Wealth and Being Human

While many Americans assume that “pursuit of happiness” will involve some kind of prosperity or at least wealth sufficient to enable the pursuit of  happiness, Christians in antiquity did not assume that wealth is always identified with happiness or blessing from God.  In fact many Christian saints thought of wealth as a kind of Ouroboros, the snake consuming it’s own tail.  The pursuit of wealth can become all consuming, never satiating one’s greed but always enflaming it.  While some have good intentions about what they would do if they had a lot of money, sometimes the use of the money gets forgotten  as one pursues ever more of what one already has.  My father, a high school drop out and a factory worker, once told me that his observation in life was that no matter income level a person was at from the least paid janitor to the high paid executive, everyone seemed to imagine that if only they had 10% more income they would be satisfied.  But as he observed no matter how far up that income ladder someone moved, they continued to desire that 10% more.

 The New Testament does not present to us that more wealth would make a better world – increasing wealth does not get us closer to the kingdom of heaven or make it more possible to be a Christian.  In fact the New Testament shows Christ not just indifferent to wealth but even dubious of its goodness (Mark 4:18-19; Luke 18:24-25).  “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

So St. Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) teaches:

“Wealth is not evil in itself, as nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but men’s bondage to riches, lands, and possessions is evil; and the destructive passions that riches empower and invoke, such as adultery, gluttony, drunkenness, miserliness, boastfulness, self-praise, vanity, pride, scornfulness, and denigration of the poor, forgetfulness of God and so on ad infinitum, are evil. Few are there who have the strength to resist the temptation of riches and to be in control of their wealth, not becoming its servants and slaves. […]   God would be able, in the twinkling of an eye, to make all men equal in wealth, but that would be sheer folly. In that case, men would become totally independent of one another. Who would then be saved? How could anyone be saved? For men are saved through their dependence on one another. The rich depend on the poor, and the poor on the rich; the learned depend on the ignorant, and the ignorant on the learned; the healthy depend on the sick, and the sick on the healthy. Material sacrifice is repaid in spiritual currency. The spiritual sacrifice made by the learned is repaid in material currency by the ignorant. The physical service given by the healthy is repaid in spiritual currency by the sick, and vice versa: the spiritual service of the sick (that reminds men of God and of Judgement) is repaid by the physical service of the healthy.” (Homilies, pp 123-124)

No doubt many of us would be willing to risk being slaves to wealth.  And St. Nikolai’s logic might appear strange to us – God in his wisdom does not give wealth to everyone.  Why?   It is wealth inequality which teaches us to love and value others different from us.  humans need to have some sense of dependency on each other or they will treat all other life as not very valuable and may try to do away with others.  St. Nikolai’s logic is that a world in which everyone is rich would be a world in which no one would know how to love or show mercy on others.  We would have no need for others and they would have no need for us.  It would be the perfect world for attempting to destroy all those you don’t need – a world in which euthanasia and abortion abound.