The Bible doesn’t simply condemn the rich for immoral actions. It condemns the rich for being rich. Surprisingly enough, the biblical witnesses regard being rich as living in rebellion against God. Apart from notable exceptions like Abraham, Solomon, and Job, few people in the Bible are described as both rich and righteous.
Take God’s word to the prince of Tyre: “‘by your wisdom and your understanding you have made wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasuries; by your great wisdom in your trade you have increased in wealth’” (Ezekiel 28:4-5a, English Standard Version, here and following). The prince of Tyre acquires wealth through wisdom, understanding, and hard work. No mention is made of dishonesty.
Even though honestly earned, the prince’s wealth leads only to sin: “‘and your heart has become proud in your wealth’” (Ezekiel 28:5b). Worse, “‘In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned’” (Ezekiel 28:16a). Self-centeredness and its inevitable hostility toward others, though not intended by the prince in his pursuit of wealth, nonetheless come to mark his existence.
Wealth, then, does not lead us to glorify God and to nurture and protect others. The more we have of it, the better Pluto is able to worm his way into our lives. As he does so, he steals our devotion to God and gets us to accomplish his will of hurting others. We would err, then, to pray for riches, or to dedicate ourselves to acquiring wealth, thinking that it would be a sign of God’s blessing and allow us to do all sorts of charity.
Isaiah pronounces God’s curse upon the rich: “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 5:8). Jesus adds his own: “‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’” (Luke 6:24).
Pluto gives power, happiness, and self-righteousness to the rich in exchange for their devotion to him and their willingness to harm others and creation to stay rich. But what comforts the rich now becomes their torment in the end: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire” (James 5:1-3).
Out of his love for us, God warns us that the pursuit of wealth does not lead to fulness of life but to death. I repeat here a summary of the Gospel: (1) Jesus Christ (2) is the truth (3) who sets us free (4) to love (5) which leads to eternal life. In fatal contrast, (1) Pluto (2) deceives us through falsehoods (3) to pursue power, happiness, and self-righteousness (4) which can be ours only through indifference to God and others and (5) end in death.
(Today’s reflections were guided by Jacques Ellul’s book, Money and Power (trans. LaVonne Neff, Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).
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