Why The Rich, And Those Who Follow Them, Are Hard To Save

Why The Rich, And Those Who Follow Them, Are Hard To Save August 20, 2023

James Emery: Eye Of The Needle / Wikimedia Commons

The rich often think that their wealth gives them the right to do anything they want. They think everything in the world is based upon money, and so, everyone and everything has its price. They hate those who do not live within their system, those who have a morality which does not place money as the highest good. While, to be sure, society has made it so that many are willing to sell themselves short for money, there are those who resist the system, those who will not sell themselves out. There are also things which no amount of money can buy, among which, are virtues. Certainly, someone can buy the appearance of virtue, but it can be and will be all for show. The rich want everything, including the appearance of being great men and women in the world. They like receiving praises for whatever little good they do, which is why many of them want to be seen as philanthropists. Others might try to do some good, not for accolades, but in order to satisfy the sting of their conscience. But too few of them, even those who have a bit of conscience about them, go beyond show; they still take pride in what they have accumulated, and except for special circumstances, they tend to use their money for their own private gain without caring for those they hurt in the process:

Through the pride of his riches the rich man rules over other men, whom he can harm, and treats them badly, just as if they were not fellow creatures, and in this way the good name of mankind (that man is the image and likeness of God [cf. Gen 1.26]) is blasphemed. [1]

This has been a common problem throughout time, though with the rise of modern capitalism, with its drive towards economic materialism, it has become far more prominent. What is ironic is that many of those who promote such a capitalistic understanding of the world, many of those who promote the value of people based upon how wealthy they are, are Christians who should know better. They have been told that the love of money is the root of all evil, but instead of looking to what that means, they promote money like an idol, the golden calf reborn.

Money, or its lack, does not in and of itself define the moral integrity of a person; a poor person is not inherently an inferior person to a rich man or woman, nor, of course, does their poverty alone turn them into saints. A rich man or woman does not have to be morally compromised, though, of course, how their wealth was accumulated and preserved raises lots of questions:

It is almost impossible for the rich man to be  rich without robbing the poor. That is the meaning behind the words: ‘He lurks in ambush with the rich.’ Whenever the rich persecute the Christians, we may say that the devil is lurking in ambush with them. ‘He lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor and drops them off into his net. With his noose, he brings them down.’ This is the ungodly one; this is the devil. ‘The poor,’ not only in riches, but also in spirit: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ ‘With his noose he brings them down.’ Whom? The poor, of course. [2]

Those who have come to love money will do whatever it takes to get rich, so long as they themselves do not put themselves needlessly at risk (which is why many will break the law if they think they will not get caught, but if they feel they can’t, they will do whatever the law allows even if it is morally unsound). Because they are hyper-focused on the generation of wealth, moral questions are pushed to the side. “This is why the Lord claims that it is with difficulty that the rich enter the kingdom of heaven. For their riches choke the word of God and soften the rigor of their virtues.”[3]

Thus, those who are so focused on material gain will ignore doing what they need to do to grow spiritually. They will find excuse after excuse to justify their actions. They will redefine morality, not only to justify themselves, but also to fight against traditional virtues, claiming that it is the adherence to such outdated moral notions which is truly immoral. This is why so many of those who pursue wealth, or have it, argue consistently against a society which promotes the common good, because such a society will undermine their ability to accumulate wealth without limit.  And with such a focus, it is easy to understand why Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23b RSV).  They have denied the common good. Similarly, they replace the source and foundation of the good, which is God, with money. They make wealth the greatest good. And once they have done that, not only do they redefine morality, they follow their new ideology with religious devotion. This is another reason why it is difficult for the rich man or woman to enter into the kingdom of God, for they must first cut themselves away from their idolatry. This is not to say it is impossible, for with God, all things are possible, and God’s grace can perfect nature, but it still requires the rich to repent and deconstruct their idolatrous belief.

Some of those who are rich will find, for one reason or another, that they will lose their wealth; once they do so, they might begin to see what they were not willing to see before. They will see how much their lives were centered upon a good which leads nowhere. Indeed, they will find themselves suffering with their newfound lack, and through that suffering, they might begin to find themselves in solidarity with the rest of the people, the people they previously scorned. They will see how the system is cruel and unjust, and realize that have some guilt associated with the way hey helped preserved it. This, then, will lead them to repent, to start working for a change, in part, to make restitution for their old ways. That is, stripped of all their wealth, cut off from everything, they can finally enter through the narrow gate, the eye of the needle, and turn their life around. This is not to say being poor is virtuous, but those who are virtuous often will end up being poor because their focus lies with virtue, with the greater good, and not their own private interests. Sadly, that means many of them will end up in desperate need of help, like Lazarus in the story of Lazarus and Dives. One would think their virtue would grant them the freedom to pursue their needs, but sadly, capitalism, especially in so-called Christian nations, has done everything to prevent that. Too many “Christian” countries find all kinds of reasons to deny the poor their basic human dignity, such as when we find laws put in place making it difficult if not illegal to beg, as Vladimir Solovyov saw in the 19th century:

Avarice and hypocrisy are common enough vices of human nature and there is nothing surprising in the objections they raise against charity. What is very surprising is that there are Christian states which still further narrow the eye of the needle through which the rich enter the kingdom of God by enacting laws which forbid begging. By doing so the Christian state undermines its own foundations, for it does not exist to protect man’s vices (such as those of avarice and hypocrisy) but the promote the good of all, and  this supreme office properly depends upon the precept of charity: to uphold the weak, defend the downtrodden, help those who are in distress, and so to pour out divine grace upon the earth. [4]

This shows how even Christians can be, and have been, corrupted by temptation; they have given into avarice and the morality which it tries to suggest. Christians have ignored Christ and Christ’s teachings. They have inverted the moral order. Beggars and the poor, migrants and refugees, are looked upon with derision, similar to the way like Lazarus was looked down upon by Dives. The rich who put up more and more barriers, more and more walls, between themselves and the poor are looked at with esteem. How long can such a Christianity last? It can’t, which is why, as such a form of Christianity is so prominent, non-Christians give a hard pass to the Christian faith. If we want things to change, Christians must remember, it is the poor, the dispossessed, the outcasts who find God draws near them:

Yet for the poor and indigent the very rejection by the rich is sufficient to  draw upon them mercy from above; for just as the hardness of heart of the prosperous and their indifference towards their fellow-slaves shuts to them the gates of the Lord’s compassion, so unmercifullness and disregard of the unfortunate opens to the latter some access to divine acceptance. [5]

Christians have long abandoned the poor for the idolatry of riches, and in doing so, they have abandoned God for mammon. While they claim to follow the Christian faith, and indeed, are baptized and believe in those elements which do not challenge them and their way of life, they show they do not trust in or love God; if they did, they would do as Jesus said, which is to take care of everyone, especially those who are poor. We must hold fast to the full Gospel, lest, as Paul says, we believe in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-2). We must heed all the warnings against the rich and riches. We must not listen to the morality established in light of avarice, for that morality was what led  Dives to his own spiritual ruin.

[1] St. Hildegard of Bingen, “Letter 378” in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Volume III. Trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 165.

[2] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms). Trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 36-7 [Homily 4].

[3] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2008), 155-56.

[4] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 42.

[5] St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Trans. Cyril Mango (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1958; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 63 [Homily 2].


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