The Word Encountered
Perils of Wealth
“Come now, you rich.” (Jas 5:1)
Prophets announce future promise. They also unmask idols of the present. This is why they are resented, those “prophets of doom,” “disgruntled grouchers spouting jeremiads.” They sign up travelers for endless guilt trips. They rant uninvited and out of turn.
And so Joshua asked Moses to stop two upstarts from prophesying in the camp. These prophets had not been legitimized or approved. But Moses said: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all.”
We usually like prophets when they say what we want to hear. They are especially welcome if they heap indictments on our enemies. When they get close to home, it is a different matter.
A case in point: today’s reading from the Letter of James. Has a wealthy parish ever heard the likes of it? Has a bishop ever dared to utter it without fear of being run out of town? “You rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted, your fine wardrobe has grown moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion shall be a testimony against you. ... You live in wanton luxury on the earth; you fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter.”
Most priests and bishops know better than to try to get away with such stuff. If words like these are ever spoken, they are heard in the assemblies of the oppressed and poor—tirades against the privileged which the privileged, unless they read liberation theology, rarely encounter.
The problem of riches is one of the great secrets in capitalist Christianity. The truth would be too hard to bear. Popes and bishops might he padded in comfort, surrounded by silver and gold. And we ourselves are probably members of the wealthiest church in the most dazzling culture of the world.
Our television evangelizers are so intent on our money, they dare not condemn it. In fact, if you spend a month of Sundays listening to the preachers, it would seem as if Jesus never said a mumblin’ word about money. Proclaimers of the gospel are easily trapped. As one very wealthy man once said to me: “You better not love the poor too much. If you do, who’s going to give you the money to keep going?”
Money may be our biggest difficulty. Marx called it our “jealous god,” who can tolerate no other deity. “Only in money will my soul be at rest, in cash is my hope and salvation. It alone is my rock of safety, my stronghold, my glory.”
Money has immense power. It is almost sacramental. It gets us acceptance into the real world. It seems to clean the most vile acts. The very possession of it sanitizes us. The most loathsome behaviors are rendered “cool,” if not splendid. Whether we are murderers, usurers, abusers of women and children, dope pushers, money can still get us limousines and drivers. No matter what we have done, hangers-on will mouth their “yes” to us, hoping for a tip, a nod of beneficence. It provides entry into the most select of clubs. It buys life and death, bodies and body parts. It purchases persons.
I complained once, while teaching at a university in New York, about Indecent Proposal (a movie wherein Robert Redford buys from a husband a night of sex with his wife for a million dollars). A savvy student tried to calm me down. “Relax. A million dollars? Most people would have sex with anyone for that, much less with Robert Redford in a snazzy Las Vegas hotel.”
Maybe we should know better than to challenge the god-awful glory of the dollar. Maybe we should quietly ignore the seduction of riches. It is all too close and painful to us. It may even cause us shame. It is less troubling to join, surreptitiously, the conspiracy of silence.
And yet, what if our capitulation to the ultimate reality of money ties a millstone around our necks? What if our unwillingness to challenge its power dashes the deepest hopes of our young and “leads them astray”?
Jesus said some terrible words: “If your hand is your difficulty, cut it off.” Well, what is our difficulty? What might be that thing we cling to more steadfastly even than our faith? Some of us might, indeed, be willing to cut off our hands for something we utterly believe in. But would it be for the sake of the kingdom that Jesus spoke of? Or only a million dollars?
Would that all Christ’s followers were prophets, I faintly hope, in the words of Moses. Perhaps the moral bankruptcy of a capitalism which allows no moral or spiritual conviction to veto it would finally he unmasked for the pseudogospel it is.
If we contemplate such prophecy, let us prepare for resistance and, quite possibly, our own embarrassment. By all accounts we will be known as troublemakers and malcontents. Maybe so. But our young might imagine another world than the one where only “money talks.”
They might imagine hope.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University