I’ve been disheartened, recently, by some conversations I’ve had (chiefly on social media) on the subject of wealth and income inequality, following some high profile stories on the subject. Oxfam, for example, recently published a shocking report, revealing that the 85 richest people on this planet have a combined wealth equal to the poorest 3,500,000,000 people on the planet.
In other words, for every $1 that the poorest half of the world has, the 85 wealthiest people have $41,176,470 apiece. (Of course, if they did have that dollar, the combined wealth of the 85 would be $144,117,647,058,820,000, far higher than their actual wealth, which means that the bottom 3.5 billion have less than a dollar each).
No one disagrees that there is radical disparity of wealth and income in the world, and in America. Where people tend to disagree is whether this is a problem, and, if so, what should be done about it. Regrettably, none of my recent conversations have gotten past that first question.
How Does Greed Come into Play?
What alarms me about this is the seeming inability of some people to see this issue in moral terms. It’s not for nothing that Paul declares that those who want to get rich open themselves to temptation; indeed, money, he says, “is the root of all kinds of evil” (see 1 Timothy 6:9-10). Greed, in other words, is still a sin.
Greed should be easy to recognize: it is the intense or selfish desire for money. Greed is conspicuous (or should be) because it is a desire that cannot truly be satisfied. A greedy person can only ever reply to the question, “How much?” with the answer, “More.” Ecclesiastes rightly describes this attitude: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
If greed were not a harmful thing, this wouldn’t be such a problem. Because greed is selfish, though, it leads to harm. In particular, greed often leads to the amassing of great personal wealth at the expense of those who are less fortunate.
Sometimes this means that wealth is gotten unscrupulously, through dishonest or abusive means. Other times it means that the wealthy person is just stingy, not meeting needs that he can (and should!).
What Did God Actually Want?
People often object that it’s wrong to force the rich to give away all their money. But that’s just a straw man; no one is suggesting this. God’s desire for the rich (as far as I can tell) isn’t that they should impoverish themselves.Greed should be easy to recognize: it is the intense or selfish desire for money. Click To Tweet
Rather, as far as I can tell, God’s desire is that the rich should recognize that they have far more than they actually need, and should use at least some part of that excess in order to benefit those in need.
Two examples will suffice. In Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts God’s people Israel to deal justly with the poor: “There should be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to occupy. … If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. … Give liberally, and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deuteronomy 15:4, 7-8, 10).
God’s intention for his people, then, was that they should prosper in the land, and in their prosperity ought to care for those who were in need. This spirit runs contrary to the spirit of tight-fisted greed so much in evidence today.
This spirit of generosity was expected of God’s people the church, as well. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute their possessions and goods, and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).This spirit of #generosity is expected of God’s people the #church Click To Tweet
Although it has been said that this was a sort of early communism, it is clear that believers continued to live in their own homes and hold private possessions. What is being described here, then, is the attitude of the believers and their approach to needs among them. The believers prioritized care for one another over the retention of their personal fortunes (a point reinforced by Acts 4.32-37).
As I said above, I’ve been unsettled by my recent conversations on this subject, in which greed has been defended, and even held out–perversely–as a sort of virtue.
The root of my disquiet is this: greed is still a sin, and it is nowhere more evident than when people amass great personal wealth and ignore the cries of the poor. This runs contrary to God’s desire for the use of money, and is therefore immoral.
My motive for saying so is not any commitment to a socialist or communist political agenda. It is rather to insist, with God, that to ignore the needs of the poor, even as one has the capability to meet them, is unjust, and sinful.