‘Riches and God’s favor’

“It is the Lord’s blessing that brings wealth” (Prv 10:22). In the time of Jesus, it was a common belief that wealth on earth was a sign of God’s favor. God granted success and wealth to many of His faithful ones. Abraham “was rich in livestock, silver and gold” (Gen 13:2). When David was raised from a shepherd to the King of Israel, he was blessed with abundant treasures, treasures he set aside for the building of the first great Temple in Jerusalem (1 Chr 22:14). Even Job, who was well known because God took his blessings from him as a test of faith, had his wealth not only restored by God, but doubled, once his ordeal was over (Job 42:10). These are only a few scriptural examples, but they help to support the belief that wealth is a sign of God’s approval.

However, Jesus often sought to overturn this belief, particularly in the Gospel of Luke. “Woe to you who are rich,” He said, “for you have received your consolation” (Lk 6:24). Luke’s Gospel includes the parable of the rich fool, who planned to live off of the wealth of his abundant harvest for years to come, only to have his life taken from him by God (Lk 12:16-21). He was foolish because his concern for wealth was greater than his concern for his eternal soul.

To the crowds who followed Jesus, who had equated wealth with God’s favor, the concept of a wealthy person being out of God’s favor was shocking. Yet time and time again, Jesus taught that wealth was not a reward for holiness. In fact, it may even act as an obstacle to it. This Sunday, Jesus again portrays a rich man in a parable, and again he is not a man favored by God, but instead punished for his sins. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Lk 16:19-31), Lazarus, covered in sores and desperately hungry, is stationed outside of the rich man’s home while inside the rich man indulges himself in a life of luxury. In this tragic scene, Jesus depicts a dying man only steps away from being saved, if only the rich man cared for anyone but himself.

The rich man who ignores Lazarus is not evil because he is rich. He is instead evil because he does not love his neighbor. His sin is grave because his resources were abundant and the opportunities to help Lazarus were so numerous and immediate. There was so much that he could have done for Lazarus. Instead, because of his self-love, he did nothing.

Jesus never says wealth is a sin. Generous people do tremendous good with their wealth, and the charitable work of the church depends on this. But because Jesus warns of the dangers of wealth so often in the Gospels, it would be foolish to ignore the danger wealth poses in the spiritual life.

Blessed John Henry Newman said that when we place our hope in wealth, riches become “a footing to stand upon, an importance, a superiority.” Those who place money above God “are content to remain where they are, and not to contemplate change.” With their eyes turned from God and on the world, they no longer see death as the entrance into eternal joy with the saints, but instead are uncomfortable even thinking about the end of their comfortable lives on earth (Sermon 28, Parochial and Plain Sermons).

Likewise, had the rich man in this Sunday’s parable thought about his own death, he may have realized just how disordered his earthly desires were. He chose his own luxury over love of his neighbor. He relied on his wealth more than he trusted in God. May we never be tempted toward such comfort in this life, but instead love God and neighbor before all other things in this world. In this way, whether rich or poor, we will be welcomed with great joy into heaven.

Fr. Wagner is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde’s secretary.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016