Thursday, December 01, 2011
The Problem of Prosperity — Reynolds
Each year, about this time, Brenda and I do a check on our stewardship: how much have we given to church and charity? I can’t claim that we tithe, giving ten percent of our total income, but do try to ensure that we give over five percent.
Christianity has always had a problem with prosperity. Wealth seemed a bit suspect, perhaps because it brought with it a very special kind of responsibility – that those who possess wealth should use it, not just for themselves, their own comfort and pleasure, but for the benefit of humanity, of all God’s creation, and so for the glory of God.
It's not that the poor are necessarily virtuous or the prosperous are necessarily vicious, but as “sin” is essentially self-centredness, there is always the tendency to spend our wealth on ourselves rather than using it for the benefit of others, especially those whom the Bible calls “the poor”.
It does seem, that in the Biblical witness, there is a special place in the heart of God for those who are poor and powerless -- the widows and orphans, the "sojourner" and the "little ones". Jesus taught "Blessed are the poor!" The “monastic virtues," remember, were “poverty, chastity and obedience.” And much contemporary theology speaks about "God's preferential option for the poor!"
It’s not that poverty is virtuous, something to be desired in itself. In fact, evidently the reason God is concerned about it is because poverty is not a good thing.
In fact Christian faith has usually taught the virtues of honesty, industry, and thrift. When people practice the virtues of honesty, industry and thrift, they tend to become prosperous. It was true of the monastic movement of the Middle Ages. Monasteries became fabulously wealthy. It was true of our Puritan forebears and of early Methodism. John Wesley told his Methodist followers “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” His followers were very serious in observing the first two, but when it came to the third, they tended to spend more and more on themselves rather than giving to others.
And of course, it's true today. If a person works hard, establishes an honest reputation, and saves carefully, the probability is that he or she will become prosperous.
We are rightly concerned about prosperity, of course. Poverty is not something to be desired. So we wish one another "a happy and prosperous New Year!" And we keep close account of our "Gross National Product" and many other indicators of our economic strength.
We want and expect our governments to ensure the continued prosperity of our nation, including full employment and all the social benefits we've come to expect and enjoy. But these of course are dependent upon the general prosperity of the society and of the people. And that’s dependent upon the industry of the people, the honesty of the society, and the concern for the common good.
Government structures and social systems are important. But they can't guarantee prosperity. We are more and more realizing no nation can be prosperous apart from the honesty, industry and thrift of its people.
Isn't it still true that prosperity is finally built, not just on government policies or lack of them, but upon a people who covet and practice these same virtues of honesty, industry, and thrift?
If we were all a bit more concerned about these, prosperity might almost look after itself. Our governments might even erase our burgeoning deficits and begin to make a dent in the national debt.
Of course, if we're gong to have such concern, it isn't going to work if it's based only on enlightened self-interest. "Enlightened self-interest" soon becomes just self-interest.
If it's going to work, we have to believe in something other than ourselves. It’s going to mean a concern for and willingness to work for the common good, common welfare, “common wealth.” It’s going to depend on something greater than government – that is, it will depend on each one of us, on the responsibility and determination of every citizen.
And of course, it has to start somewhere. It has to start with you and me, with each one of us. Right?
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