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Jesus and Wealth – Part One


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The Problem
Money, wealth, financial power, economic power, call it what you will, extreme wealth disparity destroys societies from within, eating away at the bond between people and the fabric of society. And as the process intensifies and accelerates, the death of the culture comes that much sooner. That’s where we are in the US today. We read that five [or is three?] persons own as much wealth as the bottom half of society, but the numbers don’t mean anything until we see before us the result of that inequality. Poor people on opioids. Increasing suicides. Schools and libraries closing. Health clinics not built. People living in tents on the street or under bridges. It’s like saying that there are a trillion galaxies in the universe, an unimaginable number until it is focused on your own planet. You don’t appreciate the wealth inequality until your public school or hospital has to close for lack of funds. Then you feel it, but then it’s too late. When wealth is concentrated and kept in the hands of a few, and common people lack the resources to provide for themselves the benefits of culture. Society at all levels is stripped of the potential for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, three rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence as granted by the Creator, and the rightful task of all government to pursue.

The problem with which we contend is not only economic and political, but spiritual/religious/theological as well. We have heard it said that money is the root of all evil, or, more precisely, that the love of money is the root of all evil. We call that “greed’. Some like to flip that on its head, proclaiming wealth as a sign of God’s favor, expounding upon the “prosperity gospel”, but they have truly forgotten what their supposed savior actually taught. The spiritual dimension of wealth being as important as the economic, it is incumbent upon all who call themselves Christian to take a closer look at the life and teaching of Jesus. Having wealth in and of itself, just like having power in and of itself, is not evil. It is, rather, the attitude one brings to them: it is not money that is the source of evil, but the love thereof. We all know persons who are wealthy who do good with their money and power, who are not greedy and who use their position to help others. But on the grander scale, both in terms of numbers of people and amount of money, the pervasive and destructive social influence of wealth is clear: money is the unseen background of every issue with which society has to contend. At some level it’s always about money, about those who have it and those who don’t. Whether we speak of environmental disaster, racism, sexism, education, health- you name it- we are talking money- wealth- and then also power, the two inevitably entangled and bound to one another.

The Psychology of Wealth
Whether today or in Jesus’ time, the conjunction of wealth and power inevitably results in increasing disparity and poverty. Why is this? I googled “the psychology of the rich” recently and was led to Forbes magazine, as well as a few comparable business reviews, and I was informed that the rich are special. They have unique characteristics that enable them to work hard, focus on the important, relate gracefully, and so on. You might be led to believe they were god incarnate. To the contrary, there have been actual studies of the attitudes of the wealthy that present quite a different picture. For a full summary of results, look at a 2012 Scientific American article, “How Wealth Reduces Compassion”. The results of various studies show that the privileged wealthy: tend to have less compassion, tend to pay less attention to those they suspect are less fortunate, are more apt to go through stop signs at road intersections, feel less empathy, are inclined to believe that greed is good, and generally have a sense of entitlement.

This being the case, and building on this base of greed and entitlement, it should come as no surprise that the rich and powerful become even more rich and powerful, be it today or back in Jesus’ day. One might call it a wealth blindness, the extent of which seems moronic. I mean, really, oil execs 75 years ago choosing profit over planetary survival? That moronic tendency would probably explain why today’s ultra rich are keen to find a way to get to Mars, leaving behind the rest of us to count our days before Armageddon.

Another dimension, not appreciated by many, is the addictive nature of wealth. It has been shown that accumulation of wealth triggers dopamine release in the human body, increasing the sense of pleasure in the brain. And, just like alcohol and drugs, the threshold for the high keeps climbing. Unbridled accumulation of money is a physiological addiction and needs to be understood as such. Are there exceptions to the rule? Are there rich and powerful people who use their wealth for good social purposes? Without delving into the psychological motivations behind a person’s potential or actual altruism, we can surely say that of course there are wealthy people who do good with their power and money. But they seem to be in the minority. And quiet.

As a side note to the love of money, one can always ask about how much secure annual income it takes to be happy, or, negatively put, an income below which one would be unhappy. There seems to be a consensus that there is such a number, about $100,000 US, but also that a sense of emotional well-being occurs at a lower number. Apparently, there comes a point, material needs met and secure, that one no longer finds meaning in increasing materialism and seeks fulfilment elsewhere. The implication, of course, is that those wealthy seeking ever more wealth are looking for fulfillment in the wrong place, a misguided search that dissipates compassion for others, a consequence of which is that we all suffer. Greed is good for no one.

Next instalment: Jesus and the economy of Galilee


Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision and  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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