We Catholics owe a debt to Dave Ramsey. The Evangelical Protestant has helped millions of Americans fight the scourge of usury far more fiercely than our own clerics or laymen. Ask most parishes today for a class on money management and they would turn to Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” His most popular book, The Total Money Makeover, is an elementary catechism for the debt-ridden in which he lays out baby steps to put your financial house in order.
Lesser known, however, is Ramsey’s vision for what comes after riches. Just as Protestants have trouble explaining what happens when you are “already-saved,” the pace of Ramsey’s advice slows for the “already-saving.” He has just one book catered to the rich who question what to do with their stockpiled assets. Unlike the rest of Ramsey’s works which mete out milk for the babes, The Legacy Journey has free rein to offer the dense meat of stewardship. Sadly, Catholics of all classes will find themselves painfully undernourished.
The first problem with Ramsey’s writing is that he constantly conflates money with wealth, easing your conscience about hoarding the former by calling it the latter. The bait-and-switch presents wealth as God’s blessing. Indeed, it is. God created the world, saw that it was good, and gave it to man. The wealthy should not apologize for accepting this gift.
Money, on the other hand, is a means of exchange and a sign of value, but it has no value in itself. A dollar is all symbol and no substance, so Satan can be its source more easily than God can. Even a cleanly formatted paycheck is no guarantee of God’s favor. Granted, it is true that labor should always return a just wage, but the wages of sin is death. Ramsey has the good sense not to say that “God gave you your money,” but he winks at this notion by repeating “all wealth comes from God.” Under this alibi, you don’t have to settle for the sunny Cayman Islands as a site for money laundering. You can employ actual Paradise as your front operation.
The assumption of the rich’s absolute innocence gets ugly when Ramsey defends himself and an even richer friend for buying fancy cars. He cites only two types of people who would dare criticize these luxury purchases: Gnostics who hate all of God’s material creation and the poor wretches who are envious of others’ prosperity. It is not hard to summarize this characterization as Ramsey’s own anti-Magnificat: “God has filled the hungry with discontent, and has sent the rich away in Lamborghinis.” Phrasing it this way points to a conspicuous absence. In a book littered with scriptural passages about wealth and inheritance, there is nothing positive about poverty. It’s as if Ramsey is utterly unconcerned with the very first Beatitude.
There is one Gospel scene concerning money and holiness which Ramsey cannot afford to ignore: Jesus challenging the rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor so as to attain treasures in heaven. Ramsey begins with annoyance that the story is repeatedly used against him, saying it “may be one of the most-often-misinterpreted passages in the whole Bible.” Ramsey’s self-admittedly contrarian exegesis is bold, to say the least. He asserts the passage has nothing to do with money. Jesus was only bluffing to highlight the rich man’s ego and need for faith. In this interpretation, however, the rich man was a fool to walk away sad. Ramsey has released him and all the wealthy from any cost to discipleship, thereby cheapening God’s grace.
Ramsey can so cavalierly dismiss Jesus’ direct financial orders because of his unshaken axiom that money is perfectly neutral. Ramsey says, “money doesn’t do anything to impact your salvation. It doesn’t get you into heaven, and it doesn’t keep you out of heaven.” The reader immediately wonders why Ramsey has bothered building an empire selling advice about something of no ultimate consequence. Eventually, though, Ramsey presses past feigned indifference to the whole point of the book. What should you do with extra money?
Ramsey gives four answers: invest most in the market, give a small proportion away, pass a huge sum to your family in a will, but most importantly, enjoy it on earth.
Jesus, however, gives the exact opposite answers: invest some in your friends, give most to the poor, pass on good gifts to your family, and repent, for the rich have already received their reward.
To those who covet the security of owning securities, Jesus counsels spending money to make friends (Luke 16:19). The poorer your friend, the better, since he will love you more the greater price you pay (Luke 7:41-43).
To those who “prudently” restrict giving to a percentage of their surplus, Jesus advises the storing up of treasures in heaven. In the words of St. Augustine, the bellies of the poor are much safer storerooms than any barn. Caesar, thieves, and moths are guaranteed to get whatever you think you can “save” (Matthew 6:19-20).
To those who want to leave an inheritance to their children’s children (Proverbs 13:22), Jesus’ yoke is easy. It is not hard to give good gifts, for even the evil man gives his son a fish when asked, not a snake (Luke 11:11-13). Therefore, when you are dying, give your children what they want: your limited time left, your productive property and skills, and good relationships with all their extended family. If all they want is your money, give them that instead. Then, pray that, like the Prodigal Son, they may come back to life (Luke 15:32).
To those who have trouble enjoying God’s bounty, Jesus tells a dreadful story (Luke 16:19-31). First, a rich man finds the memory of his earthly pleasures insufficient to soften his unending torment in Hades. This alone should box the ears which are tickled by Ramsey’s instruction to delight in possessions. If you are unhappy now despite your wealth, wake up! Opulence will not console you more in death than in life.
Jesus’ story goes on. Just as luxury stayed the rich man’s hand from helping the wretched Lazarus on earth, the judgment of God forbids his burning tongue so little comfort as a drop of water from the finger of blessed Lazarus in Paradise. Worse yet, the rich man finally recognizes the terrifying inadequacy of his “legacy journey.” His bestowed inheritance will do nothing to change his family’s fate. When he learns that Moses and the Prophets gave enough warning to leave his family no excuse, his agony is complete.
Our anguish, however, would not end there. For we have a message more relentless than the prodding of conscience, more lucid than the wisdom of philosophy, and more shaking than the cries of the Prophets. A Man has risen from the dead, and He tells us all to “repent, and believe in the gospel.” Ramsey offers no shelter from the radicality of this creed.
For all his faults, Ramsey stresses a much needed message: credit cards have completely numbed us to usury, all creation belongs to God, and we are but His stewards. For Ramsey’s efforts, we Catholics can repay him in something far more valuable than book sales. Ramsey’s motto is “Live like no one else now, so later you can live and give like no one else.” Let us pray for Ramsey’s repentance and faith, while there is still yet time for him, so that he may flesh out his motto thus: “Live like Jesus Christ and His saints now, so that you may live with them forever.”
[Photo: Dave Ramsey (Anna Webber/Getty Images for SiriusXM)]