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Editor’s Note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from Reverend Robert Sirico’s book The parabola economy, which is now available for pre-order. The forthcoming book unveils the enduring financial and moral insights of biblical parables.
Each of the synoptic gospels preserves the memory of an occasion when a wealthy young man (or “ruler”) approached Jesus for spiritual direction. The potential disciple apparently has a deep desire to live righteously. He asks, “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
After reminding the young man of the commandments and making sure he kept them all his life, Jesus seems to read the man’s heart. He calls him to something even deeper than all his previous successes and riches: “Then Jesus, seeing him, loved him, and said to him: One thing you lack: go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
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He then sends him the same invitation he offered to Pierre and André: “Follow me”. I joked that if the man had answered yes, we could have had a Thirteenth Apostle.
This encounter paves the way for Jesus’ teaching on the radical nature and cost of discipleship. It is here that the famous phrase so often recounted in discussions of wealth and economic success arises: “How difficult it is for those who trust in wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 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.” This vivid metaphor, which comes in the middle of the narrative, is perhaps his part most memorable.
Jesus’ words are often seen as a denunciation of wealth or an indication that wealth is incompatible with discipleship. Oddly enough, people rarely remember the full instruction of Jesus. Indeed, the young man is first told that he must go into business!
Jesus said: “[G]O your way, sell all you have and give it to the poor. The rich young man is not told to destroy his possessions or simply give away everything he has. Yet that is how most people remember this passage. It will come, of course, but it is first a question of selling all one’s goods, of liquidating one’s possessions. To “liquidate” one’s property is to make it more fluid (as the word suggests), that is, usable in a way it was not before.
When we sell something, we engage in an exchange of values. If this man hopes to help as much as possible the poor to whom the proceeds of the sale will eventually be given, he is likely to seek a good price for his property. The eventual benefit to those in need would be the result of his profit-making abilities, and this very act of business or exchange would become the means by which he would prove himself faithful to the command of Jesus. His wealth would be a tool, a tool that cannot be inherently evil, because Jesus commanded him to use it. And the same is true not only of his wealth, but of his involvement in the commercial exchange: the profit he would make from the sale would become the means of benefiting others.
Of course, none of this ever happened. The man gave up and went away sad “because he had great possessions”. Jesus sums up the meeting with a sober warning about the price to pay to become a disciple: “My children, how difficult it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! Discipleship is indeed arduous, if taken seriously, because it will always require a sacrifice, a cross to bear. And crosses come in different shapes and sizes, depending on what is most important to each person.
Now here is one of the most memorable metaphors in the entire Bible: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. You can imagine how many times I get asked about this verse. The last line of this pericope, on the other hand – the one that provides the key to understanding the whole encounter – is almost never recalled.
Now stop for a moment without reading any further, and see if you remember what it is about: What is the moral of this story, Jesus tells us? Jesus’ own disciples are puzzled: “And they marveled beyond measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?
Now comes the gravamen. “For men it is impossible, but not for God: for with God everything is possible.” Humanity, with all of its abilities and accomplishments, cannot buy an eternal relationship with God. The rich young man (and through him, each of us) learns an essential lesson: wealth cannot be the goal of our lives.
We must not “trust riches”. The young man is called upon to use his talents, that is to say to go into business, but with a higher objective than the net result. He and we must see wealth not as an end, but as a means to a greater end: discipleship. How can this passage be interpreted to say that commerce, or the wealth it produces, is somehow inherently evil when Jesus clearly commands it?
The big picture came to me in seminary, on my first day in a moral theology course. The professor began the lesson with a challenging question: “Do you believe that studying morality makes you a more moral person?” A debate ensues, the pros and cons. Ultimately, I concluded that the study of moral theology could be dangerous – as I gained a greater awareness of my moral responsibilities, my obligation to live the moral law was also increased.
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While invincible ignorance can make us pass, knowledge increases obligation. Wealth too. And yet you can read a theologian asserting in a leading “conservative” newspaper that “the New Testament deals with such [enormous] wealth not only as a spiritual danger, and not only as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil.”
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You would think theologians, Bible scholars, and clergy would know better. But this misunderstanding is all too common. A true understanding of what wealth is might dispel the fog somewhat, though the challenge of how faithful believers should use abundant resources would remain. Isn’t wealth simply the set of resources or opportunities that people have at their disposal? As these resources and opportunities increase, so does the concomitant responsibility that these opportunities are used correctly, morally and responsibly… “For to whom much is given, much will be demanded.”
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