Woe to you who are rich

June 16, 2010

This is the second in a short series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”, in which he describes the culture surrounding the financial sector of our economy and its governmental proxies as one of quasi-religious faith in markets, a worldview generally embraced by conservatives of all stripes, including the Christian right. Jesus would call this culture idolatry.

The gospels abound with eschatological sayings, curses and judgment oracles in which Jesus consigns the rich to a harsh judgment and condemns the amassment of wealth as a morally mortal folly. He often combines these utterances with blessings of the poor and oppressed (the Hebrew word ani can be translated either way), saying in effect, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The most striking of these combinations is Luke’s presentation of the Beatitudes with a corresponding list of ‘anti-Beatitudes’:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25):

There are several other passages that single out the rich in this way (many of these have parallels in other gospels):

Mark 10:17-30      The story of the rich young man: “how hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.”

Luke 12:13-21      The parable of the rich fool: “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 16:19-31      The rich man and Lazarus: “now he is comforted here and you are in agony”

We will look at some of these in more detail in the next post, and later we will see that it’s not all doom and gloom for the rich: all they need do is sell everything they own and give it to the poor. And we’ll look at two matching case studies of people who did just that—and those who didn’t.

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