The Common Good

Is Wealth a Sin?

A recent report by OXFAM offered some sobering data about both the concentration and flow of wealth in the world today. A few key points, also summarized by a new business article on The Atlantic website , include:

  • The richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 3,000,000,000 people;
  • Nineteen out of 20 “G20” countries are experiencing growing income inequality between rich and poor;
  • In the United States in particular, 95 percent of the post-financial-crisis capital growth has been amassed by the richest 1 percent of Americans;
  • While domestic income inequality continues to grow, the income tax rates for wealthiest Americans have steadily dropped.

My first reaction to seemingly immoral concentrations of wealth, and the systems that enable it, is anger and a compulsion to call them out, to change them and to distribute the world’s treasures evenly among all of God’s people.

But what if we need the insanely wealthy to realize a kingdom-inspired vision for our world?

It’s also worth noting in the report that the World Poverty Rate (people living on $1 a day or less, calculated in 1987 U.S. dollars) fell from 26.8 percent to 5.4 percent between 1970 and 2006. A report offered by NextWeb suggests that Bill Gates (and his billions) have saved upwards of 5.8 million children by bringing vaccines and improved healthcare to people in poverty.

Had we put systems in place to stem the economic inequality in the first place, would the World Poverty Rate still have fallen? Would those 5.8 million children received the live-saving help they needed?

Thinking about the place of wealth and the wealthy in our world reminds me of a quote Homer Simpson once had about alcohol: the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems.

When considering this in a Christian context, some people point to the story of Jesus and the man who asked about the key to entering the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ response was that the man should take all he owned and give it to the poor. Some Christians understand this as a call to similar acts of self-sacrifice, taking all we have and giving it away.

But the fact is that most of us don’t really believe this, or else we would have already done it. Or perhaps we just don’t want to believe it. Maybe we want to believe it applies to “wealthy” people (translated: everyone who has more than I do), but not to ourselves. It could also be that, for this particular man, his wealth was where Jesus saw his self-worth, his identity, all wrapped up and intertwined with the world’s treasures. In that case, Jesus was trying to free one man from his own self-manufacture prison. But there are plenty of other rich people in the Bible to whom Jesus doesn’t offer such a command.

Zacchaeus had a lot of money, and he only gave half of it away. Solomon was generous, but he was rich his whole life. David started out poor and got rich. Job was rich, then God took it all away, and then gave it all back again. Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy, and Jesus’ family accepted help form them. Mary Magdalene is thought by some religious scholars to have been from a rich family, and that she helped fund Jesus’ ministry.

So which is it? Do we need rich people or do we condemn them? Do we give first fruits away, half of all we have, or all of it? Is having stuff a sin or not?

Nelson Rockefeller was asked how much money would be enough. His answer was, “Just a little bit more.” It would be easy for any of us to justify amassing wealth, because “some day” we plan to do real good with it. It’s also equally easy to vilify money, or those who have more than us, rather than coming to stark terms with our own relationship with wealth, and to our call by God to reconcile the brokenness in the world around us.

Unfortunately, I have no answers. If it were easy, we would most likely have figured it out by now. Meanwhile, we sit in the comfort of our riches while others suffer. Perhaps the best place to start is the prayer of submission Jesus offered in the garden of Gethsemane as he contemplated his imminent crucifixion:

Not my will, God, but Thine be done.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Rich man drinking wine, ollyy / Shutterstock.com

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