“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 19:24). This comment came on the heels of his conversation with the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully, deciding he could not follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms.
There is a lot more going on in this story than the usual morality tale we get about wealth and the Christian life. First, the disciples were shocked, perhaps because they associated wealth with divine blessing (as some of the Proverbs suggest) and here Jesus is turning that belief on its head: wealth is a burden, a temptation, maybe a curse, not necessarily a sign of divine favor.
So, in a strange mental reversal, this saying of Jesus actually prompts me to recognize my bigotry about the wealthy. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am worried about how we United Methodists talk and think almost entirely in categories. Not just us United Methodists, of course, have this problem, but this is a family squabble I’m trying to have. I complained that categories tell us not much about each other. Now it’s time for me to admit my own use of categories.
As I mentioned, I grew up poor and, try as I might, I feel a little unsteady and self-conscious around wealthy people. I feel that dirt under my fingernails feeling, like maybe one of “them” is looking at me as if I don’t belong, as if I’m not quite as good as… If I don’t watch my soul, that feeling of unease can turn to resentment. I’m ashamed of it.
Resentment is a feeling people seem to have in abundance these days. Just think about how we talk about “the 1%.” As if somehow they have money that really belongs to us; as if they have stolen it from us.
Therefore, to complicate things, let’s go for a little cyber ride. A Wall Street Journal blog from June 2011 tells us that we have a record number of millionaires (based on net worth) in the USA (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2011/06/22/u-s-has-record-number-of-millionaires). Hah! Just as we suspected. More telling, in 2011, the number of billionaires was on the rise, as well.
But then, a year later we have this article from CNN, reporting that the net value of millionaires has been declining (http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/01/news/economy/american-millionaires/index.htm). Likewise, this year (2012) the number of actual millionaires has declined in the USA (http://moneyland.time.com/2012/06/05/number-of-millionaires-in-u-s-decreases-but-spikes-worldwide). Worldwide the rich are getting richer. But not that many and even among the wealthy, some are losing.
For starters, then, I must keep in mind that not all that many people inhabit the category “wealthy.” Closer to home, I have to admit that the comfortable household income my wife and I now enjoy – though numerically far distant from the millionaire category – puts me materially much closer to “wealthy” than I’d ever like to admit. I therefore have absolutely no right somehow to make “the wealthy” culpable in a way that I am not. How do you spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?
Now, anyone with a net worth of million dollars or more obviously has many more options than most people, so we don’t have to worry too much about them. Again, my point is not at all to justify getting rich. I’m trying to think about how my lumping people into a category – “the rich” – does no one any good. Hence, these articles loosen up my prejudice…a little.
Now, let’s move somewhat toward the other end of things. Consider this article from Time, “Do We Need $75,000 to be Happy?” (Meaning $75,00 for a yearly income.) (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html). According to this story, $75,000 buys a degree of well being that we associate with happiness. Once a person gets to the $75,000 threshold, that feeling of financial stress dissipates and a sense of stability and well being ensues. It does not mean that people falling below this amount are sad. It just means that what we call “happiness” has a quantitative reference point.
That’s quite a gap – between a net worth of a million and making $75,000 a year. It turns out, piling up mountains of money does not add to one’s happiness.
So, in a way that I think we do not often consider, Jesus tells us much more about being wealthy in this parable than typically we notice. The non-wealthy should not resent the wealthy. And the wealthy should pay attention to what wealth might do to them.
I’m as close to being a bigot when it comes to the way I think about the wealthy as when I think about anything. And perhaps strangely, it is this very saying of Jesus that helps me to notice this my flaw.