Jesus … said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the
!’ They were amazed that he should say this, but he insisted, ‘… It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God .’ Mark 10 v25 kingdom of God
Public prayers can be very revealing of the values really held by those who lead them. Among the groups regularly prayed for, along with the sick, are the poor. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s odd that another particular group never gets prayed for: the very rich people in our society. Yet you’d think that the very rich needed at least as much praying for as the poor; after all, Jesus himself observes the potential blessedness of poor people, but he’s scathing about the rich: it’s easier, he says, for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for rich people to attain the Kingdom of God, his term for the state of blessedness. This week-by-week failure has serious implications, not least because it conditions us to think that while we would want to avoid being poor, being very rich would be fine and might perhaps be aspired to. Of course, there’s nothing to be said in favour of real poverty, but perhaps it’s not much more undesirable than huge wealth. Let me be clear: I am not talking here about the damaging effect of great wealth on those who don’t have it. Real relative poverty is corrosive in itself and the envy it provokes only makes it worse; as a society we need to encourage the relief of poverty because we have compassion for the poor. No: I am talking about the damaging effect of great relative wealth on those who do have it; perhaps as a society we need to encourage the relief of wealth at least partly because we have compassion for the very wealthy.
While religion has long exhorted society to be generous or at least fair towards its poorest members, it has often had rather less to say about the dangers of wealth to the wealthy. But this concern too is deeply embedded in the tradition, as the eye-of-a-needle saying demonstrates. We can now explain this concern better than once we could. For one thing, we understand that beyond a certain point more and more wealth does not make people commensurately more and more happy; we say that wealth has a declining marginal utility. As Jesus’s story of the widow and her mite suggests, we can see that the pound in the plutocrat’s bank account is much less valuable than the same pound would be in the pauper’s pocket. For another, we have had plenty of evidence that when great wealth is inherited as distinct from being earned, the heir has little sense of its value and cannot imagine what it is like to be – not even poor: just an ordinary middle-income person. That’s just one way great wealth can sap the ability to be compassionate; hence perhaps Jesus’s advice to the rich young ruler to give away his wealth, and his inability to do so. We also know that for those who didn’t inherit it, amassing great wealth demands at the very least single-minded pursuit of it and at the worst utter ruthlessness towards other people; neither leaves much room for the cultivation of good relationships or any other lastingly satisfying human activities. Jesus’s story of the rich man who dies before he can enjoy his wealth seems to make the point. It can be even worse: great wealth tends to make its possessor see other people as objects to be bought with cash, not as fellows to be won by love or persuaded by debate; and even when in fact love and debate are present, the very rich can’t be certain that what binds others to them is not simply their money. That’s how great wealth corrodes human relationships.
All this we know, but we find it hard to take seriously. To say you are wary of the dangers of great wealth can easily sound like a case of sour grapes: since you couldn’t reach the grapes when you tried, you claim you never wanted them in the first place because you knew they were sour. It is naturally much more convincing when people who certainly could reach the grapes, and indeed enjoyed a good many of them, realise the limitations and dangers of great wealth, and begin to give it up. And some of them do. It takes great inner courage to do this, because the pursuit of wealth is deeply ingrained not only in us as individuals but also in our society’s value system: whatever it claims, there’s plenty of evidence that our society tends to value people by their wealth rather than by other, better, measures of human worth. But even in giving wealth away there is a moral risk: how can you or anyone else be sure that in doing so you are not buying worldly popularity and power, or, if you believe in an afterlife, the reward of eternal bliss?
It’s not just individuals who are corrupted by great wealth; so are nations. The truth is that great wealth and great poverty are, for individuals and for whole societies, burdens that we would all be better off without. That does not mean that there should be no disparity of income at all, but it does mean that we need to take steps to ensure that those disparities do not grow exponentially, as they tend to if unchecked. The Old Testament provides mechanisms to prevent this happening: pawned tools and clothes had to be given back, slaves had to be freed and land returned after a set period, the charging of interest was forbidden, and so on. Our inheritance, income and capital gains taxes continue this ancient and wise tradition. But we need always to be vigilant: money has a way of beguiling its possessors into finding, and even justifying, ways round such safeguards, now no less than in ancient times.
So let me suggest that we begin routinely to use in our intercessions some such prayer as this: ‘We pray for the very wealthy in our society. We pray that they may come to see that great and growing wealth brings relatively little happiness, compromises human relationships, and takes attention away from what is truly enriching in life. We pray that they will find courage to forsake the pursuit of great wealth. We pray also that they will be able to dispose of their excess wealth in ways of that will bring relief and joy both to them and to others.’ I would certainly say ‘Amen’ to that.