The Perils of Riches

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The perils of poverty are well documented. Malnutrition and starvation kill 35,000 children under the age of six every day. More than 40 million people die every year as the result of poverty's perils. Over 500,000 children go blind every year, mostly as a result of vitamin A deficiency. Approximately two million kids die annually through lack of immunization against preventable disease. Poverty robs people of food, shelter, health, education and hope. Increasingly the poor are vilified and thereby robbed of their dignity.

A rich man came to Jesus. He wanted to know what he could do to have authentic life. Accustomed, no doubt, to paying whatever price necessary to achieve his goals, he assumed the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus was within his ability to attain or purchase. He becomes a memorable model of prosperity's perils.

The Bible has more severe warnings about the dangers of wealth than the pitfalls of poverty. Jesus went so far as to declare, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom." Allowing for hyperbole, that is still a stark assessment of wealth's perils.

John Wesley considered affluence to be the most serious threat to spiritual health. He observed that Christianity has within it the seeds of its own demise. He found that Christians become diligent, frugal and disciplined; but as they become diligent and frugal, they tend to become affluent. Once they become affluent, one can say good-bye to doctrine and discipline. He feared that the people called Methodist would become but a dead sect, having the form of religion but lacking its power. That which threatened the movement's power was the growing affluence of the Methodists.

Why? What are the perils of riches?

One of prosperity's perils is a false sense of security and self-sufficiency. Abundant resources seem to almost inevitably lead to an assumption that whatever needs to be done, we can do it. Whatever we need, we can supply it. With enough money, or education, or ability, or talent we will be able to secure our own future. With bigger and better barns or investments, we will be able to relax.

Such a stance of self-sufficiency and self-produced security cuts us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased, rather than a gift received and celebrated and used for personal ends.

M. Douglas Meeks, a contemporary scholar and theologian, contends that in North America the market logic of exchange has replaced the gospel logic of grace as the center of our life. Everything is valued on the basis of its exchange in the marketplace. The result is that everything is treated as a commodity to be used, depleted, or hoarded, or cast away. When persons are valued for their exchange in the marketplace, we become competitive. After all, if our worth is based on what we know or what we own or what we can achieve, we are always going to be insecure. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another, and discard one another.

The rich young man assumed salvation, wholeness, abundant life, was a commodity or an achievement. He had put his life together that way. Treating life as a gift to be given away, a gift available without price threatened the essence of his being. So, he turned away. After all if it is all a gift, there is no entitlement. Sharing, passing on to others, humility and thanksgiving replace hoarding, self-sufficient arrogance, and smug pride.

Riches tempt us to replace the logic of grace, which says all life is a gift from a gracious God, with the logic of exchange, which says all life is an achievement to be earned and a commodity to be exchanged. The disciples asked the question of the privileged. "Who, then, can be saved?" Jesus gives the answer, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

It is hard for the prosperous to enter the new life God offers because riches make available more options, different priorities. We become so dependent upon what riches make possible that our priorities change. If security and worth are rooted in our achievements and our resources, achieving more and maintaining and increasing our resources become our driving motivation. We can't let up. We can't relax. We can't give sacrificially. To do so would threaten our security and our sense of worth. The compulsive need to achieve, to finish first, to have, to produce becomes the priority. Wealth becomes addictive. Like cocaine, it takes more and more to achieve the desired result. What once were luxuries become necessities. As one who remembers life without indoor plumbing, television sets in every home, computers in every office, telephones beside every bed, VCRs in every den, microwaves in every kitchen ~ I know how easily things once considered the privileges of the few become necessities for the masses. And, in terms of the world's population, such luxuries ~ turned necessities ~ are available to only a few of the prosperous, most of whom live in Europe and North America. In fact, to satisfy our addiction to "things" much of the so-called "Third World" is depleted of its resources. Satisfying our addiction to the more has devastating consequences on those who have less.

Perhaps the most devastating peril of riches is their tendency to separate us from those in poverty. A gulf develops between the haves and the have nots. Soon those outside the gates are demoralized, vilified, and neglects. It is the natural consequence of the logic of exchange as the foundation of worth and value. If worth is based upon what one has or what one knows or what one can achieve, then those who have little or know less or achieve nothing by the society's standards become worthless, expendable, objects of scorn, neglect and abuse. Wealth makes it possible for us to avoid them. We can move to neighborhoods where they are not, drive on streets that avoid them, go to churches and schools outside their neighborhoods.

But the Bible is clear. We cannot know the God of Jesus Christ apart from relationships with the poor, the have nots, the outsiders. God has chosen the poor, the least, the most vulnerable, those whom the world considers "the weak" as special friends. John Wesley, who spent his life among the poor, warned that true religion does not go from the strong to the weak; it goes from the weak to the strong. Otherwise, we will think it is something we have done.

The distinguishing characteristic of the God of the Exodus known in Hebrew Scripture is God hears the cries of the poor, defends the orphans and widows and immigrants. God chooses the slaves, the nobodies, as means of divine liberation and salvation. God comes among us as a baby, born in a barn, spent two years as an immigrant, worked at common labor, associated with the outcasts, announced his mission as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, justice for the oppressed. He so closely identified with the least and the lowest, the poor and the imprisoned, the sick and the weak that whatever is done to them is done to him.

One implication is that God is as close and real as the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the marginalized. Cutting ourselves off from them is cutting ourselves off from God. Serving them, friendship with them, reaching out to them, counting them as friends and recipients and channels of God's grace is to know God, the God of Jesus Christ.

God's special friendship with the poor is no rejection of the rich. It is the affirmation that life is not in riches. It is in God's grace. It is grace which gives us identity and worth. We are God's children, created in the divine image, redeemed by Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our identity and worth lie, not in what we achieve or purchase, but in the one to whom we belong.

Story of Fayette: "I am beloved, a precious child of God and beautiful to behold."

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