What is so Wrong About Being Rich?

The latest brouhaha in the world of taxation is a big push called the “Buffet Rule.” It is only one of many assaults on people who have been successful in building wealth. It is part of a mindset that I find extremely offensive. I am not a wealthy person myself, and I have never been wealthy, but I have never been able to dredge up the pseudo-moral outrage that is expressed publicly against people who have become wealthy.

This kind of attitude is in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus never said that it was okay to hate rich people or steal their wealth. If you think I am wrong about this, please point me to the teaching you have in mind. I can think of two times Jesus spoke about the difficulty rich people have with spiritual growth, but I am not aware of even one place where Jesus said that anybody should steal from the rich and give to the poor.

 (1-A rich man came to him to ask how to have eternal life. Jesus told him to be perfect ((keep the Law)) but the man said he was already perfect. Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor. Notice that he said nothing about the man’s riches until the man alleged to be perfect. It was the man’s failure to put God first, not his possession of wealth, that was the problem. 2-Jesus said it was as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. This doesn’t mean that Jesus thought wealthy people were wickeder than others. He simply observed that it was hard for them to put God first. Notice that he doesn’t say poor people get in easily. He just says that riches can make it hard for people to put God first.)

When I was a child I really liked the Robin Hood story, because I thought of Robin Hood in the same way I thought of Superman and Mighty Mouse. These were magical and mythical characters who fixed what was broken at the snap of a finger. They thumbed their noses at those who doubted them. I still like a good story that smacks of David’s victory over Goliath. We all do. However, in the real world, the idea of anything or anyone forcibly appropriating things that do not belong to them is repugnant.

The envy, anger and outright hatred directed against “the rich” in current political rhetoric, however, is not David versus Goliath. It is not the sheep against the goats in the final judgment. It is simple jealousy fueling gang warfare. It is mob violence. It is beneath contempt for anyone who claims the name of Christ to join in.

The rhetoric goes something like this. Look at that evil rich person. He doesn’t need all that money. He should be glad to give it away to help poor people. If he doesn’t voluntarily give it all away, we should take it away from him by force. We won’t personally steal it from him. We’ll go get our big brother, the federal government to do it for us.

As I listen to speakers, starting with our president and moving through his entire administration, all spokespersons for Democrats, some spokespersons for Republicans, numerous religious leaders, most of the media, and assorted private individuals I have encountered, I am appalled at the number who actually believe that this attitude is something Jesus would be proud of. I am also appalled at the number who believe they can define ‘the rich’ according to their annual taxable income. I am appalled at the number who seem to believe they have the right and the obligation to say what is “enough” for someone else. Even jurnalists, who of all people ought to be even-handed in their quest for truth, join in the assault. They freely label and classify everyone according to income, and they all feel qualified and authorized to cast aspersions on anyone who does not fit their approved model for income and lifestyle. They have appointed themselves to run other people’s lives. One wonders, who tells these critics what they can keep out of their personal income.

None of this is consistent with Jesus’ teaching that we are not to judge others. Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged,”[1] Imagine that the CBS News anchor says of a hypothetical Mr. Brown that he “doesn’t need three cars and he has no right to jet off to Las Vegas every year. Why does he need two houses? One is enough for anybody.” According to Jesus, that kind of attitude calls down a similar judgment on the speaker. Such statements imply that God has authorized some people to judge what other people deserve to possess. This is not Jesus’ way.

Jesus teaches us to love everyone – even the rich. Jesus teaches us to speak well of everyone. Jesus teaches us not to envy what others have, but rather, to be content with what we have.

In case you think this rule is relaxed as long as you don’t try to take the wealth of others for yourself, think again. God does not authorize people to define fiscal classes of people and steal from one class in order to pretend to benefit another. Keep in mind that God never gives out possessions evenly. You and I might think every person ought to have exactly the same as all the others, but that is not God’s way. Even if we pass a lot of laws to grab up wealth from some people and hand it over to others, you can be sure that all people in the world will not wind up with the same amount of money. Some of the inequity will be due to human venality, and some of the inequity will be a result of failure to show stewardship of God’s gifts.

The human campaign to make sure everyone has the same amount of possessions, including money, is exactly that: human. It has nothing to do with Jesus or his teaching. Jesus did not teach that any of us has the right or the scriptural obligation to tell others what they can or cannot possess. Jesus did confront people individually about the way they used their possessions, but he never said that some of us have the right to judge or steal from the rest of us.

In simple words: Do not envy people who happen to have more possessions or wealth or whatever other advantages you care to envy. Jesus taught us to love everyone and be grateful for what God has given us. Jesus is as disturbed by envy of the rich as he is disturbed by disdain for the poor.

