(This dialogue grows out of the following article by Peter Wehner, which appeared recently on the
Washington Post’s op-ed page. It is reprinted here with permission. The Rev. Sirico’s first response is below.)
“Woe to You Who Are Rich”
Assume that you had never read the New Testament and were given a quiz with the following question:
“During His ministry, Christ spoke out most often about (a) the evils of homosexuality, (b) the merits of democracy, (c) family-friendly tax cuts or (d) the danger of riches.” It turns out that Christ said nothing about the first three and a lot about the last one. But you would never know it based on the rhetoric of many modern-day Christians–particularly politically active ones.
Christ was quite pointed when he talked about riches. Christ issued this warning to His 12 disciples: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” When a rich young man came to Jesus and asked what thing he must do to receive eternal life, Jesus told him that he must sell his possessions and give to the poor. But the young man was unwilling to part with his great wealth. Christ then declared: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
When Jesus delivered His most famous mountainside sermon, He warned that we ought not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth. “No one can serve two masters,” He said. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” In the parable of the sower, Jesus said the seed that fell among thorns stood for those who hear God’s word but are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures. Saint Paul tells us that people who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap that plunges men into “ruin and destruction.” All of which led G.K. Chesterton to write: “There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.”
Now tie this in to politics. Many Christians explain their involvement in politics as a way to advance Biblical principles in the public arena. Well and good. But there is reason to wonder whether politically active Christians are bending Scripture to conform to their political predispositions. The New Testament says much more about the dangers riches pose to one’s soul than it does about many well-publicized issues about which many Christians feel so strongly. Yet you would never know this by the agenda advanced by America’s most prominent and politically active Christian organizations, magazines and radio talk shows. My point is not that their concerns are without basis; some of them (but not all) are. Rather, the debate is radically and wrongly skewed in favor of some issues and not others, and it’s unwise for Christians to keep averting our gaze from warnings that Christ placed in bright neon lights.
What’s going on here? Justifying our acquisitiveness is undoubtedly part of it. Plus, most of us tend to read the Bible through a lens tinted by personal experience, acquaintances, ideology and the times in which we live.
Regardless of the cause, this appears to be a case of selective moral concern. Why else do those who insist that Biblical Christianity ought to be a guide to our political involvement become (relatively) silent on an issue of such obvious concern to Christ–and one that has political as well as personal implications? In our headlong pursuit to acquire wealth and worldly pleasures, Christians have become virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the world. We have bought into non-Christian precepts. Note the irony: Christians seeking and encouraging others to seek that which our Lord repeatedly warned against.
Make the Scriptural case warning about riches to a group of Christians (of any political persuasion) and see how long it takes them to say, “Yes, but…” My guess is that the rest of the remarks will focus almost entirely on the “but” clause. The justification employed is Saint Paul’s observation that the love of money, and not money itself, is the root of all kinds of evil. The problem is that we Christians living in the late 20th century America have built a convenient firewall between the subject (“love”) and the modifier (“of money”). But if money and riches have so little hold on us, then why do we work so hard to accumulate more of both? And why are we so reluctant to part with each? Christ knew the insidiously strong pull that riches exert on our heart and affections. He was much less a defender of riches than we are precisely because of His intimate concern for our spiritual well-being.
I understand why it is tempting to avoid this debate. The demands Christ places on our lives are far more radical than most of us–certainly I–want to admit. We resist lifestyle changes that would push us out of our “comfort zone”; we want Christ to be an appendage to our relatively prosperous lives. In this, as in so many areas, we ignore the real cost of discipleship. So we opt for cheap grace, and easy targets, instead.
There are still important issues that need to be clarified: what constitutes riches; how much is “too much”; the meaning of being good stewards and responsible providers; and the merits of capitalism as a means of lifting people out of poverty. But if we are uncertain about the particulars, we have been offered explicit guidance on the principle. What is troubling today is how easily we dismiss that principle–both in our private lives and in our political pursuits.
The writer is director of policy at Empower America. The views here are his own.