by Ross Bishop
Concern for the effect of money on people has been a subject of considerable interest by every major religion. There are over 2,000 Biblical references to wealth, and half of the parables Jesus taught from involved money or possessions. The Bible, the Jewish Tanakh, The Koran, the Buddha’s Sutras and the Hindu Vedas are consistent in the view that money, in and of itself, is not harmful; but that what it does to people often is.
There is nothing inherently evil about owning the things we need. However, every faith recognizes that the seductive power of money is so great that the “love” of money is considered to be the root of evil. I have always found it ironic that American currency carries the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Perhaps we should view it as a warning.
In both Jewish and Islamic teaching, wealth is not the purpose of life, it is a means to create a peaceful home with happy children and guests at the table. Money allows the successful person to share with the community and to play a part in the well being of all.
Many passages of Buddhist scriptures advise people to seek wealth in righteous ways. In Buddhism, wealth is neither praised nor reproved. Buddhists are concerned with how wealth is accumulated and used. Wealth is blameless if it is rightfully obtained, without hurting others, i.e., without violence, stealing, lying or deception. This is Right Livelihood and it is one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Dishonest ways of seeking fortunes, however, are strongly discouraged as they create undesirable consequences both to the individual and to society. Equally denounced is the person who, having earned wealth, becomes a slave to it and creates suffering as a result. It is of no benefit, according to the Buddha, to be unreasonably closefisted and selfish, and not to make use of one’s wealth for the benefit and well-being of oneself and others.
Judaism did not share the aristocratic disdain for work of the Greeks or the tendency to other-worldliness often found in early Christianity. Judaism saw work as a virtue and private property as a precondition of individual liberty. It saw prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, and work as man’s “partnership with God in the work of creation.” A wealthy person is considered to be blessed and God’s custodian and is expected to use their wealth to benefit the poor.
In Islam, wealth is both created and given by Allah, and therefore it belongs to him. It is given to people so that they can use it to fulfill Allah’s will. Muslims believe that all Muslims are equal in the eyes of Allah, and so it is their duty not only as Muslims but as human beings, to help those in need.
Similar to Buddhism, in Islamic teaching the intention with which one creates wealth is paramount. Wealth must also be earned in an Islamically permissible way, which excludes interest based businesses, because interest money goes from the poor to the rich, making the rich even richer, which is contrary to Allah’s will. Therefore businesses such as banking or credit cards that depend on interest, in addition to inherently immoral business such as gambling, liquor, prostitution, stock trading and insurance are forbidden.*
The Old Testament records a number of people whom God blessed with riches, from Abraham (Gen. 13:2) to King Solomon (I Chron. 1:11-12) who were not chastened for their wealth. This is because these people treated others justly. God is not concerned about wealth per. se, but whether we remain just and righteous. God urges us to make His teachings central to everything we do, especially when it comes to money. Christ taught that living in the service of God and serving wealth are not compatible:
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. . . For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:24-25, 31-33)
When we strive to collect wealth or possessions beyond our need, we abandon our spiritual precepts. In order to gain wealth, we most often neglect our duty to God, to our families, and to humankind. The accumulation of wealth invariably leads to arrogance. And, people with money can mistakenly believe that they have no need for God or that they have control over their own destinies. Jesus taught:
. . .Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19.)
The Apostle Paul wrote:
People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1 Timothy 6:9-11)
Jesus also observed, ”Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. . . 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.” (Matt.19:23.) On another occasion He said, ”What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)
Jesus flatly rejected the idea that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty was God’s punishment for sin. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man ended up in hell at least partly because of his hard-heartedness toward the beggar Lazarus. His great wealth was obviously not a sign of God’s favor. The beggar Lazarus ended up in heaven although he was about as impoverished as a person could be. His poverty was obviously not a sign of sinfulness or folly.
It seems that there is an inevitable conflict between our earthly desires and our spiritual integrity, especially when it comes to money and possessions. When I moved from Virginia last summer, it took three of us a day and a half to load a large truck. I don’t need all that stuff! The tragedy is that the resources used to produce the things I don’t need could have been put to better use helping families in Guatemala or children in Africa.
In his most famous sermon, Jesus proposes a totally different way of life. He exalts and blesses poverty, meekness, mercy, purity and humility. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and ”Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth” (Luke 6:17-49) and (Matt. 16:19-20) **
Jesus’ point was that only through living as God taught can happiness come to us. His and Buddha’s teachings show us what true happiness is, and how we can achieve it, but people are frequently disconcerted by the admittedly startling contrast between their present lives and the ideal. They fear what they perceive as the tribulation that living from Christ’s teachings brings with it, and yet they are attracted to the genuine happiness He promises.
