Pentecost - Eighth Sunday After (16 Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"Christian Conception of Wealth"
By Rev. Charles Bruehl
My Dear Friends: - Deeply impressed upon the consciousness of the Christian, and indelibly engraved on the tablets of his mind is the commanding thought that for all his actions he is responsible to a higher Power, to which he is subject and, accordingly, must render an account of the minutest details of his life. Strongly and vividly does he realize the stern and undeniable fact that he is not his own lord and master; that he owes allegiance and fealty to the Supreme Lord of all things, from whom he has received whatever he calls his own; that whatever he possesses, be it much or little, he holds in trust for a certain end, a definite purpose, independent of his free choice; that, in the fullest sense of the word, he is but a steward who may use things only according to the will and intentions of his Master, and whose term of stewardship shall come to a speedy, often unforeseen, close. This is a fundamentally and thoroughly Christian idea; it is wrought into the very structure and fabric of Christian morality; it is the source of that continual watchfulness and wholesome fear that should accompany the Christian in all his walks and undertakings; it is also his shield and staff, when he is assailed by temptation, and a powerful and most salutary restraint when his passions would draw him into forbidden pleasures and self-indulgence; again and again it has been most forcibly insisted on by our Lord. It is this deep-rooted conviction which gives solemnity and gravity to the life of the Christian and distinguishes it from the frivolity and pagan thoughtlessness of the world. In the doctrine of the particular judgment, which follows immediately after death and which determines the destiny of man according to his faithfulness or unfaithfulness as a servant of the Most High, this consciousness of responsibility is crystallized and has received a concrete and striking form. Parables and passages dealing with the severity of the account to be rendered and bringing home to man its vital significance and final, irrevocable character, abound in the sacred books.
Now, though in theory and in the abstract, every Christian is well aware of his stewardship and consequent responsibility, in practice we often indulge and foster illusions as to the extent and full force of our accountability. We flatter ourselves that there may be some things at least which are our very own, of which we may dispose at our own pleasure, and which may be withheld from the final reckoning. There is one realm, especially, in which this subtle deception crops up quite frequently and persistently, like a noxious weed difficult to exterminate and encumbering the ground to the detriment of the good plants; I mean the domain of earthly goods and material possessions. Men like to believe that with the riches they have acquired by legitimate inheritance or by their own efforts, they are at liberty to do what they please. The law and the spirit of the age favor this delusion, for they both concede to a man the right to use or abuse his wealth as his whims and fancies may dictate. No error, however, could be more unwarranted and fatal, since it is so evident from the Gospel that there will be a very searching scrutiny of our attitude towards the goods of this earth and the use we have made thereof. Frequent are the warnings against the seductions and snares of riches, and most emphatic are the denunciations of the unrighteous rich. There can be no doubt, then, that our stewardship and responsibility extend also to our material resources, however much we may be inclined to regard them as our very own. To-day's Gospel furnishes us a most welcome occasion to bring before our mind, in a clear and precise manner, the Christian conception of wealth, and the moral consequences which flow from it. Our discourse will deal with the nature, the dangers and the Christian use of wealth.
A. - Pope Leo XIII sounds the keynote of Catholic teaching concerning riches in his immortal Encyclical on the condition of labor. The passage is remarkable for the terseness of its language and the noble daring of its utterances. These are his words: "The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come. . . . As for riches and the other things which men call good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance or lack them altogether, so far as eternal happiness is concerned it matters little; the only important thing is to use them aright. . . . Therefore those whom fortune favors are warned that freedom from sorrow and abundance of earthly riches are no warrant for the bliss that shall never end, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the warnings of Jesus Christ and that a most strict account must be given to the supreme Judge for all we possess."
In themselves riches are indifferent, neither good nor bad; they may become harmful and bad by the sinful attachment of their owner, by unscrupulous methods of acquisition or by the improper uses to which they are turned. Riches will bless or curse you, as your own heart determines. The material goods of life are not the highest goods; not in them consists the true value of man's life; for, so says our Lord; "Take heed and beware of all covetousness, for a man's life doth not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses" (Luke xii, 15). Measured by Christian standards, a man's life may be a rich, a large, a splendid life, though he possesses none of the earth's goods; it may be a narrow, sordid, groveling and unprofitable life, though he be the master of millions. Compared to the true values of life, wealth is irrelevant; at its best, it may be a means; at its worst, it is an obstacle. For the Christian the pursuit of wealth may never become an absorbing interest or a whole-souled purpose; it must always be subordinated and tributary to the higher aims of life. Thus St. Basil warns: "Do not give your soul up to riches, loving and admiring them as the one good thing in life, but take advantage of them, using them as an instrument of service." The passionate desire for riches, the scramble for the spoils of the earth and the inordinate haste to accumulate a fortune are un-Christian, as they run directly counter to the injunction of Christ. "Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth, where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven; for where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also" (Matt. vi, 19). If sought for its own sake, wealth will become a bar to the attainment of the things which are valuable by reason of their own intrinsic goodness.
