I know Christians who believe that people should be able to be as wealthy as they can possibly be, as long as they acquire their wealth fairly and squarely. And I know Christians who believe that any evidence of wealth is clear evidence of spiritual failing and moral corruption. I’ve even heard Christians misquote St. Paul and say, “Money is the root of all evils.” Of course, he actually warned against the “love of money” (1 Tm 6:10).
The Catholic tradition takes a direct, even simple, approach to wealth. “Riches are not forbidden,” wrote St. John Chrysostom, “but the pride of them is.” He also warned, “Nothing is more fallacious than wealth.” St. John Baptiste de la Salle, patron saint of teachers, stated: “It is not a sin to have riches, but it is a sin to fix our hearts upon them.”
The question we must ask ourselves when it comes to wealth is the same one we need to consider when it comes to abilities and opportunities: “What am I going to do with it? And, why? For what end?”
Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes provides a stark reminder of the ultimate issues at stake. “All things are vanity!” declares the teacher Qoheleth, and it might seem as though he is advocating or giving into despair. But he is following materialism to its logical end, which is emptiness, sorrow and grief.
The man who seeks comfort, distraction and ultimate meaning in material possessions will be left holding sand at the edges of eternity. This approach to life is without foundation. “The materialist,” quipped G.K. Chesterton, “is one who will serve anything visible for no reason.”
Yet wealth and possessions are not, in themselves, bad. It is just that they cannot give meaning, offer true happiness or provide comfort in the face of suffering, death and the afterlife. That is the essential point of the parable told by Jesus. The rich man has more than enough food and wealth; he has physical comfort and a surplus of harvest. But what is his first thought upon seeing the surplus? Does he think of how he might share it? No, he turns further into himself and turns away from others.
“He does not raise his eyes to God,” reflected St. Cyril of Jerusalem. “He does not cherish love for the poor or desire the esteem it gains. … Still more irrational, he settles for himself the length of his day, as if he would also reap this from the ground.”
So, we see that the love of wealth is, ultimately, the love of self — or, better, the lust of self. There is no gratitude, no thanksgiving, no humility, only the desire to “rest, eat, drink, be merry!” Contrast those four actions with four actions and attitudes expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Christians living in Colossae, in Asia Minor.
First, he states, we have been “raised with Christ.” This is entirely God’s gracious gift, granted through baptism (see Rom 6:1-11). Second, we are to “seek what is above” — that is, the things of God. Thus, in the “Our Father,” we say, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Third, we are to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” This is an exhortation to both intellectual reflection and spiritual contemplation. And, fourth, we are to “put to death” those parts of us that “are earthly,” for we have “put on the new self.”
We sometimes must choose between physical comfort and spiritual conversion. And while wealth is not evil, it should be used with care. The real riches are those things that matter to God.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.