Chapter 22: The Danger of Wealth
Man is prone by nature to be attached to property, money and material things, because they are the means for better living. How can a man’s heart attach itself to spiritual things that he has not experienced, often seen by some as the fruit of imagination? Can we get our guarantees from God alone? What personal experience do you have with money and property? The reality of life shows us that often the biggest problems arise between brothers and relatives when inheritance is involved (read Genesis 27 about the story of Jacob and his brother Esau). Do you have any negative (or positive) experience in this matter? Have you ever considered getting rid of what you own to devote yourself to missionary action? Are you up to taking on such a mission? This theme of the use of material goods in life comes into the realm of social morality in the teaching of the Church. The Church teaches us that property should be shared between the rich and the poor, and that the foundations of social values and human rights across generations stem from God’s Commandments. Let us look at these issues together.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Rich Young Man (Mt 19:16-26)
16And there was a man who came to him and asked, “Master, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?” 17Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18He said, “Which?” “These:” Jesus replied, “You must not kill. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not bring false witness. 19Honour your father and mother, and: you must love your neighbour as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “I have kept all these. What more do I need to do?” 21Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22But when the young man heard these words he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.
23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” 25When the disciples heard this they were astonished. “Who can be saved, then?” they said. 26Jesus gazed at them. “For men,” he told them, “this is impossible; for God everything is possible.”
2. 1- Explanation
The Gospel passage of today speaks of a rich young man (Mt 19:16-22) and the teaching of Jesus to his disciples about the dangers of wealth (Mt 19:23-26).
The passage begins with a basic and crucial question commonly asked: What good things must I do to be worthy of eternal life? The question is a sincere and sound desire of enthusiastic youth, since youth is the period in one’s life when one begins to build a lifetime project. Jesus’ answer is to keep the commandments of love.
Today’s man cannot bear being given orders, so he risks distancing himself from all external obligations and rules. This is the result of the various psycho-social sciences focusing on one’s ego and innermost desires, allowing everyone to evolve according to the principle of freedom. However, the theological framework within which we find the Ten Commandments guarantee moral thinking for today’s world also, transmitting profound words, inestimable values for the good of man. These values are as follows:
- Awareness of the omnipresence of God and His action in the world;
- Giving value to the sacred dimension of time and harmonizing work and rest;
- Exhorting spouses to nurture a stable relationship with each other and ensuring solidarity among family members
- Honouring the right to life and its dignity;
- Respecting people and their property
These values entail certain rights that fall within the realm of legal terms:
- The right to a ‘religious’ relationship with God;
- The right to respect beliefs and religious symbols;
- The right to religious practices;
- The right to rest and the choice of quality of life;
- The right of the family and its members;
- The right to life from beginning to end;
- The right of personal property; etc, etc.
The rich young man had obviously no problem in keeping the commandments, but his heart was attached to riches and money. In this, he was more focused on the social commandments (the second part of the Ten Commandments), than on the first three commandments on God’s love. The young man might have lived his social life well, but he made his wealth an ultimate goal, and as a result, he did not put his hope in God. Jesus wants the Kingdom of Heaven to be a top priority for every believer, with other concerns (family, financial, lifestyle) coming second. St Paul says: “If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.” (1 Cor 13:3).
