For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? – James 2:2-5
Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. – Proverbs 22:22-23
In one of the lowlights of the current campaign, Donald Trump refused to recite a single bible passage, leaving the impression he had no memory verses in his curiously coifed head.
If so, it’s perfectly understandable. What could be more unpleasant for a rich man than an immersion in Scripture? The bible offers no comfort to the rich.
In addition to the passages quoted above, Jesus himself routinely lambasted persons of wealth. Especially unpleasant is the anecdote of the rich man who basks in luxury, scarcely noticing the wretched beggar who dying of psoriatic ulcers and hunger beneath his table. The beggar dies and goes to heaven, while the rich man was consigned to the torments of hell. (Luke 16:19-31).
Then there the story of the rich young man who abandoned Jesus when he was told to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. (Matthew 19:21)
Too, there is Jesus’ famous clincher that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven. (Mark 10:24).
Bad news for Trump. Bad news for the Koch brothers. Bad news for Ken Copeland and Creflo Dollar. And bad news for most of us. Because millions of us who fall far short of the celebrated one percent are nevertheless richer than any first century dives could possibly imagine. Worse, most of us in that category are as indifferent to the 45 million U.S. residents who live below the poverty line as the rich man was to Lazarus.
These are biblical warnings we should keep in mind the next time we wait hopefully in line to buy multi-million dollar lottery tickets. There’s almost no chance we would win, of course, but what if we do? It would ruin our lives. It sucks to be rich.
The other-worldly fate of the rich — almost certain hellfire — is sobering, but perhaps it is too finely drawn. Also dubious is the blissful eternity assigned to the poor. It’s too easy to take these verses and design a dialectic that all rich people are hell bound. And it is equally wrong to anesthetize desperately poor people with a promise of pie in the sky when they die.
But it’s also a bad idea to rationalize these biblical warnings away. During my undergraduate years as Eastern University, I recall many spirited discussions between evangelicals and social-gospelers about whether a rich person could achieve a heavenly reward. We shrugged off the camel-through-a-needle analogy as hyperbolic humor on Jesus’ part, and we noted his codicil that “with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) What was harder to explain away was Jesus’ assertion that the rich man had to sell his many possessions and give his money to the poor, because it didn’t sound like he was kidding.
Eastern University (then Eastern Baptist College) provided an atypical academic experience in the late sixties. The beautiful campus offered a cloistered tranquility in Philadelphia’s bustling Main Line, but the times were anything but tranquil. By 1968, the Civil Rights Movement had been eclipsed by urban uprisings, the student protests against the Vietnam War had intensified, the eco-justice movement was budding, and students on sectarian campuses struggled to determine where God fit into it all.
In some ways, Eastern and the sixties were in mystical sync. The biology department explained creation in the literal terms of the Genesis account, while the religion department insisted evolution was God’s creative modus operandi. There were about 500 students on campus, so everyone got to know everyone else by name, aptitude, and theological slant. Some were evangelicals who believed they were unconditionally saved and spent their time in choirs, prayer groups, and house-to-house visitation to pass out copies of “The Four Spiritual Laws” tract. Others joined the contrary group of social activists who demonstrated for peace and freedom and tried to look serious during anti-war demonstrations which were actually — shall we say — the grooviest of parties.
For those in the latter group, the epistle of James undergirded the basic principles of the social gospel: don’t favor the rich over the poor, love your neighbor, and faith without works is dead.
That seemed to belie the facile assurance of evangelical students that their faith in Jesus was the key to salvation, not their work in food pantries or peace marches.
Back then, social gospel Baptists were so insulated from other currents of Christianity that it was easy to dismiss once-saved-always-saved evangelicals as minions of trailer parks and tent crusades.
Actually, the notion of “salvation by faith” was over 500 years old. Martin Luther declared it was the grace of God that saved people, not their goodness.
Luther, who systematically excised biblical books he didn’t like (declaring then “Apocrypha”), didn’t care for James’ smug missive, which he called “an epistle of straw.”
Luther objected to the church’s habit of extorting “good works” from its beleaguered congregations for its own profit, and he declared a gospel of works was a tool of the devil.
Given the corruption of the church in Luther’s day, it’s hard to disagree with him.
In our day, however, James seems to be raising urgently legitimate questions:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17.
That’s another way of saying that if one truly has faith, good works must follow automatically. There can be no good works in the absence of faith. And if faith is present, good works cannot be stifled.
That’s a sobering thought for any faithful Christian who has stepped over a sleeping homeless person or brushed off a hungry pan-handler, as most of us do.
But most of us ignore human needs far greater than that and assuage our guilt in precisely the fashion James warns us about: by praying for the desperate, as if to invite them to “keep warm and eat your fill.”
For months, tens of thousands of Syrian migrants have streaming into Europe to escape certain death in the civil war that has torn their country apart. The response of western nations was tepid until a photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach appeared in media around the world. Now the nations of Europe are opening their doors to thousands of refugees who might otherwise die on their journeys of escape.
But for persons of faith, this good work should have been automatic. Naturally we have been praying earnestly for poor and endangered people, but some Christian leaders proposed direct action – faith-based good works that can save lives. Pope Francis opened the doors of the Vatican to shelter families of refugees “fleeing death,” and he has called in Catholic parishes, convents, and monasteries across Europe to do the same.
There are, of course, an abundance of crises at home and abroad that cry out for us to prove the bona fides of our faith through good works.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 45 million persons in the U.S. live below the poverty line, and most of them need more than our advice to keep warm and eat their fill.
A 2012 speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon could be both a prayer list and a call to action for persons of faith:
“Projections indicate that in 2015 more than 600 million people worldwide will still be using unimproved water sources, almost one billion will be living on an income of less than $1.25 per day, mothers will continue to die needlessly in childbirth, and children will suffer and die from preventable diseases. Hunger remains a global challenge, and ensuring that all children are able to complete primary education remains a fundamental, but unfulfilled, target that has an impact on all the other Goals. Lack of safe sanitation is hampering progress in health and nutrition, biodiversity loss continues apace, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to pose a major threat to people and ecosystems. The goal of gender equality also remains unfulfilled, again with broad negative consequences, given that achieving the MDGs depends so much on women’s empowerment and equal access by women to education, work, health care and decision-making.”
Most of the world’s churches have endorsed the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals that were originally set to alleviate these problems by 2015.
Some economists, including Jeffrey David Sachs, point out that a nation as rich as the United States has within its means the ability to wipe out poverty.
But a good work of that magnitude will require a lot more faith than has yet been manifest.
Some Christians, sanguinely saved by faith, even argue against the good works that could eliminate poverty. They quote Jesus that the poor will always be with us, and some intimate that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough.
We don’t need James to be reminded that kind of faith is dead.
And we don’t need the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to be reminded of another consequence we will never be allowed to forget:
It sucks to be rich.