American Christians are said to be at ease in our secular consumer culture. But didn’t Christ talk about giving away one’s worldly goods and living as the lilies of the field, not pursuing wealth and luxury?
The New Testament isn’t a textbook in economics or politics. The New Testament is interested in the poor. But it is also interested in rich young men who are asked to give their wealth to the poor and to follow Christ. In this invitation, the emphasis is not so much on giving riches to help the poor but on the impediment riches can, but need not, become in our effort to follow Christ. Christ could just as well have asked a poor young man to give up what he had to follow Him with the same result.
Wealth is to be used for our families and our local purposes, but it also should be used for the stranger who is in need. In order to meet the needs of the poor, we need a society that can produce both material and spiritual wealth. How to do this must be learned. The reason the poor are poor is not because the rich are rich. The only way the poor can be helped on a massive scale is for them to learn from those who know how wealth is produced. Essentially, we want to establish all political societies as wealth-producing societies that can take care of themselves. We want most people, most of the time, to take care of themselves.
Chesterton remarked that Christianity is different from what Aristotle taught because it has realized that sometimes it is not the “mean” that counts but the extremes. Thus, in the case of the family, it says that there should be room in society for both monogamous marriages with good families and for those who have no families and no wealth. There has always been within Catholicism, at least, this notion that there is a difference between a “normal” life and the life of the religious vows. Moreover, it is dangerous to mix the two. In practice, St. Thomas Aquinas remarked, when we expect too much from ordinary people, “the majority of whom are not perfect,” we end up corrupting or discouraging them by giving them goals that seem hopeless to achieve. Following the counsels was a hard and difficult life, but it is one that the Lord wills for some in order to keep transcendence before us.
Some might ask, Why don’t we just distribute the world’s goods to the poor? This question implies that the poor are poor because of maldistribution. In general, if we took the wealth of the world and simply distributed it equally, we would undermine economic incentives and capital concentration. What would happen is that all would be poorer because the growth dynamism for all would be undermined. It is not the purpose of Christianity to make everyone abject. Rather, a Christian society assists everyone in producing and distributing sufficient wealth for legitimate human purposes.
That some will always be richer than others is not by itself a sign that anything is wrong with the world. Christ did not tell Joseph to close up his carpenter shop. He did take the apostles from the fishing business. Rich men, poor men, men in the middle, all had their places. All could save their souls. Each could be concerned with one another. Each could fail.
When Christ talked about the lilies of the field, He told us to see how they grow. He noted that the Heavenly Father took care of them as lilies, with the implication that He would take care of us as men, that is, after the fashion of men. The fashion of men is to learn to do things, to know what produces wealth and what does not, and to learn what is good for us and what is not. The corruption of our culture is not in its wealth but in some of its principles. Wealth challenges us to learn both how to moderate our desires and how to aid others. We as Christians are the kind of “materialists” who think matter matters. Surely this is one of the things the Incarnation was designed to emphasize.
This article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.