The Word Engaged
Problems with Corporate Wealth
“The love of money is the root of all evils.”
What is the “Great Abyss” between Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in the bed of flames? What events caused the chasm?
The story Jesus told the Pharisees is well known. A rich person, traditionally called Dives (from the Latin word for “rich”), having lived in opulence all his earthly days, made for himself a destiny of torment. The beggar Lazarus, having longed for the scraps of the rich, his sores licked by dogs, finds consolation. When Dives pleads that further warning be given his brothers, Abraham says only: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.”
The chasm is of their own making. The Diveses of the world refuse to listen to the revelations of God, just as they refuse to hear the cry of the poor. Wealth and privilege have created an unbridgeable gap. They just do not need God. They certainly do not need the poor.
Even many Catholics, especially the wealthy and powerful, ignore or dismiss the consistent teachings of this pope whenever he talks about money.
And we, this Judeo-Christian nation, who have read Moses’ law, who have heard the prophets, and received the good news of Jesus—what might this parable say to us? Have we created an abyss between ourselves and the Lazaruses of the world? Are we guilty of the crimes that Amos attributed to his own people: self-indulgence, frivolous distraction, willful ignorance, and cruel neglect of the poor?
Do we not close our minds to anything that challenges our way of life?
We hate to be reminded of the idiocy of our practices: rewarding our entertainers with lavish bounty while resenting the person on welfare, giving golden parachutes to failed CEOs and nothing to workers laid off as their companies downsize or relocate to more profitable locales.
The corporate head of Gap and Banana Republic make at least a cool $2 million each year. A woman in El Salvador who makes his clothes for us to wear made 56 cents an hour.
And now, with our great free market, advertisements in industry trade magazines brag that we can hire seamstresses for 33 cents an hour. U.S. workers are abandoned while Third-World workers are exploited.
Is there something for Amos to chew on here? A prophetic voice of our own time seems to think so and has written about the immoral practices of untrammeled capitalism. But when he defended the primacy of labor in his encyclical Laborem Rem Exercens (1981), Pope John Paul II was derided by a columnist in Fortune magazine for being “wedded to socialist economics and increasingly a sucker for third world anti-imperialist rhetoric.”
Even many Catholics, especially the wealthy and powerful, ignore or dismiss the consistent teachings of this pope whenever he talks about money. They see him as a benighted Pole who failed to understand the sanctifying grace of material success.
But John Paul II saw a terrible abyss separating wealth from poverty, a chasm that bodes ill for the poor in this world and for the privileged when they face the next.
It was in North America, at a Mass in Edmonton, Ontario, that the pope’s homily on Christ’s last judgment reminded us of the fate of Lazarus and Dives:
In the light of Christ’s words, the poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations—poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights—will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others. (1984)
Needless to say, these words were no more welcomed than the Ten Commandments, the prophecy of Amos, and the parables of one who would “rise from the dead.”
These interventions from God are not made merely to make us feel guilty. They are meant to empower and free us.
If we open our eyes to the Word of God and unstop our ears to hear the cry of the poor, we will not automatically endorse some political or economic policy. But we will insist that any politician or party must welcome and care for Lazarus. We must do this for the sake of Lazarus. We must do it for our own sake.
Paul’s First Letter to Timothy reveals the kind of persons we might be: people of integrity, kindness, piety, steadfastness, and love, people who fight the good fight of faith, people of true nobility.
This passage in 1 Tim 6, however, is framed by two warnings. It is prefaced by Paul’s remark that, if we long to be rich, we will become trapped into dangerous ambitions that plunge us into ruin. The way of Christian nobility, however, is a life of generosity.
Warn those who are rich in this world’s goods that they are not to look down on other people and not to set their hopes on money, which is untrustworthy, but on God, who, out of his riches, gives us all that we need for our happiness.
Tell them that they are to do good, and be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share.
This is the way they can save up true capital for the future if they want to make sure of the only life that is real.
I did not dream up that passage to make anyone feel bad. Paul wrote it to help us find joy.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University