Category Archives: economics

Through the Needle’s Eye: A Reflection on the Narrative of the “Wealthy Righteous”

“Teacher,” the rich man declared to Jesus, “I have kept all these commandments of God since I was a boy!”

Then, there is one thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

The disciples were amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

- Adapted from Mark 10 (NIV)

When you live in the wealthiest and most powerful society in the history of humanity, texts like this don’t sit well. Invariably, discussions about the text focus on whether Jesus’ command to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him is universal in nature: Did Jesus issue this command to this one person, in this one instance, or does it apply to everyone?

Such a question leaves those of us who are a part of comfortable, suburbanite-type families in a dilemma. To say that the passage applies only to this man seems to cheapen Jesus’ words. But if the command applies to us, then we must face the fact – like this man did – that we are spiritual failures.

No wonder that, for 40+ years, almost every discussion I’ve heard on this subject ends with a lot of head scratching and puzzlement. There seems to be no easy way out of this one. You walk away from it feeling either overly dismissive or hopelessly guilty.

But as I’ve thought about this passage recently, I have started to wonder if the discomfort we feel when encountering this passage is not the problem, but the point.

To illustrate, I need to begin by pointing to a part of this text that tends to get ignored in discussions about this text: the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ statement that it is “hard” for rich people to be saved.

Why would they think this way? I doubt they thought every rich person would make their way into God’s kingdom. However, some, like this person – who seemingly kept all God’s commandments from his youth – apparently struck them as being super-righteous. If they can’t make it, they later to say, who will?

I want to suggest that this perception – that there are certain wealthier people among us who are super-righteous – is perfectly understandable, even in our own cultural context. In fact, I think that both the comfortable suburbanites such as myself and the marginalized of our society, both struggle with this narrative of “wealthy righteousness,” and that it explains a lot of why churches struggle to keep people who are poor, addicted, or divorced within their walls.

More specifically, I want to suggest that one of the many advantages of wealth is that it allows people to buy their way out of sin.

I know that statement may sound a little strange. “What do you mean? Money can’t help you avoid sin, can it?” you may ask. In some cases, I think so – particularly when it comes to the kind-of sin that is blatant and obvious.

Just stay with me for a minute, and consider this: When you have plenty of money and food, it is unlikely that you will be tempted to engage in prostitution, or to be dishonest with someone, or to steal. In our culture, at least one member of your family probably doesn’t work long, hard hours – or cover the night shift to make ends meet – so its possible to spend a lot of time with your kids, training them to be good and “proper.” Stable, white collar labor and financial security help you to avoid a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that is prevalent among the poor, and it means much less stress on family relationships. As such, families are much more likely to stay together, and they are much more likely to give the appearance of something that is healthy. Also, less stress with respect to the basic necessities of life means its less likely you’ll try to escape your troubles through alcohol or substance addiction.

And, yes, I know it isn’t quite that simple. Wealthy people do have their own set of temptations and sins. But, for the most part, the more obvious “vices” are much milder, and much less impactful on their lives. The ability to own their own homes, work in their own offices, and move about independently also makes it much easier to conceal what problems they do have.

Now, think about how the “wealthy righteous” lifestyle looks to the lower-middle income, white male who moves from job-to-job doing blue collar labor, and who goes through long periods of unemployment. He has probably never had enough income security to take a wife, and if he did have one, there is a good chance the family broke up during a period of unemployment. He has probably taken up smoking or drinking, as they provide one of the few forms of escape that he can afford. When he looks at the large, extravagantly decorated churches in his town, and at the families that pile out of minivans in their parking lots, cleanly dressed and well groomed, the first thought that is going to enter his mind is this: “they are too good for me.”

He may think this defiantly, or resentfully, suspecting on some level that it isn’t really true. He still has some pride, after all. But in truth, he cannot afford the lifestyle that is necessary to put on a proper façade of righteousness. His “sin” is obvious for all to see.

It’s the same story for the single mom who gets off her shift at 6:00 am on Sunday. Because of her lifestyle, she doesn’t have the luxury of a good night’s sleep before Sunday morning church, and since she hasn’t done a load of wash in a week, she can’t even send her kids in clean clothes. She won’t be there. Neither will the kid who spends most of his life on the streets and at the local tattoo place because the company he finds there is a lot better than what he experiences in his abusive home. Or the stripper who doesn’t know any other way to make enough money to pay the rent.

When you have a little spare cash and a little free time and space, its easy to make yourself look good. In fact, in some more obvious ways, its easier to be good.

Which brings me to my point about the rich man in this text: What if Jesus’ command in this instance was not made because there is some inherent merit in selling everything you have, but to make it abundantly clear to the peasants and fisherman who were looking on that he, too, is a sinner? What if Jesus’ objective is to expose the disturbing reality of wealth-addiction that rests behind his righteous façade?

Only seconds earlier, he was bragging about all the commandments that he had kept throughout his life. He was, in effect, like the well-dressed family getting out of the minivan at church: he looks awfully righteous from a distance. Yet now, as he walked away sadly, it was obvious that he could not bring himself to being fully obedient. He was just like the rest of them.

