how the wealth is used.
I read an article in the Christian Century about the Responsible Wealth Project of the United for a Fair Economy movement. The Responsible Wealth Project is a network of over 750 business leaders, investors and other wealthy people who work to build a fairer economy through shareholder activism, support for the living wage, and fair taxation work. The article interviewed Mike Lapham, who heads the Responsible Wealth Project.
He points out that there is a large accumulation of wealth in this country and that richer people can easily afford increased taxes that are fair and responsibly used. He goes on to point out that individual philanthropy is not going to build roads and schools. Taxes pay for things collectively that we can’t do individually.
This is the burden and the responsibility that Jesus demands of the wealthy. We are one people and in this together. We all, rich and poor, have the world’s resources as gifts from God and we all have a responsibility to be good stewards. For the poor that is receiving what you need and in return working responsibility. For the rich that is giving whatever is needed and empowering folks. And as for we in the middle … we have to be good stewards on both ends of that spectrum. In so doing we as individuals and we as a community will serve God.
What do you say? You cannot serve God and Mammon, so says the Incarnate God.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you … Amen.