Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Challenges of Being Wealthy--George's Post


I.           Special Challenges Facing the Rich

A.   Overview of the Dangers

The pursuit or possession of wealth poses at least five special challenges: (i) it warps men’s priorities, causing them to pursue treasures on earth that are transitory, rather than to pursue treasures in heaven; (ii) it pulls men away from God; (iii) it changes men’s hearts, filling them with greed, covetousness and envy; (iv) it seduces men into employing unrighteous means to obtain wealth; and (v) it poisons their relationships with others, because they come to see themselves as being “better than others.”   Of all of the possible idols men may worship, money is uniquely corrupting.[1]   Given countless pitfalls into which the wealthy may fall, it is not surprising that the scriptures are so hard on the “rich,” containing warning after warning about the ever present risks to which they are subject.

B.   Uniqueness of Money

Even if we don’t know why, most of us understand that “money” is somehow unique, differing from any of the other “pursuits,” such as power, prestige, knowledge, fame, control, or dominion, that men might pursue.   Its uniqueness stems from these three characteristics: (i) money is a “means” for obtaining other tangible and intangible things that we deem valuable; money does not have value in and of itself, except to those who become obsessed with its mere possession; (ii) money is the most “liquid” of intangible properties. In that it can be readily exchanged for other currencies and for other forms of property; and (iii) money is readily “portable”—it can be carried from place to place and, subject to applicable legal restrictions, can be freely moved from country to country.      
For example, money does not “represent” learning or knowledge, but it can be readily used to acquire assets that help one acquire learning or knowledge.   With money, one can hire special tutors, afford to go to elite private schools, enroll in ongoing education programs, purchase educational materials, purchase computers, travel extensively, participate in special learning programs, build up personal libraries, and get access to various enrichment programs.   Using the resources acquired, and assuming some personal initiative and skills, individuals can learn much about the world.   In like fashion, money, while not “pleasure” itself, can be used to purchase many of the things we associate with pleasure: expensive ski or summer vacations; toys such as boats, yachts, planes, vehicles; going on safaris; and, travelling the world.   Money can be in like fashion used to acquire assets useful in getting prestige, exercising power over others, developing and enjoying artistic skills and aesthetics.   Of course, in every case, money itself is “not” enough,” but it is a facilitator, and, when coupled with individual skills and initiative, can be readily converted into learning, knowledge, artistic skills, powerful positions in business and the community, etc.   It is because of this high correlation between money and these other commonly-recognized aims that “money” is so highly prized.  
Money itself is morally neutral in that it can be used to further either morally positive or negative goals.  

C.   Who are the rich?

Few think of themselves as wealthy, but most know someone who they think might qualify.[2]    So when they read scriptures talking about the challenges facing the “wealthy,” or the “rich,” or those blessed with great abundance, they do not think of those scriptures as applying to themselves, but instead to others.   Whatever harsh things might be said of the “rich” are the worries of others and not their worries.   Yet, most of us are “rich,” at least in the sense that we have more than we need to cover the basic necessities of life for ourselves and families; and many, if honest, would acknowledge that they constantly allow a creeping lifestyle to eat away the excess they might otherwise have to help the poor.[3]   If, for the moment, we were to regard ourselves as being among the “rich,” many may feel quite uncomfortable as to their standing before God, worrying if they done enough to help others.   Time devoted to earning more, and monies spent in buying more and more for themselves, could well be redeployed to help others whose needs were far more pressing than their own.
Without question, most Malawians would regarded the average American as “wealthy.”[4]

D.   Sources of Wealth

Wealth or riches may come to us in one of four way: riches may be: (i) inherited, passing from one person to another; (ii) acquired through “dumb” luck (such as finding oil on one’s property); (iii) acquired by those who make a conscientious effort to amass wealth; or (iv) obtained incidentally as a by-product of pursuing some other objective.   An example of the latter category would be those who have an exceptional talent, such as art or music, and who become wealthy simply as a by-product of developing that talent.   What is the relevance of how one obtains wealth?    Different temptations face those who amass their own wealthy and those who are among the second and third generation wealthy.  

