The pursuit of wealth is not neutral

The pursuit of wealth is not neutral July 14, 2015


More of our reports and analysis from the recent Acton University conference. Read the first seven posts here:

  1. The refreshing difference
  2. We can’t create heaven on earth
  3. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”
  4. Is there really enough to go around?
  5. Letting our Jesus Freak flag fly
  6. Was Jesus a socialist?
  7. But what about sin?

One of the claims I hear most often from people affiliated with Acton, or with pro-free-market Christianity more generally, is that modern churches have an excessive, simplistic suspicion of business activity and profit, seeing it as fundamentally nothing more than greed. Sometimes it is suggested that this attitude derives from left-wing ideology, or from specific theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas.

Apart from the fact that most evangelical churches (if those are the ones people who make this complaint have in mind) are hardly left-wing in their political orientation, the obvious problem with this complaint is that it could just as easily be directed against Scripture. Over and over again in Scripture the wealthy are spoken of in extremely critical terms and the seeking of wealth is condemned. Jesus’ sayings  about the camel going through the needle’s eye and the impossibility of serving both God and “Mammon” are perhaps the most famous examples, but there are plenty of others. James’ denunciations of the wealthy, Paul’s warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10),” Luke’s stories of the rich fool and the rich man and Lazarus. . . the theme is one of the most common in the New Testament, and is found prominently in the OT as well (along with, admittedly, a bit more evidence on the other side).

It does not follow from the Scriptural passages denouncing the acquisition of wealth that the “Acton philosophy” is necessarily false. Perhaps, as Thomas Woods suggests, the economic circumstances of a pre-capitalist agrarian society were quite different from ours. But it seems to me that this philosophy does have a lot of explaining to do. When preachers give the impression that there is something “dirty” about making money, they are doing this because for centuries Christians have believed just that, based on plenty of what looked like good Scriptural evidence.

Two of the lectures I heard at Acton dealt directly with Scriptural treatments of wealth and property. One of these, a brief talk by NT scholar Darrell Bock on the Gospel of Luke, was part of the “Oikonomia Network” breakfast session I attended on Friday morning. (The other, dealing with property in the Pentateuch, will be covered in the next post.) Bock’s treatment unintentionally strengthened my impression that Luke in particular poses some serious problems for an unabashedly pro-capitalist Christian approach. Prof. Bock interpreted the many warnings about the dangers of wealth in Luke as warnings against a “selfish” use of wealth.

Certainly that’s true as far as it goes. But I was not convinced that this is an adequate interpretation of Luke’s treatment of the subject. For instance, Bock interpreted the story of the “rich fool” in Luke 12 to condemn not the accumulation of wealth per se but the accumulation of wealth for selfish purposes. But this story is followed by Jesus’ exhortations not to worry about food or clothing (v. 22), to imitate the carefree life of the birds and lilies (24-28), not to “keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink” (v. 29), and most explicitly: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (32-33)

Similarly, in Luke 16, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is found in close proximity to the puzzling “parable of the dishonest steward.” This is one of several parables in which Jesus appears to be praising economic shrewdness. Another such parable, the parable of the “pounds,” or its counterpart in Matthew, the parable of the “talents,” is often used to show that Jesus did not, in fact, have a disapproving view of economic enterprise. But apart from the fact that the same argument, applied consistently, would have Jesus approving of slavery and torture,  the parable of the “dishonest steward” is clearly not describing virtuous economic activity, but dishonesty.

The story is therefore pretty clearly a paradoxical, intentionally shocking one urging Jesus’ followers to “cheat” the forces of “unjust mammon” by using money for the Kingdom. The story ends with the exhortation “you cannot serve God and mammon.” Immediately afterwards, the Pharisees mock Jesus for this story, because, Luke says, they are “lovers of money” (16:14). Jesus responds that what is highly regarded by humans is an “abomination” before God. And after a few more sayings that don’t seem directly connected to the question of money, he proceeds to tell the famous story of the rich man who lives in luxury while a beggar lies at his gate covered in sores.

Surely G. K. Chesterton’s description of the “needle’s eye” saying applies to these two sequences from Luke as well: “Christianity when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags.” However we apply these teachings of Jesus to modern economic and social questions, they cannot simply mean “don’t be selfish in how you use your wealth.”

Rather, as the Christian tradition has consistently affirmed, there are particular dangers in the process of acquiring wealth, and even (though to a lesser degree) in the mere possession of wealth. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. There may, contra Gregory Palamas, be nothing intrinsically wrong even with seeking to acquire wealth for good purposes. But the pursuit of wealth is not simply a neutral, innocent form of “creativity,” and a great deal of Acton’s activity strikes me as amounting to what Chesterton called the manufacture of very large needles and the breeding of very small camels.

If someone stood up at Acton and said, “the best way to help the poor would be to sell our possessions and give them away,” everyone would pile on that naive left-wing idiot and inform him that he has no understanding of economic reality. Yet this is what Jesus tells his followers to do in Luke 12:33. So far, I have not heard a satisfactory explanation of this from an Acton perspective.

ertEdwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, farmer, and consulting editor for Christian History magazine. He blogs at Ithilien and tweets as @Amandil3. (Extra points if you get the Tolkien reference.)

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