“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Those indelible words of Christ have troubled even good people of comfortable means. All of the gospels admonish the rich as much as they comfort the poor, but it is Luke who has the sternest rebuke in his beatitudes, „Woe to you rich.“
When many of us hear the gospels warn of the danger of wealth we breathe a sigh of relief. One thing we do not have to worry about is being rich! When the gospel denounces pride or envy or revenge it may sting my conscience, but not when it warns about riches. Let the rich people squirm today! Not so fast. In truth, most of us are rich. Your wages may not afford luxuries, but they dwarf what Asian peasants earn. You may not dine on caviar and champagne, but you did not go hungry today as did millions. Recall also your ancestors who worked long hours in the fields for the bare necessities of life. Yes, you are rich.
While Scripture often extols the virtues of the poor and the austere, some of the great biblical characters such as Abraham, Solomon, and David were quite wealthy. At the crib of the Christ Child we find not only poor shepherds, but also royal kings. More than a few of the admired saints were affluent, including Elizabeth of Hungary, Thomas More, and Margaret of Scotland.
Many are puzzled by this paradox of rich saints and sinful paupers. The gospel danger of riches is not how much you have, but how much it has you. Not what you possess, but what possess you. The gospel is asking, “Are you a prisoner of your own possessions?” The gospel describes the deadly fate of the greedy rich man as, “Thus it will be for all who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” (Lk 12:21)
There are very real dangers in riches. The psalmist wrote, “In his riches man lacks wisdom.” (Ps 49:20) Financial security easily leads to an unwarranted sense of self sufficiency and social arrogance. “I’ve got mine; you get yours.” Great wealth can lead to a distorted value of life and love and leisure. Simply put, wisdom cannot be bought.
“Woe to you rich,” is not directed to any specific income bracket. It applies as much to the indigent as to the affluent. The poor can be as greedy as the rich in their own arena. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” That camel comes in all sizes, as does the eye of the needle. They both come in your size.
Fr. Earl Meyer is an occasional contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.