Jesus and the Rich

If TV had been available in the Palestine of Jesus, and 60 Minutes broadcasted, Jesus might well have revisited his scathing invectives against the rich.

On Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, the CBS program aired an atypical window into the world of the super rich, the billionaires among us. The program, “The Giving Pledge,” highlighted a significant shift in the consciousness of some of the super rich. Currently, 400 billionaires in the USA possess two-trillion dollars, the combined wealth of the bottom half of our population.

The Giving Pledge

The Giving Pledge, conceived by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, urges their peers to join this elite club. The simple prerequisites are that the prospective member possesses at least a billion dollars and is willing to donate 50 percent. Buffett is forking over 99 percent of his wealth and the Gateses, 95 percent. Now in its fourth year, over 120 wealthy individuals and families from a dozen countries, including the United States, have pledged more than a half-trillion dollars. More than a fourth of U.S. billionaires have joined the club.

In the Gospels, Jesus pits the rich against the poor. Class warfare? The Gospel presents a stark dichotomy of rich vs. poor. Jesus is relentless in denouncing the rich and consoling the poor — “Woe to you rich” and “Blessed are you poor.”

Arguably the most scathing denouncing of the rich is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. A small point in the parable: The rich man is generic, without a name, but the poor man has one: Lazarus. This is startling, for the poor historically are anonymous and the rich prominent. Dumbfounded that the rich man was nameless, the Church gave him one, Dives, which simply means rich man.

Lazarus and Dives

In the parable, the rich man finally comes to his senses while in a place of torment, separated from Abraham’s bosom, where Lazarus is comfortably nesting. The rich man pleads with Abraham to send someone to warn his brother not to end up as he has. And Abraham hurls his thunder bolt, “Even if someone were to rise from the dead, your brothers would not change.” Hardness of heart? Case closed against the rich.

“How hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God” is possibly one of the most quoted Gospel texts. In Mary’s song, the lowly are lifted to high places while the powerful are dashed to the ground. And James heap coals of indignation on the rich. “Weep and wail, you rich, for misery is coming upon you.” And the most confronting injunction, “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor and then come follow me.” Who has taken that literally? Perhaps St. Francis? In the seminary, when this text surfaced, it was explained that it was meant only for persons with a special vocation. It was a relief to learn that not everyone had that unique calling!

Researching themes in the Gospels, the issue of poverty and wealth trounces the second closest competitor. Yet in Jesus’ time, the rich were a small minority. So why the vehemence against a few who were largely unbeknownst to the masses, especially as there was no media tabloid catering to their every trivial move? It seems inexplicable that Jesus would attack an insignificant, invisible few. One could almost accuse Him of creating a bogeyman. Nonetheless, the net effect of the Gospel vehemence has contributed to the antagonistic dichotomy of rich and poor ever since. Was this insight truly the divine revelation of the Gospels?

Pope Francis and the Poor

Pope Francis has engendered a worldwide reception to his insistence on returning to the poor the prominence given them in the Gospel. His desire for a church of the poor resonates across denominational lines, as more people today than ever before in history are aware of the unprecedented disparity between wealth and poverty. The widening chasm cannot continue without violent eruptions. While Francis, in word, has shined the spotlight on the plight of the poor, Warren Buffett makes calls to billionaires and invites them to join the club. Has Francis with his famous “cold calls” dialed a billionaire Catholic to join his cause?

This new club for billionaires far exceeds the biblical norm of tithing 10 percent, an amount with which few comply. Would Jesus be flummoxed to learn that today’s rich are being asked to kick in at least 50 percent for starters? According to USA Today, in 2012, charitable giving was up to 3.5 percent. Most democratic countries do not permit a tax deduction for charity as does the USA, motivating persons here to give in order to reduce tax indebtedness. While religious persons tend to be more generous than non-religious, the Giving Pledge Club request of 50 percent contribution defies the biblical challenge.

How Wealth is Accumulated is a Biblical Concern

How the rich accumulate wealth is a biblical concern. How workers are treated is a paramount issue. Withholding the wages of the worker finds its roots in the Mosaic Law where justice to the worker takes precedence. Prophets like Jeremiah inveighed harshly against injustice to the worker, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.”

The New Testament Letter of James reflects this ancient sentiment, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” Not only withholding the worker’s pay, but also how little the worker receives in compensation is a consistent biblical issue of justice. Nonetheless, wealth is not biblically judged as an evil in itself. Wealth is to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. But the end is also questioned as Jeremiah did of those who build their house by unrighteousness. Is the end one’s personal gain or is it justice for the common good?

Domain of the Wealthy

Philanthropy has become a domain of the wealthy who bequeath their largesse to their favorite charities or interests. Often it is a means of insuring their historical memory. Andrew Carnegie is remembered for his multiple charities. Carnegie-endowed libraries dot the landscape today. His philanthropy obscured the dark side of his accumulation of wealth. One of the worst labor riots in the USA was the 1892 Homestead Strike in which violence was used against workers demanding a more equitable share in the abundant profits of the steel industry. Carnegie successfully quelled the laborers and dealt a devastating blow to organized labor that remains today.

Charity and Justice

St. Augustine argued that charity is no substitute for justice withheld. Carnegie’s first moral obligation was to the workers who, through their sweat, enabled him to become successful. While some billionaires may accumulate wealth unjustly, it doesn’t follow that all do. But it is fair to question how their wealth is accumulated and for what end it is used, at least from a biblical perspective.

For 24 years I spoke in over 1,500 parishes in the USA in behalf of those in absolute poverty. The distinction between absolute poverty overseas and poverty here in America was a hurdle for many. And a strong minority of parishioners voiced a lack of empathy for the poor. They seemed more attuned to the gospel of Ayn Rand than that of Jesus Christ, as they believe people are responsible for their own poverty, blissfully ignoring the fact that life isn’t a level playing field.

As the Giving Pledge Club expands, the newly nouveaux riche may have a greater impact on the common good than the political realm. It is truly universal in outreach, not territorial. They are engaged in more than simply donating, as they meet yearly to explore the greatest needs and how to be more effective in their stewardship of money. They are more apt to look at the big picture for humanity than narrower political considerations. Nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemics, water purification, etc., are issues toward which billionaires are putting their money where their mouth is.

The Golden Age of Philanthropy

The impetus of The Giving Pledge has initiated what the media are now calling “The Golden Age of Philanthropy.” Would Jesus have envisioned this day? Is this a sign that the Kingdom of God is present? Rather than the scorn which the Gospel has directed at the rich, this movement gives pause and would have the lesser classes emulate and imitate in reassessing attitudes toward the rich and reviewing their own priorities in giving. Governments are limited in their resolution of the needs of the common good. Private initiatives such as The Giving Pledge introduce a new, dynamic player on the human stage, challenging others to compete with them in being good stewards of their resources.

Following “The Giving Pledge” on 60 Minutes was a piece entitled, “The Recyclers — from Trash Came Triumph.” It showed an effort in Paraguay to sort through trash for materials that could be recycled into musical instruments. The effort led to the development of a children’s orchestra which now has been invited to perform in other countries. The two stories are symbolic of how, when people use their resources, extensive or limited, as a means to improve the quality of life, the possibilities are endless.

If the Gospels were written today, I wonder if the severe indictment toward the rich might not be ameliorated by the witness of the Giving Pledge Club? The poor you will always have with you? Not if the the Giving Pledge Club expands and leads the way.

FATHER COYNE, a retired priest of the Manchester diocese, writes from Exeter, N.H.