Today’s first reading celebrates the superiority of wisdom above all things. As it happens, we have a precious nugget of wisdom in today’s gospel, in Jesus’ teaching, precisely, on the perils of wealth. Jesus’ words on this subject are harsh. They amount to this: “It is impossible for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This terrible news is really simply a confirmation of Jesus’ teachings elsewhere in the gospels: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”; “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.” Lk 24,25 Granted, this teaching loses some of its bite with the reassurance that follows immediately: “For humans (who are rich), it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” So God has a back-up plan for the wealthy: his mercy!
This is indeed reassuring and relieving, but Jesus’ words still retain much of their sting: “It is impossible for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” So how worried should we be? Not unduly worried, for the simple reason that not very many people here at St. Mary’s Parish are independently wealthy! We are all basically just middle-class people, obliged to work in order to earn a living for ourselves and for our families. That’s not the kind of wealth that Jesus is talking about as being incompatible with admission into the presence of God. So we’re okay.
There remain nonetheless two important considerations that we do well to retain from this gospel. The first is that Jesus’ warning about the danger of wealth is simply very sound. Those who “have it all”, as we say, who have lacked nothing in this life, those who have lived their entire life “filled”, will be hungry, will grieve and weep, not as divine punishment for having been extremely wealthy, but by way of natural consequence. They will weep because, in the words of Jesus, “they have received their consolation”. They have been satisfied. Because they were satisfied with the wealth they enjoyed, they didn’t seek for the only wealth that is forever: the wealth of knowing, and loving, and placing one’s hope in God for fullness of life. Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but there is a definite tendency at work in our world: the higher one’s quality of life, the lesser tends to be the appeal of our gospel on one’s heart. That’s just the way it is. People who aren’t hungry don’t search for food. Acknowledgement of this basic fact of the human condition presses us naturally, it seems to me, to a wholesome concern, and to a perhaps surprising but redeeming prayer: “Lord, please guard me from a wealth, a quality of life so great that I will lose all interest in you and in the gospel.” This, I believe, is a very wise prayer.
A second consideration: is there, then, really no redemption possible for the extremely wealthy, other than via God’s mercy? Actually, in the Church’s reckoning, there has always been a possibility of redeeming behavior for the very wealthy. But the requirement is severe. The Church Fathers taught that the goods of the earth are intended for the benefit of all humankind. Therefore, withholding from those who are deprived, wealth of any kind, above and beyond what one needs in order to live and to live well, amounts to an injustice, and accordingly, for many Church Fathers, among them St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, almsgiving is not so much a matter of charity as of justice. Virtue then, for the very wealthy Christian, becomes simply a matter of distinguishing between “need” and “want”, and being very liberal in the giving of one’s goods above and beyond what is needed, to the poor. This too, is to me a very precious nugget of wisdom, not just for the extremely wealthy, but for anyone who is so blessed as to have more than they actually need. By the grace of God, may we all be inspired to see clearly the difference between the things that we need in order to live well, and the things that we want but clearly do not need. May we be inspired to share generously with those who are in need, the goods we possess that are above and beyond what we actually need.