There is a political agenda that is fueled by hatred and aggression toward “the rich.” In that political world, everyone who achieves great power in the administration of wealth redistribution becomes personally wealthy. Everybody else winds up with nothing. The national motto of that way of life was: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” The nation was the former USSR. The USSR was an atheistic socialistic heaven on earth that collapsed politically under the weight of its multitude of failures to serve its population. This nation is exactly what you get when you turn away from Christ and choose to follow the economic and political philosophy of socialism.

When you follow Christ, you are individually responsible for what you do with every gift God gives you. You help poor people personally and through private charities. You don’t empower government to steal from everyone. Jesus never said that we should worship and serve the state. Jesus said we should put God ahead of everything. Our two most important laws in obedience to Christ are first, love God above all else, and second, love your neighbor (even your wealthy neighbor) as yourself. That is what Jesus taught.

I repeat here my original comment. If you think Jesus taught us to judge and steal from the rich in the name of charity to the poor, please point me to that teaching in the Bible. I welcome your comments, and I love the conversation.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 7:1–2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


Jesus Did Not Teach That Government Should Feed the Poor

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (M...

Once upon a time, a man asked Jesus, “How can I have eternal life?” The short version of Jesus’ answer was, “Be perfect.” The man replied, “But I already am.” Jesus said, “Hmm. Then sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” The man went away sorrowful, because he was a rich man.

I think of this story when I hear a preacher say that Christians must advocate income equity and participate in a political process of income redistribution. When Jesus told that man to give to the poor, he did not tell the man to hand over his wealth to the Roman government and agitate until the government gave it all to the poor.

Jesus emphasized giving in his teaching. He pointed out over and over that personal wealth is a gift of God to be used in grateful faithful stewardship. He is the one who said that if somebody asks you for something, give that person more than he asked for. Jesus taught generosity, and he taught that we children of God can be generous, because we can count on God to provide what we need. We will never be in want because of our generosity in the name of Christ.

Jesus never ever taught that we should make government the agent of our generosity. Jesus was born in the Roman Empire. Rome ruled a large part of the world at that time, and if Jesus had intended that his gospel be administered by a government, he could not have picked a more efficient one. Yet Jesus never suggested at any time that he wanted his followers to give their substance to the government in order that the government give to the poor on their behalf. With Jesus, giving was always personal. Jesus said that each of us is to give and give and give and love and love and love even if it hurts. When somebody asked him about government, he said, “Give the government what belongs to it. Everything else is God’s. Use God’s gifts the way God wants them used.”

The usual argument for government social programs says that everybody ought to be glad to be taxed in order to help the poor. Even Christian leaders will tell Christians they should advocate for government social programs and they should support taxation to fund those programs. They are entitled to their opinions about the government’s involvement in charity, but I do not see any justification for their allegation that this is the way Jesus wants it. Jesus did absolutely nothing that can be interpreted as an attempt to reshape the Roman government into a social agent. Jesus made his call for generosity and loving service to me, and you and all other believers.

What Jesus wants is for us to be so grateful for God’s gifts that we use those gifts generously and lovingly. Love our neighbors instead of brawling over the height of a fence. Give to the poor homeless person who asks for change. Give him more than change and tell him God loves him. Support people who are healing the sick and teaching children and digging wells to provide clean water to poor communities. But don’t give any more to the government than the government has a right to.

There are many factors that make government-funded social programs bad for people, and I will discuss those problems in another post. For this post, I will stick to the point: Jesus wants you and me and all our friends to be generous to the poor and to serve others. For this post, if you comment, please focus on what Jesus taught and said. The next post will address the reasons why Christians should work very hard to extricate charity and taxation for funding charity from the government.

For now, imagine a world in which all charities were operated by the same kind of people who run the Lutheran World Relief, Catholic World Services, the Heifer Project, and Doctors Without Borders. Imagine what you would do if you knew that there truly did not exist a government service to feed, clothe or shelter poor people. Would that make a difference in the way you respond to human needs?

Spirited Singing

Spirited Singing


I see a lot of comments on church websites and in newsletters about the experience of community in churches. Often those statements are set in the context of concerns that not enough people are visiting, and too many visitors do not feel welcomed.

A traveling lifestyle has made me a frequent visitor in churches. Sometimes they are not only not my home church, but they are also not my home denomination. Nevertheless, most of them are more welcoming than their members think. I can only think of two churches I ever visited that made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Welcome is expressed in many different ways. Some are orchestrated to both welcome visitors and to assure that members are aware of the visitors. In one church, we were given pin in the form of a wooden lighthouse to wear. Every member knew that those pins were for visitors, and they made a point of approaching and introducing themselves to us because we wore those pins. Other welcoming experiences are due to the nature of a church. There are worship elements that help me feel welcome and at home, even when I am in a strange church far from home.

Hymns always make me feel welcome. It is always delightful to sit down in church and discover that a hymn for the day is one of my favorites. Anne Lamott speaks of singing hymns in her church in a blog post. She says, “The hymns are bigger than any mistakes; you fumble around with the hymnal and sing the wrong words — you’re on the wrong verse — but the hymn expands to make room for all these voices, even yours.”