It was the desire to find simple happiness that moved people like St. Francis, Gandhi and Mother Theresa to eschew the affluent lifestyle that could have easily been theirs. In the midst of poverty, of pain and a sense of having been forsaken, the true servant of God can say with Saint Paul, “My joy overflows in the midst of all my tribulations.”
If we move our attention to the latter part of the17th century, merchants in the Italian city states, chafing under Church imposed limitations (especially regarding interest on loans), rebelled from Church control and began to do business unrestricted by theological doctrine. This idea was exported to the rest of Europe and eventually became the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.
For all its many benefits, The Age of Enterprise opened the floodgates of greed, and obliterated thousands of years of spiritual teachings regarding the accumulation of wealth. Capitalism encouraged people to develop their own enterprises and seek wealth on a scale unprecedented in human history. In addition, the Protestant work ethic defined success as hard work and the accumulation of wealth. It was not long before the traditional religious concepts of stewardship and obligation to the less fortunate were tossed out the window. These were to be joined later by religion itself. It was the beginning of the age of “Look at what I can do!” capitalism.
The craving for wealth and possessions leads people to rationalize their avarice by closing their minds and hearts to the needs of others. In the process, they become like Scrooge: stingy, bitter, and isolated. The French, Russian and American Revolutions were all largely driven by the resistance to moneyed arrogance. The wealthy tend to forget that the titles, accolades and gold of this world although important, are also temporary.
The pursuit of wealth leads people into all sorts of temptations. They will cheat on taxes, move businesses overseas, take advantage of customers and workers, produce shoddy products, attempt to sidestep environmental and safety regulations, corrupt the legislative process or buy off regulators.
It was only a short jump from the early robber barons to our own age and the creation of entire empires of financial deceit such as ENRON, Reliant Energy, Lehman Brothers, Global Crossing, Halliburton, Health South, Refco, Tyco, WellPoint, Merk, Northrop, Gulf Oil, World Com, AIG, Countrywide, Pfizer and Goldman Sachs, to name just a few. It is probably not possible to put the greed genie back into the bottle. And what that means is that it is almost certain that today’s age of unrestrained greed will eventually bring our society down, as it almost did recently.
Humans naturally seek happiness, but blinded and deluded by passions, love of the world and the prospect of honors, riches, and pleasures, people end up seeking happiness where it cannot possibly exist. The mask of opulence is deceiving. We assume that the easy life is also a happy life, but tragically all too often, this proves not to be the case. How very often do we find people desperately unhappy, drug and alcohol addicted even though surrounded by wealth. As attractive as accumulated wealth seems, it comes at a considerable price. Everything that violates God’s laws always does. Dishonest or unethically gained wealth brings spiritual destruction to its possessor. It carries only anxiety and the fear of discovery – never peace of mind.
A simple life is not a guaranteed ticket either, because poverty does not guarantee humility and righteousness. Among the poor there is often resentment at the unfairness of their situation. But, a simple lifestyle does give one an enormously better chance at enlightenment.
In the Old Testament, the people of Sodom were the archetype of the evil community, primarily because of their selfish economic behavior. Their sin lay in their refusal to share their wealth with surrounding nations. WhatSodom, made it necessary for God to destroy Sodom was not just the selfishness of its citizens, but that this behavior had become an integral part of the communal culture, as it has today in our own.
If I were King of The World, I would insist that the following passage from Isaiah be read each day before sessions of Congress and at the beginning of each corporate board meeting:
He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil – this is the man who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. His bread will be supplied, and water will not fail him.(Isaiah 33:15-16)
(copyright Blue Lotus Press, 2011)
* I think it is sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand Muslim disapproval of our culture. We live with the consequences of unregulated greed, such as Wall Street manipulation and corporate corruption, and accept these things as necessary evils to sustain our way of life. Muslims see this immorality and corruption creating arrogance and domineering attitudes that lead to things like the invasion of Iraq. The also see the impacts this has on the less fortunate in our society. They are troubled by all of this and by our tacit acceptance of it.
** Matthew disliked the esthetic lifestyle of poverty, and so, when he wrote down Christ’s words he did a little editing. Christ had blessed the poor, Matthew blessed those who were “poor in spirit.” His gospel was written very compellingly and the concept of spiritual poverty appealed to churchmen and the wealthy alike, so that over the years Matthew’s version has been given prominence over Luke’s more accurate accounting.