News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: How Many Rich Fit Through a Needle Eye?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How Many Rich Fit Through a Needle Eye?

While it seems that religion is once again about to play a role in the upcoming US election, little is being said on left or right about the rich. While it's no doubt true that little headway will be made by politicians attacking the very notion of wealth, you'd think the religious voices on either side might at least raise the question about how wealth and its pursuit play a role in creating and sustaining injustice. But is wealth itself a sin? That's a question that historian James Crossley says Jesus understood by his notion of the law. ...

Writing about his recent book at his blog, Crossley sums up:

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also stands firmly in the tradition of re-interpreting reward theology and as ever it is done in terms of law observance. The rich man does NOT go to fire because he has mistreated the poor; no, he goes because he is rich. That simple. So Lazarus has a happy ending because he is poor. The conclusion to the parable is not added in light of Christian preaching on the resurrection, as is often argued, for the simple reason that Lazarus is the one who is to be sent back and is better read in the tradition of sending someone back from the afterlife to warn the living. And note the reference to Moses and repentance.

What these and other traditions show is that the repentance of the rich is a theme of Jesus’ teaching. They must repent, give up their wealth (or part of it) or else suffer. When Jesus criticizes those who worry about food and clothes, he is following a tradition of criticizing the behavior of the rich.

This line of thought is also a part of Jesus’ actions in the Temple. The economic element in Jesus protest is well established (as I’ve argued elsewhere) but I now add another element, namely the idea that idolatry is a part of Jesus’ polemic. In other words, there is a tradition, I think, that remembers Jesus as one who accused the Temple authorities of idolatry. Of course they would have disagreed but in many ways that is irrelevant. Jesus may have been arguing that wealth led to what he regarded as the sin of idolatry.
Don't hold your breath for politicians of either party, or their religious apologists, to undertake to ask this question soon. Indeed, it's doubtful that a mainstream church of either denomination will take up this view of sin soon.

Indeed, the sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley, while pinpointing the issue as one of paramount importance, appears to believe that the American religion must find an adequate ethic that speaks to the great prosperity in the US. Now Greeley is no mealy-mouthed gospel of wealth promoter. His own sympathies lie with creating an environment in which a balance is maintained between addressing social inequality and the ability to give the movers and shakers in society an incentive to continue to not only generate wealth but to do so within an ethical framework. yet, the Thomist background of his education shows through in his desire to maintain that Aristotelian balance that always seems to tilt in favor of those with power.

In my own work, I have increasingly become aware that there's much to the notion that capitalism breeds a world view that is inherently and ineradicably disposed to creating injustice and social inequality. These are of such a nature that they threaten the very possibility of an ethics, not to mention, a spiritual awareness of anything above and beyond wealth.

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