The words ring true to my own experience in most churches. When we visited churches in the Bahamas, for example. Those churches are small (the congregations, not the buildings). Most struggle and would not even survive without a lot of outside help. Sometimes we had hymnals, sometimes not. Sometimes we could figure out what hymn was being sung, sometimes not. Sometimes the tune was familiar, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The hymns expanded to include us just as the congregation opened its arms to us.

This experience is not about us, however, or Anne. It is about God with us. The welcome and grace we experience as we sing and when we visit is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the lives of the people we meet. The beauty of this experience lies in its ever-fresh reminder that God is with us.

This promise is so important that one of the names of Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. When we think of Christ by that name, we can be strong, because we are never alone. Christ, also known as the Great Physician, is with us always, and his presence is healing.

Most of us think of church visitors as good friends we haven’t met yet. Still, it is worthwhile to remember that they don’t go to the trouble of locating and visiting a church in order to remain alone. They may be motivated largely by the desire to sustain their relationship with God, but they expect, whether or not they would verbalize this feeling, to meet and be accepted by members.

Every time worship takes place in a church, visitors are welcome and should feel welcome, because worship is happening. By simply being present, they become part of it. They belong. However, members can enrich and enhance this experience by simply expressing a welcome. It need not be elaborate. Every member can greet visitors and make them welcome by simply saying, “We are glad you are here.” God says that to each of us as we enter a place of worship: “I’m glad you are here. God be with you.”

The Banquet

An attractive dinner setting
An attractive dinner setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can you imagine this?

A well-known philanthropist recently invited 100 public figures to a dinner in honor of the recipient of an award for charitable work. The award recipient’s name was a huge secret. Nobody even knew how the recipient had been selected. Everybody knew the host, and when word about the dinner got around, the guest list was a hot topic.

The editor of the local newspaper, famous for rooting out every vestige of racism in news reports and acerbic editorials, was shocked to discover that the president of a local neighborhood club that had never had a black member would be attending. He returned his invitation with a sharp reprimand to the host for his insensitivity to African-Americans. An elderly woman who made a habit of telling children about growing up in schools where no “darkies” attended discovered that the black superintendent of schools had been invited, and she responded with “no regrets, I will not attend.”

When the president of the local plumbers and pipefitters union heard that a candidate for the Senate whose principal campaign issue was right to work would be in attendance at the dinner, he publicly announced that he would refuse to attend in order to show solidarity with the working men and women of America. The candidate met with his top advisors and issued a statement that he would not attend an event hosted by someone who was so spineless that he thought he should pander to labor unions.

Nobody even knew that the social secretary of the local garden club had even been invited until she told her sister who told her cousin who blabbed in the break room that the garden club’s representative was also planning to celebrate Earth Day by taking fifty gardeners to “occupy” the sidewalk in front of the home of the plant manager for the local coal-fired power plant. The chill in the break room spilled over into the community, dampening enthusiasm for the dinner. The secretary declined her invitation, citing her abhorrence of the carbon footprint for such an event. The plant manager refused to give a reason, simply mailing his invitation back resealed with duct tape. The basketball coach, on the advice of his wife, claimed a conflicting engagement and booked a flight to Puerto Rico for that weekend.

When the host realized that nobody who had been invited would attend, he was temporarily flummoxed. The reasons, or lack of reasons, were confusing and self-centered. Every person had an agenda that left no room to honor anyone or anything but himself (or herself). For about a week he mulled over the situation, but then he hit on a solution.

On the appointed date for the dinner, a bus pulled up in front of the local homeless shelter. Most nights the shelter served 60 – 80 people, and the bus drove away with 71 people aboard. A limousine stopped at the office of a motel that had once been a Ramada Inn but now rented by the week. The limousine drove away with 14 startled guests. Three pickup trucks and a Range Rover spread out and located people camped under bridges and in clearings along the railroad tracks. The country club dining room where the award dinner had been scheduled filled up with people. Most were disheveled and unkempt. Some appeared to be sick. Many did not know what day it was. They ate and were filled, but there was food left over. The bus, the limousine and the trucks spread out and gathered up more people. After three shifts of people had eaten to satiety, the food was gone, and everyone went home.

As each group enjoyed dinner and chattered happily among themselves, the host stood up to speak. To each group he made the same speech:

Thank you for coming tonight. I just want to tell you that God loves you. You may have heard that this event was to be an award ceremony. The truth is that there never was an award. There is no prize on earth better than happily sharing a meal and a conversation with good people. God loves you and I love you. I hope you share this announcement with everyone you meet.

Jesus told a story like this once. His story was about what heaven will be like and his point was that people are likely to be surprised when they see who is in heaven and who is not. My point is that some people would not even want to be in heaven if certain others were there.

How do you feel about that?


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