How rich is rich?
I haven’t commented much on matters of the faith of late as I am painfully conscious of the deficiencies of my formation. But, on the other hand, I have also realized that being silent does no one anyone any good, particularly me, as I will never be corrected unless someone sees how wrong I am. With that in mind, take the following with liberal amounts of salt.
A few friends of mine on Facebook got into a debate the other day over what mount of money, in general terms, makes one ‘rich’. They were concerned about Matthew 19:24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” So the rich are not making it into heaven, but what does it mean to be ‘rich’? We know, for example that billionaires are fairly considered rich, but what about millionaires? A million dollars is not what it used to be, you know. And thus the debate.
The whole question seemed to me to be wrong, and on the wrong track simply to begin with. Rich is of course a somewhat relative term. Those considered ‘poor’ in North America today are, in many ways far more materially rich than any king in the time of Christ. And furthermore, it is well established that the rich are in a particular spiritual danger, as Chesterton points out in this long quotation:
Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest — if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.
What else does Christ say about the rich to give us a clue as to his meaning here? There is the story of Lazarus and Dives- the leper and the rich man- in which good things came to the rich man in his life and bad things to Lazarus, and the rich man never tried to ease Lazarus’s suffering. Therefore in the next life Lazarus is comforted but Dives is left to suffer. This is a terrible warning to us who live in a society where even our poor have more than enough. But there is also Luke 12:13-21, the parable of the rich fool:
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
The wealthy, as Chesterton says, are in danger of a particular moral danger that the poor are largely exempt from. As Christ tells us, they are more apt to put their trust and hope in things, and not in the Lord, and there is no precise dollar amount that will lead one over that cliff.
At any rate, my friends would have been comforted had they read but a few lines past the line that began their debate in the first place:
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
It may be that a rich man may pass through the eye of the needle in the end, but it is only with the Lord’s help, and only through absolute trust in the Lord, and not in the things and money one has accumulated. He who has the Lord has enough, the saying goes, and they are truly rich.