No. Not just like the rest of them. Worse than the rest of them. His problem is so great, Jesus goes on to say, that it is akin to getting a large, stubborn beast through an impossibly small hole.

Even Jesus realized that he had just asked this man to do the impossible.

That is why I say that our discomfort in reading this passage is not a problem of interpretation, but the entire point of the passage: we know full well that we, like him, would never do what Jesus asked of him. It strips strips our suburbanite sheen and exposes us for who we really are.

And if we are willing to acknowledge that, it suddenly becomes possible for us to come alongside the alcoholics and strippers and single moms who never take their kids to church, and the young adults with tattoos who smell of marijuana smoke and pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

That is why this story ends with good news. The poor and hungry are indeed blessed by God as Jesus often taught, but guess what? The journey through the needle’s eye is not impossible where God is concerned. It may be difficult, it may be painful (the Camel must go “strand by bloody strand” C.S. Lewis once wrote). But it can happen.

Yes, as strange as it may sound, God can even save those wealthy people who go to church on Sunday mornings.

The Insanity of CEO Pay

I still can’t get my mind wrapped around this.

This article lists the top 20 CEOs by compensation during the year 2009. In many cases, most of their compensation comes from stock and options rather than base salary. Several of the companies that are run by this elite group actually lost money during the same year. In other words, they were rewarded beyond their base salary, even though their companies were not profitable.

Why does this happen? In some cases, the answer is very simple. The stock value of the companies actually increased while the company was losing money, and the “bonus” resulted from the CEOs in question cashing in on their stock options. On paper, I suppose, we could say that the CEO is being rewarded for increasing the stock value, i.e., the perception that the company will make money in the future, even though there were no immediate results.

This is really weird to me, but I think it is a sign of the times.

In theory, corporations ought to work just like mom and pop businesses. When mom and pop open up a corner restaurant, they invest money into their business, hoping that they ultimately take in more money than they spend, thus making a profit. Corporations exist on a larger scale. They allow anyone with enough money to invest in a share of the corporation, making them part owners.

From time to time, as the corporation makes money, it pays out dividends to its shareholders in accordance with the number of shares that they possess. Thus, a profit can be made from the investment.

And that is, of course, how people think of the stock market. Right?

Wrong.

Since people can sell their shares in the company, they are often more concerned with the value of their shares than they are with the profit, if any, that it is making for them. And that value is based on the buyers’ perception of how profitable the company is likely to be in the future.

And therein lies the weirdness. We have a system that is deeply dependent on, that that rewards, perception of future value rather than immediate profitability. The old-school principle of maintaining a slow, steady stream of income for the benefit of the shareholders seems to be vanishing. Profitability isn’t enough, or even necessary. We need more. Michael Douglas’ character was right: Greed is good.

On an intuitive level, this seems to me to be a system that is great for those who participate (i.e, Wall Street types), but that is remarkably unsustainable. Infinite growth seems to be an impossibility.

In other words, eventually, Wall Street will hit the wall. Then what?

I’m not sure. But it seems to me that the first step is for all of us to begin to recognize just how crazy this system has become.

The Justice Project

justiceprojectcover[1] I’m about half-way through The Justice Project, a 2009 volume containing a collection of essays on the topic of justice within the context of Christianity. Thus far, I have been impressed by the depth of the analysis, as well as the variety of perspectives that have been brought to bear on this subject.

Today, for example, I read a Chapter by Joseph Myers on the contributions that political conservatives can make to the justice dialog (his emphasis is on the need to avoid dependency and co-dependency while also acting compassionately toward the poor). It is not often that a voice like Myers is invited to the table in connection with a discussion of this nature – and he has made an important contribution.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to post about some of the essays from the book, so stay tuned. And, in the meantime, if you have any interest/involvement at all in its subject-matter, this book is well worth your time and money.

Debt and Moral Obligation

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the concept of “strategic default” – a conscious decision to stop making payments on a debt. If you aren’t familiar with the debate, this article is a good place to start.

Here is the problem: there are a lot of homeowners who are victims of the housing crisis – they can’t sell their houses because the amount due on their mortgage is well in excess of the market value of the house. They could easily default on their mortgages and save money by renting much less expensive houses. However, many of them are continuing to pay their mortgages either (a) out of a fear of what default will do to their credit (often, a lot less than you would suspect) and/or (b) a sense of obligation. Thus, the question: should such people feel obligated, morally to keep paying their debts?

The picture is further muddied by the fact that many of the financial institutions who are owed money have themselves been the benefactors of massive Federal bailouts. If the mortgage company has been permitted to get out of its own financial bind, why shouldn’t the consumer as well?

What is the Christian response to this issue? A knee-jerk reaction might assert that debt is a moral obligation, which one must keep, if at all possible, but I’m not sure its that simple. Keep in mind that one of the central institutions in the Old Testament was the year of Jubilee, a periodic celebration in which people were released from various social and economic obligations. Jubilee is itself a recognition that the burden of our obligations can become too oppressive, and that some form of relief from those obligations is sometimes necessary.

I think it is generally important for people to keep their promises, and such promises include contracts that create indebtedness. However, if I were counseling someone on the issue of strategic default, I think I would be hesitant to say that defaulting is absolutely, always wrong.