Does the Bible have something against the rich? When we read both the Old and New Testaments, we encounter again and again, this seeming dislike for wealth and money.
The prophets constantly spoke of God’s love for the poor and the need to care for them. Jesus himself was the son of a poor carpenter, most of his disciples and friends were poor. And many of the stories he told, seemed to always cast the rich in a bad light.
There was the story of the rich man who went to hell and the poor man who went to heaven, the poor widow who gave the few coins she had, and the rich man who gave from his excess cash. And today, we see it again. Jesus seems to be saying to this rich young man who comes to him for advice: “You want to get to heaven, give up your wealth”.
What’s wrong with being rich? Does Jesus want all his followers to be poor? In today’s gospel, he says it’s hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. And as if to make his point stick, he repeats it, except the second time, he doesn’t just say it’s hard, he says it’s almost impossible. He says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to get to heaven.
Those of us who have tried getting a piece of thread into a needle know that it’s not easy, but a camel?
While the images Jesus uses in the gospel are quite vivid, they’re actually drawn from real life. Jewish cities usually had two gates. One was a big gate through which everybody passed, including merchandise carried on camels. This gate was closed and guarded at night to protect the city. The other was a very small gate through which one could pass only if he stooped real low. It was these small gates that were usually called “needle’s eyes”, and things could only pass through them with great difficulty.
Making camels pass through these small gates was obviously an exaggeration. But once again, Jesus was merely driving home a point. But was he in fact saying wealth is wrong? What did he really mean when he told the rich young man to give his wealth to the poor? What did he really mean when he said the rich will have a hard time getting to heaven?
Being poor can’t be that good. I once knew this 34-year old woman who was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy. Unfortunately, she lived in a third world country that didn’t have health care for the poor and she had no insurance. She also happened to be the breadwinner of the family, as both her parents died in an accident, leaving her and two teenage sisters behind. Eventually, money ran out, friends could no longer help, and treatment had to stop. She died. I pity her two sisters whose lives have become so tough since their elder sister died. Surely, Jesus can’t be saying it’s better to be poor.
As a wealthy and not-so-religious friend of mine once quipped: "The rich may have a hard time entering heaven, but who wants to be poor and miserable on earth?"
But Jesus wasn’t simply criticizing wealth in today’s gospel, nor does the Bible have something against the rich. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments speak of God as a God of abundance, wealth and blessing. And Jesus often compares the life of faithful people to that of a rich banquet where all their needs and desires are satisfied.
What Jesus criticizes in today’s gospel is what wealth can sometimes do to a person. The rich young man was not a bad person at all. He obeyed all the commands. He didn’t’ steal. He didn’t lie. He didn’t commit adultery. He didn’t defraud anybody. He followed all the rules. And that was enough for him.
But it wasn’t enough for Jesus. In effect, what Jesus was saying to the young man was: “Don’t be satisfied with just being ‘not bad’, go and do some more. ‘Do good’. Get out there and use your wealth to do good to others. Not hurting others isn’t enough. You have to actually do good to them.”
The problem of the young man was not that he was rich. His problem was that his wealth had made him complacent and self-satisfied. Wealth and riches aren’t problems. It’s the complacency, self-satisfaction and smugness they can create in us that’s the problem.
When wealth makes a person say to himself: “As long as I’m not hurting anyone, I’m ok. I don’t need to actively help others. Why should I? I’m not harming anyone.” That’s when wealth becomes a hindrance to entering God’s kingdom. That’s the kind of wealth Jesus and the bible criticize and warn us against.
For a true follower of Christ, it isn’t enough to simply say: “I’m not harming anyone. I’m not bad. I’m ok”. Jesus invites us, just as he did the rich young man, to actively pursue “being good”. He invites us to break out of the complacency of our faith and actively look for opportunities to help others, to show care and concern for them, to “do good” to them.
When Confucius the Chinese philosopher first spoke the Golden Rule a couple thousand years before Christ, he said: “Do not do unto others what you do not wish others to do unto you”. Do not do unto others….
When Jesus came along, he turned that rule from a negative to a positive. He said: “Do unto others what you wish others to do unto you”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wealth and riches. They are, in themselves, good. But they’re even better when they enable us to assist those who are in need.
Like everything else in life, wealth and riches are gifts given to us, not to be kept and hoarded, but shared. They come attached with a great responsibility: to generously give to others, especially those in need, because God had been generous to us first.