Man's rights over his resources are not unlimited; his title to them is not an absolute one. God is the Supreme Owner of all things, and He has attached certain duties to all property. All are to live from the bounty of the earth; if anyone possesses more than his legitimate needs require, it is that he should share with those who have less. Such is the plan of Divine Providence. Let us listen to the startling words of St. Basil. "Do you think," he says, God is so unjust as to will an unequal distribution of the necessaries of life? Why are you rich and your neighbor poor? Is it not that you may receive the reward of generosity and faithful distribution, and he that of patience? Yet you fancy that you do no one an injury by gathering all things into the fathomless recesses of your greed." The rich man is God's steward; he holds his wealth from God and must use it, nor for himself alone, but for the benefit of others also.
In the Christian view, then, wealth is not an end and aim of life; the pursuit of riches may not engross a man's thoughts and desires; his heart may not become attached to his possessions, for they shall perish and fail him in the supreme hour; he must consider his wealth as a trust from God and be ever faithful and watchful in the administration of his property; nor may he ever forget that he is in the presence of a constant and subtle danger, since the road of riches is beset by numerous pitfalls and imminent perils.
B. - Poverty is not an unfailing passport to heaven; nor do riches necessarily exclude one from eternal happiness. "Wealth," declares St Jerome, "is not an obstacle to the rich man if he uses it well, nor does want make the poor man more praiseworthy, if in the midst of his filth and poverty he does not avoid sin." Yet, it is easier for the poor than for the rich to work their salvation. Not without reason did our Lord say: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Luke xviii, 24). We know at what occasion our Lord spoke those fearful words; it was when the young man had refused to follow him, because the discipleship of Jesus involved the surrender of his wealth.
Truly, the perils of wealth are many; there is danger in the acquisition of wealth; danger in the possession; danger in the use. The acquisition of riches may tempt to injustice; the possession to pride; the use to sensuality. If one has set his heart on wealth and decided to amass a fortune in a short time, it will be difficult for him to keep his hands clean of injustice. "For he that makes haste to be rich shall not be innocent" (Prov. xxviii, 20). In his blind hurry to increase his profits he will set aside the scruples of a tender conscience and engage in transactions of dubious character, provided that they promise rich returns. He will scorn that caution and those safeguards which might help him to travel unscathed the slippery road of opulence, but which stand in the way of large gains and speedy earnings. He who burns with the desire of becoming rich, courts ruin and hurries to his perdition. Gold kindles greed; he who possesses will possess more. The desire to increase their wealth steals upon the rich unawares, and soon the appetite grows to be insatiable. When this deplorable state has been reached, conscience is dulled; the sense of equity and justice stunted; the heart grows as feelingless as flint, and the soul is blinded to its own wretched condition. Nothing but the thunders of Divine Justice will arose such a miserable soul from its deadly torpor. Gold is enchanted, and if we do not resist its charm from the outset it will cast over our soul its fatal spell and hold us in its power.
Riches beget pride and haughtiness, which are an abomination before God. Wealth gives power, and power makes proud. Golden keys open all doors, and so the rich man fancies himself the master of men. He exalts himself above his fellowmen, because they are willing to serve and flatter him for the sake of his money, as the preacher had already observed in his times, for "all things obey money" (Eccl. x, 19). And another close observer of men and inspired writer remarks: "The house that is very rich shall be brought to nothing by pride" (Eccles. xxi, 5). The great difference of possessions lessens the consciousness of universal brotherhood, and so the wealthy come to look down on the poor and to despise those that can not make costly display. It is not difficult to remain humble and not be become puffed up, where everything ministers to pride and where the most abject flattery constantly besieges the ear? Is it easy not to become overbearing and haughty, where everybody is willing to submit to our caprices and to carry out our unexpected wishes? Blessed the man who surrounded by artful adulation falls not a victim to vanity, and who, standing on the dangerous pinnacle on which wealth places him, becomes not intoxicated with the power he wields over his fellow men!
