Legitimate Wealth Can Still Be Harmful
Not all accumulation of wealth is a result of injustice. However, even when wealth is gained through legitimate means, it still has the potential to do great harm. There are many passages of Scripture that alert the reader to the truth that wealth is dangerous. Riches can cause all kinds of negative side effects:
Firstly, wealth can lead to pride and arrogance. Proverbs 28:11 notes, “The rich is wise in self-esteem, but an intelligent poor person sees through the pose.” It is easy for those with wealth to believe they have gained it solely through their own cleverness or hard work. Ezekiel warns the King of Tyre, “By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth” (Ezekiel 28:5).
Secondly, wealth frequently leads to self-sufficiency, complacency and a false sense of security. One extreme example of this is Ephraim’s boast in Hosea 12:8. “Ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself; in all of my gain no offense has been found in me that would be sin.” And the words of Hosea a chapter later are also very poignant—describing Israel’s abandonment of God—“When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud” (Hosea 13:6). Jesus also notes the danger of wealth lulling us into a false sense of security, in his parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). It is only too easy to think that we have no need of God when our bellies are full, life is good, and the future seems assured.
Thirdly, wealth can also dull our senses to the deep needs around us, draining us of compassion and mercy. Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Even though the poor man Lazarus lives in great distress at the rich man’s gate, the rich man is impervious to his plight, so consumed is he with his own lifestyle and consumption. Ironically, even in Hades, the rich man is obsessed with his own needs and still views Lazarus as nothing but a pawn.
Fourthly, and most seductive of all, is the lure riches have in capturing our hearts and dividing our loyalties. Here we see the Bible’s acknowledgment of the power that money wields. The Psalmist warns us of this when he writes, “If riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10b). This danger is also carefully spelled out for the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 8:12-17:
When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied…then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
These are sobering words. Perhaps this is why the writer of Proverbs 30 asks of God:
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)
The dangers of wealth are even more pronounced in the New Testament. Central to the attitude of Jesus is his statement:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24)
The word used here for wealth is mammon. Some translations, such as the NIV, capitalize this word to emphasise that Jesus is pitting one god against another. Both seek our allegiance and worship. Wealth is not neutral. It’s insatiable—once you have some of it, you seem to keep wanting more and more of it. No wonder Jesus commented to his disciples after his encounter with the rich young man:
Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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. (Matthew 19:23-24)
For Jesus then, wealth is a dangerous thing. It is like a stick of dynamite—having the potential to do much good, but also to cause a lot of damage. And the more you have, the greater the risks.
Fifthly, gaining provision and wealth may fuel dissatisfaction with what we have and, with it, the desire for more. Envy and covetousness can easily develop as we compare our lot with that of others who have more than we do. In fact, the drive to accumulate and to consume more makes us vulnerable to manipulation. As early as 1929, Floyd Allen, an executive with General Motors, put it bluntly—“Advertising is the business of making people helpfully dissatisfied with what they have in favor of something better.”
More recently, sociologist Bernard McGrane suggested that
One of the sub-texts of all advertising is, “You’re not okay the way you are. Things are bad. You need help. You need salvation.” In that sense, advertising is designed to generate endless self-criticism, all sorts of anxieties, and then to offer the entire world of consumer goods as your salvation…In contrast, one message you’ll never hear in advertising is, “You’re okay. You don’t need anything. Just be yourself.”
We easily find ourselves perpetually desiring more. We have trained our appetites to always desire more. Working out what is enough is exceptionally challenging within this environment. Perhaps this is what James was addressing when he wrote:
You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
Sixthly, we can become anxious and full of worry about the future provision of our needs. One would think that this kind of concern would only fill the hearts and minds of those who genuinely don’t have enough. However, most people who have plenty also develop this insidious stress. Having more than the basic necessities seems to make us more anxious because now we have more stuff to worry about losing.
The fear of not having enough is what drives some people to work unnecessarily long hours under the pretext that to provide for their children means buying them the latest gadgets and fashionable clothes, when what they really need most is the parent’s time and attention. Others are consumed by the fear that they won’t have enough money to sustain them through their twilight years. And so they plan for their future provision at the cost of serving God and others in the here-and-now, developing rich and meaningful relationships, or living a balanced life.
Still others lie awake at night worrying about whether a particular investment is safe or dreaming of how to get the house or car they really want. In fact, more anxious energy is consumed on money matters than on almost anything else. Is it this anxiety that drives people to do things they normally wouldn’t—like commit fraud, be less than honest, sacrifice a friendship or compromise their values?
Having more than the basic provision we need can be a burden. The well-known words of Jesus in Matthew 6—spoken to a crowd who knew what it was like to struggle to make ends meet—are particularly pertinent:
Do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
This is a very provocative statement of Jesus. It is not easy to trust God—particularly if your economic future is uncertain. However, as N.T. Wright notes: “When [Jesus] urged his followers not to worry about tomorrow, we must assume he led them by example.” If we ask, “Can anyone really trust God this way?” we can answer that at least one person did.
Harvey Salgo, “The Obsolescence of Growth: Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis” in The Review of Radical Political Economics 5 (Fall 1973), 32.
Transcript from the documentary film, The Ad & the Ego (Parallax Pictures).
N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One (SPCK, 2004), 66.