It seems that as the gap between the very rich and everyone else grows, many of those who are wealthy have taken defensive positions that expose how out of touch they really are. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul has suggested that not only are the rich getting richer,“but the poor are getting richer even faster.” And, Rep. John Fleming recently stated that out of the $600,000 he might have left over of his $6.3 million, he may have $400,000 left after feeding his family, suggesting that it takes $200,000 to feed his family.
Moreover, many of the rich, and those Republican and Tea Party supporters of the wealthy, have developed a new code word to refer to those who have amassed a significant amount of wealth. Instead of calling them rich, we are now to refer to them as “job creators”. The problem with this is that they are not creating jobs, and the rhetoric coming forth from them reveals that they are indeed out of touch with the rest of Americans who are struggling to provide for their families on a lot less than $200,000.
But changing the way we refer to the rich by coining terms such as “job creators” and “investors” moves away from a critical understanding of the position of the rich as those who were very often under the scrutiny of many of Jesus’ harsh teachings about wealth. Of course, Jesus’ most familiar, and perhaps most critical statement about the rich illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).
Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.
First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.
Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.
Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule.
In Jesus’ mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice. He clearly believed that God was not on the side of the wealthy, but that God favored the poor.
One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.
What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself.
This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort. He is out of touch.
But there is something more that deserves our attention. We know that he is the only one in the parable, but we can infer from knowing that he is a wealthy man that he did not earn this wealth on his own. Who plows his fields? Who harvests his grain? Who will build his bigger barns? The workers for whom he has little concern, that’s who. They are the ones who really make this man wealthy.
Without those who plowed his fields, harvested his grain, and built his barns this rich man, this “job creator”, would have nothing. And yet, he has forgotten them. Though he plans to take life easy, to eat, drink, and be merry, he fails to remember that all this wealth was not earned by his hard work, but by those who worked for him.
The sad ending of Jesus’ parable about this rich landowner serves as a warning to those who accumulate wealth at the expense or in neglect of the poor: God will be your judge. The man’s life was demanded of him the very night he celebrates his good fortune. Was he condemned for his wealth? Yes, partly so. But more than any other reason, this man was condemned for his lack of concern for those hurting around him; the very people who helped him become rich.
In the current economic state that we are in, perhaps it is time for the rich to rethink their positions through which they defend their right to hold onto as much wealth as they desire. Perhaps they should rethink their status as those who have earned wealth by their hard work alone, for they have not, as Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the United States Senate has suggested.
But perhaps the greatest reason the rich should heed the words of Jesus about wealth, is that in doing so they will place themselves on the side of God, who wills economic justice for all. If they do not, then what we will find in the future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. And, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.