Sensual corruption but too often follows in the wake prosperity. The material wants assume an undue preponderance, since money furnishes ample means to satisfy them. It is hard to refuse oneself the pleasures of life when they are within such easy reach and offered hourly in the most seductive fashion. Who will subdue his passions where everything caters to them? Wealth supplies constant fuel to the unhallowed flame of concupiscence; so we need not be astonished when we see men perish in the blaze of prosperity, as moths are burned in the glow of a lamp. The abundance of material goods makes men judge life by false standards; they exalt the things that gratify the senses; place their happiness in the satisfaction of their passions and finish by despising the things of the spirit. Many a man's spiritual downfall has been wrought by a sudden prosperity that burst upon him as a hot summer day and scorched the blossoms of virtue that were beginning to unfold. Few even of those who were thought of sterling worth and fine mettle have stood the test of prosperity. Experience has shown that virtue which could not be corrupted by persecution, torture and want, was finally debauched by the seductive influence of wealth and luxury. Deploring these evil effects of riches from which so few escape, St. Paul writes: "They that will become rich fall into temptations and into the snares of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires which drown men into destruction and perdition" (I. Tim. vi, 9). There are numerous insidious temptations that never cross the threshold of the poor man's cottage, but that will only enter into the luxurious homes of the prosperous. Luxury, self-indulgence, slothfulness, ostentation, pride, ambition, self-conceit, worldliness, oppression - vices which make men unspiritual, unteachable, and unresponsive to the call of God - are the attendants of the unrighteous mammon.
Great and terrible are the perils that surround wealth, and only by a continual vigilance and the grace of God can we be saved from them; the insinuating fascination of riches can be counteracted only by the stronger influence of Divine grace. There is no safety, then, in prosperity except by prayer and grace.
C. - The possession of wealth is attended with grave and solemn duties, the fulfillment or neglect of which form an important part of the account to be rendered. The rich man must administer his wealth as a faithful steward in conformity with the intentions of his Lord. His wealth is not alone for himself. His needs are limited, and what he possesses above that which is required to satisfy them reasonably is not intended for his personal use. As one may not shut out one's neighbor from the use of the air and the light, so may he not exclude others from some participation in his riches. God wishes all his children, the rich and the poor, to live; the rich from their own resources, the poor by the generosity of the rich; thus he makes the rich the dispensers of his gifts to those whom he has deprived of worldly goods. Solitary enjoyment of one's wealth would constitute a grave violation of God's law and a crime against the brotherhood of mankind. Truly, out of his wealth the Christian may first provide for his own wants and keep his own in reasonable comfort. He has no right, however, to multiply his wants and desires indefinitely, and to make his income the means of mere sensual gratification. Endless entertainments, sumptuous feasts, over-refinement in dress, costly adornments, elaborate display, extravagance in food, form no legitimate use of wealth. Neighbor does wealth give any title to indolence or idleness. The leisure which the man of means commands must be employed in self-culture or in social work. The rich man is not exempt from all obligations to his fellow men; he may be likened to an employee paid in advance, and must make good the title to his revenues; the law of his life, as well as that of the poor man, is service.
The owner of a large estate enters into certain relations with his fellow men; of a necessity he becomes employer. In his capacity as an employer he is, in the most direct way, the steward of God. Let him not forget this fact in his dealings with his subordinates. God demands that he treat them justly, fairly and equitable. There must be some proportion between the profits he draws and the wages he pays; if his business is successful, he must allow his laborers a compensation that enables them to lead a truly human life. Any form of exploitation would constitute a gross abuse of the economic power placed in his hands. The honest management of one's business, so that all concerned benefit thereby, is one of the first and strictest requirements of the Christian use of wealth.
From his superfluous goods the rich man must bestow generously and liberally on the poor and the needy. No duty is plainer and inculcated in more emphatic terms than that of almsgiving. Terrible are the judgments awaiting the rich that close their eyes to the needs of the helpless and refuse to relieve the clamoring wants of the indigent out of their abundance. Quick is God to hear the voice of the poor and readily does He listen to the complaints against the rich who have shown no mercy. "He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?" (I. John iii, 17). "Almsgiving is one of the ways of making unto yourself friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings" (St. Luke, xvi, 9).
My dear friends, seek not riches. If God sends you wealth as the reward of industry, honesty and economy, thank Him for His gifts. But place not your trust in your riches and look not for happiness in the things money can buy. Check your desire for the possession of more and beware lest your heart become insensibly attached to the things of earth and forget heaven and God. Guard against pride and exalt not yourself over your poorer brother clad in rags, for in the eyes of God he may be richer than you. Fear your riches more than you love them, and give of them freely. Store not up unto yourself treasures of unrighteousness, for they will be your ruin if found in your hands on the day of reckoning. Amen.