Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Burdens of Wealth and Covetousness

The meaning of "wealthy” has changed significantly over the centuries.  In Biblical times, Abraham was declared wealthy because of his “flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, camels and donkeys.”  His son, Isaac, “had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.”  Isaac’s son, Jacob, “grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys."  Job had “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.”  Well, I’ll take some silver and gold, but you can have the rest of it.  Having such wealth sounds like a lot of worry and work and responsibility to me, trying to make sure all those servants are faithfully shepherding and feeding and watering and protecting all those sheep.  I have enough trouble just keeping my one house in good shape.

Economic conditions seem to have been different in New Testament times with Roman currency established as the medium of exchange, buying and selling of goods commonplace, and existence of solid middle and upper-middle classes.  We have the example of the “rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus,” and provided a tomb for short-term occupancy by Jesus.  And there was “Lydia, a worshiper of God…from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth,” who, after being baptized, opened her home to Paul and Timothy.  It must have been a spacious home. There was Zacchaeus, who was “a chief tax collector and was rich,” but not rich like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been.  After all, he had climbed into a tree to see Jesus, having no servants to lift him up.  Wealth is relative.  I’m guessing that with the Roman Empire at its peak and with zealous tax collectors such as Zacchaeus at work throughout, most of the real wealth at that time belonged to the empire and to the emperor and his buddies.

We know enough about those centuries between the end of the Roman Empire and the invention of the printing press to know that the chances for economic prosperity were slim.  There was a vast divide between the wealthy landholders and those who were allowed, under feudalism, to eke out a meager sustenance working that land for the primary benefit of the landowners.

In the 21st century, most of the wealth of the wealthiest consists of no more than records, sometimes just digital information, that show “ownership” of so many shares of various companies or mutual funds or certain numbers of bonds, the values of which fluctuate daily for strange and mysterious reasons.  There are some wealthy landowners, such as Ted Turner who owns two million acres, but for most truly wealthy people, multi-millionaires, the tangible things they own, land, houses, cars, horses, etc., make up a negligible portion of their holdings and the much bigger portion consists only of those ownership records.  Values of such holdings are intangible and subjective and can change in the blink of an eye as everyone who owned Lehman Brothers bonds in the fall of 2008 or who bought Apple stock six months ago can attest.  And, if the records of ownership were to disappear or the rules governing ownership were to change significantly, as under Chavez in Venezuela, the ownership could be lost.  Our system, as it has evolved, is very fragile and faces threats as serious as and far more mysterious than the Biblical moths and rust and thieves.

But one thing about wealth has remained true over the centuries: Most of the wealth is and always has been held by a small percentage of the population, at least partly because only a small percentage of the population is both capable of and seriously interested in building and preserving wealth and bearing the associated burdens.  Hard work, disciplined planning, and delayed gratification often lose out to excessive credit card debt, irrational consumption, and advertiser incited envy, all of which bring burdens of their own, neither more nor less problematic than the burdens of wealth.  Those of us who suffer from such may heed the warning to, “Go the ant, you lazybones.  Consider its ways and be wise,” or the commandment to “not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Sometimes envy, or covetousness, may be incited by talk of spreading wealth around.  For those burdened with credit card debt as a result of having been tempted by persuasive advertising to consume irrationally, or even for those feeling sympathy for ones so suffering, the idea of spreading some wealth around may seem very enticing.  Just force Warren Buffett to sell some of his shares in Berkshire Hathaway and send that money to Washington, DC, for redistribution.  With his or her share, the recipient of new funds can upgrade to an iPhone 10, buy a new battery powered car, paint his or her house, or invest in Berkshire Hathaway.  Chances are slim that the choice will be door number three and even less, door number four.  The house will continue to deteriorate and somebody else will have to buy those shares Mr. Buffett sells.  So, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. 

Even with all these problems, we can take comfort that wealth or lack thereof is not important in the long run because “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions," because “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all,” and because we should “not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.  For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.”  We can just hope that the wealthy will invest wisely in job creating businesses and industries for the benefit of the willing and able and will give wisely to help those who can’t help themselves.

Note: The quotes above are all from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.  And, yes, I am well aware of the many Biblical warnings to the rich, not the least of which is that phrase, "go down after them," in the last quote above. 

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