Tintoretto, Nativity

192. Is wealth intrinsically evil?

Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. [Ps. 113.2, NRSV]

The Death of Ananias, Raphael (1515).

A few people have asked over a cup of coffee whether the New Testament condemns wealth as being “intrinsically evil”.

The short answer is, neither the New Testament nor the writings of early Christians support the idea that material wealth is intrinsically evil. There is a vast difference between warning of a moral danger when one possesses great personal wealth and condemning wealth as an intrinsic evil.

Luke is the Gospel with the harshest words for the rich and yet, in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), not only did Jesus not condemn his wealth, but actually said to him after he had pledged to give half his wealth to the poor and restore fourfold anyone he had defrauded: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

It is erroneous to take the episode of the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23) as a proof text for the position that Jesus dismisses wealth as evil. Riches that are honestly procured are essentially benign and, when well-used, especially in aid of the Poor, are positively good. What Jesus is fundamentally teaching in this encounter is the right attitude towards riches. When wealth is hoarded and kept exclusively for oneself, it tends to act as the layer of silver in a mirror, allowing one to see oneself, but preventing one from seeing the needs of others. One cannot possibly expect such an attitude to qualify one for happiness and eternal life.

Similar caution must be taken when reading passages in the New Testament where attitudes are condemned and not the wealth itself. Take, for example,  the troubling story of Ananias and Sapphira in which the couple were seemingly struck down dead for “lying to God” after making a  false report on the proceeds from the sale of a piece of property and kept back some. The proper reading of the passage ought to be that the couple met with their premature and terrible end not because they had kept something for themselves, which was their right, but because they falsely claimed they had given everything. This reading resonates with what Peter said to Ananias:

  • “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)

The Apostle Paul was equally clear on this. Though he claimed preachers of the Good News have a right to be financially supported, he worked as a tentmaker and told his new converts in Corinth, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23). And to the Thessalonians he famously said, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

It is entirely wrong to suggest that St James was condemning riches when he wrote:

  • Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the honorable name which was invoked over you? [James 2:6-7].

What St James was hitting at was the oppressive attitude of those among the rich who cared naught for their neighbours. In like manner, he took to task those employers who “laid up treasures”, fraudulently keeping back the wages of labourers whose cries have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts [James 5:4].

Amongst the early Christian writings, the first century Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, exhorted believers to share their possessions and not to turn away anyone who was in want. It did not by any means condemn possessions; rather, it presumed that Christians would have wealth from which they could give generously and provide for others who were in need.

Around the third century, the Desert Fathers lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt. They were early Christians (hermitsascetics, and monks) amongst whom were Abba Theodore whose teaching, as recorded in the Conferences of St. John Cassian, had this to say: “Altogether there are three kinds of things in the world; viz., good, bad, and indifferent.” Virtue was for him the only true good, whereas sin was the only true evil. “But those things are indifferent,” he taught, “which can be appropriated to either side according to the fancy or wish of their owner, as for instance riches.”

Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the original gift of the earth to the whole of humankind, teaching that the “goods of creation are destined for the whole human race”. This teaching balances two objectives in the 7th Commandment. For the sake of the common good, the Commandment “requires respect for the universal destination of goods” on the one hand, and “respect for the right to private property” on the other. “Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity” [CCC, 2402-2403]. The commandment, it insists, “enjoins the practice of justice and charity in the administration of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor” [CCC, 2451].

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, January 2018. All rights reserved.

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