A reflection on Jesus's Teaching on Wealth, Affluence, & Generosity, featuring discussions of the rich young ruler, Peter Singer and the Pond Case, and How Much A Dollar Cost? by Kendrick Lamar.
I can identify with the rich young ruler—well, despite that I am neither rich… nor young… nor a ruler.
But I wonder why. Is it the desire to get everything right? The temptation to think that’s where my worth and God’s acceptance comes from? Maybe it’s the desire for advice—the wisdom and way Jesus offers. But then I worry it’s really the reaction of grief the young man displays, when Jesus suggests the only thing he lacks is selling everything he has.
“Everything? Like, literally everything?”
I have a hard enough time thinking about giving up my extra possessions, the things that are obviously a matter of affluence—the “diamonds on the souls of [my] shoes,” to quote Paul Simon’s well-nigh perfect album Graceland.
Affluence changes the way we think, concealing itself as necessary when it’s in fact superfluous. The human tendency to grow an attachment to things (even the numbers in our bank or brokerage account), because we think of them as ours.
Affluence seems to generate all sorts of appendages to our self-concept. But there’s a long tradition of Christian suspicion about whether our wealth really belongs to us.
Whose Affluence Is It?
Justo González curates a great cloud of witnesses to sing the refrain—from the Early Church and patristic era, through the medieval period, right up to the Catholic Social Worker movement—most of whom insist that our affluence isn’t ours at all. It belongs to the poor. I’ll serve up a more palatable example since he’s such a darling.
“Not to give to the needy what is superfluous is akin to fraud.”
If you’re chaffed at that, don’t read John Chrysostom or Ambrose. But if you’re up for a morally and spiritually challenging read, checkout González’s Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money.
These days, the voices sounding this note are often outside the church. Consider Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, & Morality” an essay (and Google talk) that helped to inspire today’s Effective Altruism movement. Singer argues that withholding our extraneous wealth from human beings in need (wherever and whomever they are) is no different than letting a child drown in a shallow pond because you preferred not to ruin your slacks.
Or listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost?” [CW: strong language] in which he turns a familiar story we’ve all known—about being approached for a dollar at a gas station—into a jaw-dropping twist I wish I could hear again for the first time.
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Let’s return to Matthew 19. The devastating thing about it is that the rich young man leaves. Every time I read it, I find myself rooting for him to stay. I identify with him. I would want to leave too, but I know that what I need most is to stay.
What if the young man had stayed? What if he struggled with the teaching? What if he asked further questions and worked through the implications? What if he became curious about the creative ways Jesus’s teaching would change him? The Gospel of Mark adds “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” (Mark 10:21). How would Jesus’s love break up the power of wealth and possessions over him?
This is just one of the insights historical Christian teachings on affluence can offer. Faced with Jesus’s challenge, we could either skulk and sulk away, or stay and struggle with questions the world needs us to ask.
Questions About Affluence and Generosity
Here are a few questions to ponder:
How much does a dollar really cost? (Seriously, listen to the song and read along with Kendrick’s lyrics—here’s the clean version.)
What am I afraid of losing when I’m worried about losing possessions or money?
Do I believe that my worth comes from my ability to earn money?
What do I gain from giving away?
What do I lose when I “keep what’s mine”?
Is my affluence really mine? Or does it belong to the poor?
Should giving always feel good? Or should we train like athletes when it comes to generosity?
Can I stay with Jesus as he looks upon me with love, helping me through the more challenging aspects of his wisdom?
Most of what I know about this topic, I’ve learned from many conversations with my friend, philosopher Tom Crisp, who’s written about this at length in an essay “Jesus & Affluence” (and who introduces the Pond Case at the beginning of this podcast episode).