The story of the rich man and Jesus
In next Sunday’s Gospel reading, a man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He assures Jesus that he has observed the commandments since he was young. Jesus tells him, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.” This saddened the man, for he was very rich, and he went away. Jesus then said to his disciples: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Lectionary no. 145, Mark 10: 17-30 (NABRE).
Wealth is not intrinsically evil
Jesus’s words are sobering. Is economic wealth intrinsically bad? Are the rich condemned to an eternity in exile from God? Not at all. The rich who share wealth and spread abundance serve God and their neighbors.
Wealth is bad when it is the object of human idolatry. Idolatry is the honor and reverence of a creature in place of God. Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2113. One who trusts money more than God is an idolater. On the other hand, those who share wealth use money in ways that help others. They know that greed and hoarding give false satisfaction. “Wealth is a good that comes from God and is to be used by its owner and made to circulate so that even the needy may enjoy it. Evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church no. 329.
Business activities share wealth
We may share wealth in different ways. Giving to the poor through almsgiving is a praiseworthy way to share wealth. In addition, business activities enable us to share wealth. Certainly, a business generally needs to make a profit in order to function well. But making a profit is not a business’s only purpose. A business is a community of persons satisfying their basic needs and serving all of society.” Centesimus annus no. 35.
Our attitude towards possessions is decisive
To share wealth, however, is by itself not the point. The key issue is what our possessions mean to us. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes:
[I]f the security given by things (no matter whether material or spiritual) is all we have as a god, then we have no choice but to cling to what we possess. We cannot detach ourselves from our possessions because they are us, the source of our identity and worth. On the other hand, if we are able to acknowledge that our life comes at every moment from God, that we are held out of nothingness as a gift from him, that our identity and worth are established, not by what we can seize, but by what has been given to us in grace, then we need not define ourselves by what we own (materially or spiritually). We are freed for the first time from the tyranny of possessing.
Sharing Possessions (2nd ed. 2011) p. 74.
Counterintuitively, to share wealth may even be idolatrous. As Johnson points out, if I share my wealth in order to prove my worth, this is merely “a highly refined mode of idolatry and the deadliest.” Such behavior shows that “I worship a god who can be manipulated. I have brought the true God down to the level of an idol.” Id.
The rich man in Sunday’s Gospel reading loses the kingdom of God because he identifies himself in terms of his possessions. He would, however, be no better off had he given his wealth away as a way of bribing God into saving him. The question is not merely what do you do with your possessions, but why do you do it?
We must see our possessions, including our very lives, as a gracious gift of a loving God. We can’t earn this gift, and we don’t need to. If we share wealth because we recognize it as a gift, and not as the definition of who we are, then we will pass through the needle’s eye.