Friday, November 19, 2010

An Abomination in the Sight of God

Jesus said, “A servant cannot serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” some of the religious leaders. Some of the religious leaders, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Luke 16:13-15

As far as I can determine, this is the one and only time that Jesus calls something “an abomination in the sight of God.” The wealth and the power that accompanies it, which are so prized by human beings, is an abomination to God.


The Bible is a difficult book.

In the Second Letter to Timothy, the Apostle says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (II Timothy 6:10). The spiritual descendants of those who ridiculed Jesus in Luke’s story, are quick to point out that it is “the love of money,” rather than money itself, that leads to evil. But in his sermon on “The Danger of Riches,” John Wesley notes that if we have money, it is because we love it. Otherwise we would give it away. We may have less money than we want, but we never have more. If we have it, it is because we want to have it.

But money, as Wesley says in a sermon on “The Uses of Money,” “is an excellent gift of God.” Used rightly, it can be food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, rest for the traveler, support for the widow and the orphan. It can bring health to those who are sick, “it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death.”

In biblical economics, the problem is the disparity between rich and poor, and the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many. In the passage which follows the one quoted above, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in which the rich man is cast out from the sight of God simply because he has not share with the poor man, Lazarus.

Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in which he spoke of what he called “the rapacious income inequality” of the United States, and said that we were becoming a “Banana Republic.”

(If time travel were possible, I would like very much to be party to a conversation between Mr. Kristof and the late Mr. Wesley. The inevitable clashes between Kristof’s secular humanism and Wesley’s Christian piety would be punctuated by equally emphatic agreements on a host of social issues.)

In his latest column, Kristof apologizes for his banana republic comparison, which apparently offended many readers. It was unfair, he say, to the banana Republics.

He notes that in the 1940’s, more than 20% of all income went to the top 1%, and that approximately double the share of the wealthiest Americans. But we have now changed places. The top 1% in Argentina now has 15% of all income, while that same group in the United States now controls 24% of all income.

When we look at assets instead of income, the contrast between rich and poor is even greater. The richest 1% in the United States control 34% of all wealth. The bottom 90%, on the other hand, controls just 29%. Those are astonishing numbers. The top 1% has more wealth than the combined assets of the bottom 90%.

We have been redistributing income from the bottom (and the middle) to the top at an alarming rate. Some of this is due to global trends, but much of it (economists tell us) is due to policies and regulations that we have adopted. As the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer, social mobility has diminished. Our society does not have as much upward mobility as it did in the middle of the last century.

I tend to look at this through a biblical lens. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. Biblically, this is not what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like. There is a place, in biblical economics, for differences and disparities. Those who have more must take on more responsibility for the common good, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with some having more than others. Hard work, wisdom and creativity should be rewarded. The Bible supports a rational system of economic rewards. What the prophets, the Gospels, and the early church all opposed were large disparities between the rich and the poor, and the tendency to favor the rich at the expense of the poor.

But beyond the issues of biblical justice, there are basic questions of our common life. As we consider the various debates on tax cuts and unemployment benefits, and the broader questions of economic policy, it is useful to ask ourselves, “What kind of a country do we want to be?”

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