When’s the last time you received a warning from the pulpit about the dangers of wealth? How often have you heard “Woe to the Rich” as theme of a sermon?
Perhaps no part of Jesus’ message has been rejected so completely by U.S. Christianity as the dire warning against wealth and how it leads us astray. Instead, we admire the rich, envy them, and aspire to become one of the rich.
Woe to us for the many ways in which we worship the rich.
We elect a leader who says that you must be rich to be great, and only the wealthy know how to save us from the economic inequalities and injustices that they’ve created.
We become disciples of prosperity preachers who live in mansions and promise that divine wealth will trickle down to us if we purchase their books and buy them private jets.
We measure faith and worth by how much a person owns. If you’re poor, you must be lazy and morally deficient.
We even stop referring to people as “rich” because the word has negative connotations in Scriptures. Instead, we call them job creators, captains of industry, pillars of the community. And when they make morally abhorrent decisions and hurt millions of people with their unrestrained greediness, we say: That’s just business! God’s values don’t apply to business!
Along comes Jesus to say: Oh, yes they do!
When one of those pillars of the community came to him and bragged about all the good things he’d done, Jesus praised his deeds but said his priorities were all backward. He told the rich man to sell his possessions and share everything with the poor – make people the priority in his life.
The rich man wouldn’t do it, then or now.
Jesus went on to say that just as camels are incapable of squeezing through a small hole, the rich are disinclined to do what it takes to enter the kingdom of God.
And he warns us again:
Woe to the rich. If you’re building up your treasures, you’re not living in God’s kingdom. If you’re engrossed in accumulating wealth, you’re headed somewhere else.
The directions to the kingdom are as follows:
Give to all who ask of you. Lend without expecting repayment. Provide food to whoever is hungry, offer healing to whoever is hurting, show compassion to those in jail.
Do all of this without judgment or precondition or hesitation. Instead, do it with great joy and generosity and humility.
Be more like Lazarus than the rich man who doesn’t even merit a name in the parable. The rich man is not to be admired or emulated – he’s living a woeful life.
These reminders aren’t meant to be easy. They’re meant to shock us and upset us and change us because so much is at stake.
Few things lure us away from God more than wealth.
We can’t love both God and money. It’s one or the other.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we choose leaders committed to helping everyone. We enact policies that care for everyone, especially the neediest among us.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we address the many economic injustices in our society caused by greed and the lust for wealth.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we stop admiring the rich and aspiring to be like them. Instead, we admire those who humbly sacrifice and serve others’ needs.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we stop idolizing gluttonous profits and start treating workers with respect and generosity.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we treat the “least” person with the same beneficence that we show the chief executive.
If we love God’s people rather than money, we show deep concern for the environment that sustains all of us.
And if we continue to worship riches instead? Well, then, woe to us. That’s not a condemnation, but a warning that we need to hear often.
Especially now. Especially in this country. Especially from the pulpit.