The call to the rich young man to follow Christ was in vain, but it was an opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson about the danger of wealth, that makes one a slave to it. God, in fact, created man to be free, alive in his grace, and using money and property as a means and not as an end.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
The call to the rich young man to follow Jesus shows that the rich are not excluded from the kingdom of God “by default”. Wealth is not a barrier to entry, but it can be a danger that people need to understand and overcome in order to access the Kingdom. What matters to God is that we head in the right direction that guides our hearts and gives meaning to our lives. “Business” with God is always beneficial; indeed, Jesus said earlier that some seeds sown in good soil would yield “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Mt 13:8, 23). When we get rid of everything, God makes us richer with His grace. When we trust in His providence, we win much more than when we rely on human guarantees. There is a story about a little girl who, once dead, went with her doll to Heaven; she wanted to enter with her toy. But St Peter prevented her from entering with it and she began to cry very loudly. The Virgin Mary then came, took her by the hand and brought her in with her doll. However, the young girl was so attracted by the beauty of Heaven and the overwhelming love of God that she dropped the doll. The moral of this story is that we should let our hearts be drawn by what is heavenly and spiritual, and gradually we will realise that everything earthly and worldly is useless.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: Social Ethics
The Church’s Social Teachings
Christian faith puts the Commandment of Love above all commandments, as the Lord Jesus has taught us. By living in this love, man seeks good for his neighbour. It is also the duty of the believer not to neglect his responsibilities by which he can contribute to the good of communities or society. Therefore, the Church has a role in social education. Today, this education is essential, given the openness of all people to each other and to their global environmental, economic, etc. responsibilities. The Church’s social teaching enlightens believers with regard to their duties and tasks in daily life.
The Church has put together all her teachings into a moral catechism available to anyone who would like to be enlightened and follow its precepts. Here are some of the most important principles:
- The dignity of man is the main characteristic that must be safeguarded, as God has always done since the creation of the world. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. This is why we must respect each person’s life, which no one has the right to tamper with, regardless of weakness, illness, health, or whether he is a child or an embryo in the womb, yet to be born. Moreover, all men are equal because they all have the same dignity guaranteed by God. There is no difference in dignity between man and woman, boss and employee, citizen and foreigner.
- The principle of the common good guides our thinking about material goods. It is clear that the individual has a right to own property and to enjoy it as he wishes; this is a guarantee of his freedom. However, this right is not absolute, because it should make us think about others and work for the common good. The Church draws our attention to the priority of helping the poor, the suffering and the weak, as Jesus himself did.
- We should also focus on the principle of solidarity and encourage group work. The Church has, in this area, a history full of rich experiences and testimonies.
- The Church does not forget to bring her attention to an acute contemporary issue, that of the preservation of the environment, which is a gift from God. Even though Man is master of the world, this authority should be directed towards service rather than looting. Man has to care for the world, for it is a gift from God.
- The Church is also committed to the work of human development and the progress of people. To this end, she makes a contribution in various areas, such as education, teaching and health care, but also teaches – as said Pope Benedict XVI – that the best means of the development of people is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
4- Reading and Meditation: Reading from St Basil the Great (c.339-379)
What answer shall you make to the righteous judge, you who dress walls, but will not clothe a man; who spruce up horses, and overlook an unfashionable brother; who leave grain to rot, but will not feed the starving; who bury your money and despise the oppressed?
The rich man argues, whom am I wronging so long as I keep what is my own? Tell me, just what things are your own? Where did you get them to make them an inseparable feature of your life?
If everyone were to take for himself simply what sufficed for his use, and left what was over and above to the man in want, there would be no distinction of rich and poor. Were you not born naked? Shall you not return naked to the earth? Whence, then, the goods you now possess? If you ascribe them to fate, you are godless, neither recognizing the Creator nor being grateful to the giver. But you acknowledge they are from God. Tell us then the reason why you received them. Is God unfair in the unequal distribution of the good things of life? Why is it that you are rich and that another is in need? Isn’t it wholly that you may win the reward of kindness and of faithful stewardship, and that he may be honoured with the great prize of patience? Now after seizing all things in your insatiable greed, and thus shutting out others, do you really think you are wronging no man? Who is the man of greed? He that is not content with a sufficiency. Who is the thief? He who seized everybody’s goods. What are you but a greedy miser? What are you but a thief? The things you received to dispense to others, these you make your own. The man who steals a coat from another is called a thief. Is he who can clothe a naked man and will not, worthy of any other name?
The bread, which you keep in the store, is the hungry man’s bread. The cloak, which you guard in the chest, belongs to the naked man. The sandals rotting in your house belong to him who goes barefoot. The silver you hide away belongs to the needy. Thus it is that you are wronging as many men as you might help if you chose.24