E.   The Story of the Young Rich Man

Among the famous stories of the New Testament is the account of the young rich man who comes to Jesus and asks: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life.”[5]  Christ answers, saying “…but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,”[6] then specifically identifying several of the Ten Commandments by way of illustration.   The young rich man replies, saying:  “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?”[7]   There is nothing in the account that would lead us to believe that the young rich man was not sincere or that he did not answer Jesus’ questions honestly.   One might, however, wonder what prompted him to think there might be something “lacking” in his conduct.   In any event, Jesus then gives his famous reply:  “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, and follow me.”[8]   In his reply we see both a request—to dispose of his goods for the benefit of the poor—and an invitation—to come and follow Jesus as one of his disciples.   “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.  Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.   And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”[9] [10] 
The last verse in that chapter of Matthew comes back to the same theme, saying “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,”[11] a somber reminder that those most blessed or honored in this life may find themselves last in the next world, and that the most poor and humble in this life may find themselves first in the next world.
Several things may be unexpected in Jesus’ comments.   First, the young man seems to have been held to an extremely high standard—how many—wealthy or not--would be prepared to do as the young man was asked—to dispose of all they have and follow Jesus.    The young man was sincere and righteous, though not yet ready to take the next step of total discipleship.    He was not dissolute, uncaring, blind to the spirit; to the contrary, he seems to have been “righteous,” obeying scrupulously the terms of the Mosaic law, including the commandment of loving his neighbor as himself, though not a righteous as he thought himself to be—few men are.  
Initially, we are led to think the story is primarily about “discipleship”—not a new theme;[12] disciples must be prepared to leave everything behind, putting the kingdom of God first, to establish God’s righteousness.   “Discipleship” in this sense is more than most are required to do.    Yes, it is required of the twelve apostles, and others with special assignments, but it was not generally required of all who believed in Jesus.   For sure, the young rich man is not prepared to do as the 12 apostles have done—why, because he is too wed to his possessions.   Family ties, business interests, comfort, friends and even possessions must be sacrificed on the altar of discipleship.   Surely this is one of the major themes of the story—were it not, Peter would not have said: “…Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?”[13]  But then the account takes an abrupt, and unexpected, turn—in that Jesus seems to make a general indictment of the “wealthy,” saying twice, in emphatic terms, that the rich will find it difficult to have eternal life.    This account is not the only time in the New Testament that the wealthy are taken to task.[14]
The account of the young rich man raises a number of questions about both “discipleship” and “wealth.”   Is the account really more about “discipleship”—a willingness to sacrifice all to be a faithful disciple—than it is a general indictment of the dangers of wealth?   Should the statements about wealth be qualified in that way?   Is wealth per se evil?   Is the pursuit of wealth per se evil?   Why is the possession or pursuit of wealth dangerous to the spiritual well-being of man?   What must the wealthy be prepared to do with their wealth in order to be pleasing unto God?   Is there any way one can be “righteous” and at the same time retain one’s wealth?    If so, in what ways may one “righteously” retain wealth, without offending God?   Does the requirement of helping the poor and needy impose an affirmative obligation upon the wealthy to dispose, in a prudent and orderly fashion, all of their excess to provide for the poor and needy?
Many may think discussions of the “rich” really have nothing whatsoever to do with them.    There are a number of reasons why this perspective is flawed, at least as it relates to almost everyone in the United States and most first-world countries.   Virtually everyone becomes involved in the “pursuit” of wealth, whether or not they ultimately become “wealthy.”    Many inherit substantial sums of money, later in life, beyond the amounts needed for basic necessities.   If wealth is thought of as having more than one needs for “basic necessities,” most people in the first-world countries, at some stage in their lives, are surely wealthy, and Malawians certainly view them in that way.   Two car families are not unusual in the United States; but owning two cars is almost unheard of in Malawi.


[1] See the discussion under “Uniqueness of Money.”
[2] Most are probably quick to say that they know the difference between the rich and others, and they are not “rich.”   The rich are those that don’t need to worry about “money;”   they have enough to do pretty much whatever they want to do, without counting the costs, or worrying about bank account balances, or needing to budget.   Wealth is usually thought of in terms of large, expensive homes, penthouses, villas, mansions, and estates; multiple high performance cars and SUVs; designer clothes and fabulous wardrobes; extensive travel, luxurious vacations, high-end hotels; second homes in exotic locations; yachts, private planes, vintage cars, and art or other collections; extensive property holdings; and the like. 
[3] See the discussion below about having “excess” available to give.
[4] In Malawi, where the average annual income is less than $800 US dollars, virtually every American qualifies as “wealthy,” meaning that they have far more disposable income than they need to cover the basic necessities of life.   Moroever, if only a small fraction of that extra income were redirected to a Malawian family, it could make an enormous difference in the quality of that family’s life.  
[5] See Matt: 19: 16-25.
[6] Supra, at 17.
[7] Supra, at 20. 
[8] Supra, at 21.
[9] Supra, at 22-24.
[10] The reference to the “eye of a needle” might have been to a small door, fixed in a gate, opened at night to allow travelers to pass into the city within opening the main gate.   A camel might, with difficulty, pass through the small door, but only after shedding its load (in short, ridding itself of unnecessary baggage).
[11] Matt: 19: 30.
[12] “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.   And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”   Matt. 10: 37-38.  
[13] Matt: 19: 27.
[14] See, for example, the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus.