Idolize Not the Rich

Idolize Not the Rich December 6, 2016

Many members of society, especially in a capitalistic based one like the United States, have a tendency to idolize the rich and demonize the poor. The rich are looked upon as being good, productive members of society, worthy of our respect, while the poor are looked upon as lazy, worthless people who should be treated with contempt because of how their lives have turned out.

The rich, merely for being rich, are looked upon as the natural leaders of society, for their wealth is seen as proof of their ability to attain what they, and anyone else, should desire. If someone who is rich seeks political office, their wealth puts them at a big advantage, not only because they can use it to help support their campaigns, but because of the way people treat the rich with difference, they readily find support and votes coming to them as the ideal leaders of society.

On the other hand, if someone is poor, not only do they find themselves at an economic disadvantage during the campaign, they find many others look down upon them and question their leadership capabilities. It is believed that they remain poor either because they are unintelligent, lazy or both, indicating that they are incapable of leading a country.

Such an attitude, while somewhat understandable for materialists who have no notion of existence outside of their short, temporal lives, should be entirely decried by Christians. The goal of life is not to be rich, using any and all means necessary in order to attain such wealth, but to prepare oneself for eternal life, with the hope of heavenly existence, as St. Peter Chrysologus indicated: “O man, if you are going to remain here on earth, store up your treasures here. But, if you are going up to heaven, why do you leave them here below? The man caring for treasures destined to be left behind is caring for others’ treasures, not his own.”[1]

Not everyone seeks to be rich. Many find their interest in life leads them in directions away from the accumulation of material wealth. Being good, honest stewards of God’s creation leads them to be simple and humble, seeking to live a life of charity and virtue instead of selfish-gain and vice.  The fact that they do not seek to gain riches does not mean they cannot, but that they find other things are more important.

Those who find a way to make it rich are not to be treated with deference just because they are rich. Certainly some might have showed intellectual acumen by what they did to acquire such wealth, but this is not the case for all the rich, for some have inherited enough wealth that they do not have to do anything else for its continuous accumulation. But even when it is the case, it must be asked what method of wealth generation they have used to become rich – if they found a way to take from those who have less, tricking them our using legal loopholes in order to obtain their wealth, there is nothing honorable or commendable in their actions. Smart crooks are still crooks and should not be accorded accolades just for such thievery.   And, as history shows, this is how most wealth has been generated; it was not done through honorable means, but by finding a way to dishonorably take from others more than one’s fair share of the goods of the earth.  To be sure, once someone has attained the quality of life and wealth they desired, they try to use the law as a power to defend their unseemly gains, making sure that others cannot do to them what they have done, which is why many of the wealthiest classes claim to support law and order, but the only law and order they support are the laws which reinforce the order that justifies their unjust acquisitions.

It is a well established truth, recognized throughout history, that suggests the greatest threat to the poor is not their own unwillingness to work, nor other poor, nor even those in the middle class, but the ultra-rich. Those who have found a way to make it rich want not only want to find a way to keep what they have obtained, but to find a way to keep their status at the top of the economic ladder, making sure no one else rises up and becomes richer than they are themselves.

Salvian the Presbyter understood this, warning the Church not to give in to the unjust demands of the rich, pointing out that Scripture itself promotes defending the poor and needy over the avaricious desires of the rich:

Why did I go into such minute details about these things and speak, as it were allegorically, when not only the thefts but the highway robberies of the rich are acknowledged in the most open of crimes? Where can you find any one who is not poor, whether actually or by status, who is safe living beside a rich man? By the encroachments of the powerful the weak lose their belongings, or even themselves along with their belongings. Not unrightly does the Holy Word apply to both when it says: ‘the wild ass is the lion’s prey in the desert: so also the poor are devoured by the rich’  For not only the poor, but almost the whole human race, is suffering from this tyranny.[2]

As the love of money is the root of all evil, then those whose love is for money and all forms of material gain are themselves to be seen as kin to murderers; they take more than their just share of the resources of the land, hindering the poor and needy from obtaining that which they need just to survive. Indeed, as St. Peter Damien declared, even if the avaricious seem to do some little good with what they have received, if it is not a just and fair sharing of their resources, even that good is to be seen in light of the greater evil done by them to get their money, which shows it is just an illusory cover for their wicked hearts :

For if there is nothing more abominable or more wicked than a greedy man, he is therefore no better than a murderer, he is not preferred to those who practice incest, he is on par with heretics, and is put in the same class with idolaters. And so the Apostle says, “Greed is nothing less than idolatry.” Therefore, even though a man be pure and temperate, involved in feeding the poor, and dedicated to practicing hospitality; even though he may fast, meditate long hours, and chant the psalms day and night: if he is an avaricious person, he loses all this, so that among all criminals no one worse than him can be found. And so it was said above. “Nothing is more abominable than a greedy man, there is nothing more wicked than the love of money.” Hence, what good is it not to commit murder or adultery, not to steal or perjure oneself, and to be wholly on guard against every crime? For, so long as you do not rid yourself of avarice, there is nothing more abominable, nothing worse than you.[3]

And who are the greedy? St. Basil the Great answered this question with words which strike to the core of many of us:

Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? These things you have received in trust as stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.[4]

Those who are crafty in wickedness should not be promoted as fine, outstanding citizens, nor should they be given positions of leadership or authority. And if they come in churches, they should be welcome as all are welcomed, but this means, as are all welcomed. They should not be accorded special privilege of place or respect in the church;[5] indeed, if their wealth is known to be obtained by grave injustice, they should be treated as great sinners, being given exhortation to repent and do penance, a penance for them which should include imitation of St. Zacchaeus who was willing to pay back any he defrauded with great interest.  They must be given the warning of Jesus Christ, who reminds all those who are rich that no matter how rich they are now their wealth will not go with them to the grave, and unless they have acted justly towards others with their riches, they will experience the woe of the earthly poor as their reward:

By Meister des Codex Rich Man and Lazarus by Aureus Epternacensis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Meister des Codex Rich Man and Lazarus by Aureus Epternacensis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Lk. 6:24-6 RSV).

How the rich treat the poor will determine the outcome of their judgment before Christ. Those who have been given wealth are to use it for the benefit of others, especially the poor, which is why true riches can be said to be found, not in the material possessions people hoard up for themselves, but in the good deeds they have done for the poor (and not just one’s friends and family). For if they have done much for others instead of themselves,  that will be what is remembered and used to free them from the stain of sin, as implied by St. Maximus of Turin:  “For on the day of judgment the poor will be of service to you, while your friends and children will be of no service at all; for the former will take up your cause, but the latter will be unable to defend their own.”[6]  What has been done to the poor, the lowly, the outcast of the world, truly has been done to Christ. If the rich want Christ to favor them in their death, they must favor the work of Christ and not the accumulation of wealth in life.

The poor can be poor for all kinds of reasons, but for whatever reason, it is the responsibility of the rich to take care of them. Christians, if they are worthy of their name, will always remember this when engaging the world, trying to set up a just government in order to make sure the nations they live in do not embrace systematic patterns of injustice. Christians should not look to the rich to be leaders if the rich have taken the lead in sin; instead, they should look to those who seek after justice and act on it with compassion in all they do, while having the intellectual acumen in order to help guide and direct others to do likewise. How much a person is worth is not indicated by their wealth, but by their character. When Christians lose sight of this, how are we to blame the world for dismissing Christ because those who claim to be Christians have already done so in their thoughts and deeds?

[1] St Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 22 in St. Peter Chrysoslogus: Sermons. St. Valerian: Homilies. trans. George E Ganns, SJ (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953), 67.

[2] Salvian, “The Governance of God” in Salvian the Presbyter. trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1962), 97.

[3] St Peter Damien, The Letters of Peter Damian 91-120. trans. Owen J. Blum, O.F.M. (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1998), 72-3.

[4] St. Basil the Great, “I Will Tear Down my Barns,” in On Social Justice. trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2009), 69-70.

[5] “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,  and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?” (James 2:1-7 RSV).

[6] St Maximus of Turin, “Sermon 27” in the Sermons of St Maximus of Turin. trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1989), 66.


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