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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

To Hell with the Rich



Brueghel, Sermon on the Plain

Are the rich all going to hell?

I resist the suggestion. Not because I am rich myself; I am certainly not. Because it seems obviously unjust. Surely it depends on how you got the money, whether honestly, by providing a real service to people, or dishonestly.

Okay, there is that bit about the needle’s eye:

“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man 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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26).

This seems to mean pretty plainly that the rich are going to find it harder to get into heaven. But not impossible. They will need God’s grace. But then—so do we all.

I can also see the principle, elsewhere expressed, that where your treasure is, there your heart is also. The rich may be less inclined to spend their time with God. Material things are a distraction to what matters. And so, fair enough, more blessed to be without material things in great abundance.

But then there is Luke, in the Sermon on the Plain:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Matthew sounds more reasonable: he says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” So I suppose you can have lots of stuff, so long as you are not unduly attached to it.

But it is not licit to pick and choose. The plain words are there. Blessed are the poor; woe to the rich.

It seems the materially successful, the respected, those who in general have a happy life, go to hell. They get no reward in heaven.

Anyone who has significantly more stuff than his neighbour goes to hell.

Well.

That seems too harsh to me. And if it seems to harsh for a hypocrite like me, surely it is too harsh for a loving, infinitely merciful God.

Yet God is also infinitely just. Accordingly, for those who suffer more than the rest of us in this life, there must logically be compensation in the next.

So it seems to follow: suffering in this life leads to a higher status in heaven. Jesus does not say, here, that only the poor and the sad will get to heaven: he says that great will be their reward IN heaven. The rich then may be there too, but will have a lower rank somehow. If the rich and the respected do not go to hell, they will, on balance, be sorry they were not poor and reviled when they see the celestial alternative.

And this is, in the end, not unjust. Being rich is, in the end, a conscious moral choice. They are not unfairly being discriminated against.

Just as Jesus says to the rich young man, they could, at any time, have shared their wealth with those who needed it more. Even if it was justly theirs. Even if you justly have more than your neighbour, reflect that we are all brothers. In a good family, a properly functioning one, love compels us to share all we have with our children, our brothers, our sisters. Nobody hoards significantly more than their share.

And the same is true of reputation; of having “everyone speak well of you.” It is, in fact, improbable to be a good, moral person and have everyone speak well of you: as Confucius said, if a man has no enemies, before appointing him to high office, it is necessary to make enquiries. The way to preserve a consistently good reputation, ultimately, is the way chosen by the Vicar of Bray.

A moral person is going to upset some—the immoral. Moreover, they could, and would, at any time, have sacrificed their high reputation in the eyes of the world by standing up in defense of someone else, or some other group, being unjustly harmed.

Hence, I suppose, this blog.



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