Jesus's challenge to the super-rich: Can you love God more?
Some people have more money than it is possible for most of us to comprehend.
The latest figures from the UK's Office for National Statistics, for example, reveal that just 10% of the country's population owns 44 per cent of all the wealth. And according to the new Sunday Times Rich List, the combined fortune of the UK's wealthiest 1,000 people has risen to £519 billion – about a third of the nation's total economic output.
Such figures are hard to get our heads around – but to put it in a personal context, for me to earn what Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger gets paid in 12 months would take 326 years. It's probably about the same for you – give or take a few decades.
Such wealth is staggering. No wonder Rachael Orr, head of Oxfam's UK poverty programme, has called for politicians to narrow the gap between richest and poorest, describing it as "shocking".
For Jesus, money was a major and recurring theme of his teaching. "Truly I tell you," he remarked once, "it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." And as if to ram the point home, he then immediately added: "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).
But we need to be careful. It is not money itself which is the issue – it is the attitude of our hearts towards it that creates problems. The rich young ruler was challenged to sell his possessions and give to the poor not because his money was evil in itself but because it was getting in the way of him following Christ.
Jesus crystallises it in these words: "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." Or, as Saint Paul put it, the problem is not money itself but "the love of money" which is "a root of all kinds of evil".
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If Jesus is our Lord then any money we earn, inherit or receive in any other way will be entirely at his disposal; we will simply be stewards of it. That's why many Christians give away a tenth of their income. That's also why many find wisdom in Methodist founder John Wesley's words: "Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can."
So Jesus certainly challenges the super-rich. His parable of the rich fool is all about those who store more and more wealth for themselves in bigger and bigger storehouses but fail to be "rich towards God" (Luke 12). And as he makes clear a few chapters later in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, when wealth blinds us to God it can have eternal consequences.
But here's the thing. If we're reading this item, it is quite likely we are among the super-rich ourselves – at least, in global terms. After all, in 2013, 61 per cent of the world's population didn't have the internet. An estimated 23 per cent had no shelter, and 13 percent were without clean water.
According to the website globalrichlist.com, even my clergy income puts me in the top 2 per cent of earners globally – and it would take the average labourer in Zimbabwe 26 years to earn the same amount.
Which makes me ask: when Jesus speaks to the super-rich, is he speaking to us?
David Baker is a Church of England minister and journalist