The Problem with Rich

The problem with “rich” is that I know, instinctively, that it doesn’t apply to me.

My dad would sometimes pull the sly smile as he claimed wealth: the love of the family, the rewarding life, you know, the revisionist definition of rich. But I knew all to well that the financial pressures that had our family on a cycle of spending less and less as payday approached, the debt of a mortgage we couldn’t afford, and the disparity between a Navy income and the cost of living in the D.C. area all added up to one thing: we were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table, that we had a clunker that the kids could drive in addition to a nicer car for the grown ups. We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that we have more than 95% of the people in the world. We just know that we are not rich.

And this is why “rich” is a problem.

It is a word that I have learned, deep down, experientially, does not apply to me.

We have all been taught how to look up, to see the people with more, to identify them as rich.

While we are not.

And so, when we come across “the rich,” the warnings to “the rich,” or “the rich man” on the pages of scripture, we dissociate. “Wow, if I were rich, that would be a pretty convicting story.” Or, “Wow, I wonder, if I were rich, would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

That’s why, in my judgment, the Gospel of Mark does us a great favor.

In Mark 10:17, a man runs up to Jesus. We’re not told anything about him, except that he bows and asks about what must be done to inherit life.

Jesus feels for this man. Loves him. And so, Jesus ends up inviting him into the life-giving way: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes way sad. Because he was…

Because he was what?

“Because he was someone who had a lot of stuff.”

Uh oh.

“Has a lot of stuff” (ἔχων κτήματα πολλά).

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not here embodied in “the rich” (ὁ πλούσιος) but in “one who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books. It hits home in houses loaded up with phones and retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of serving dishes and overflowing closets and basketfulls of toys.

It is not to “the rich” that Jesus goes on to issue his warning–those ethereal others!–but to us:

“Oh, with how much difficulty with those who have a ton of crap (ok, more literally, “a lot of stuff”) enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Jesus will use the word for “rich” a little later, but let’s live with him in the delay. Let’s recognize that none of us is willing to bear that label rich. And let’s recognize that this is perhaps the most important story we could hear and respond to. We are the “stuff havers.”

Let’s leave behind the word “rich.” It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non-rich who still have too much.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God.

14 thoughts on “The Problem with Rich”

  1. Geez Daniel, can’t you NT scholars just leave us with our nebulous word associations that allow us to distance ourselves from the profound, convicting and ultimately life-giving words of the gospel? Merciless scholarship, may you be cursed. :-)

    “Inconceivable!”

      1. Well Daniel, in the words of the Other Bono (as in “Sonny”): “With all due respect to lawyers [and biblical scholars], it’s wonderful that you have this intricate knowledge. You break down words to the nth degree. And sometimes I find it rather disgusting.”

        Grateful for your work man. Keep it coming.

  2. Great post Daniel. Might one say God began His redemptive plan with this invitation? Abraham had to leave his “ktamata” or estate in Gen. 12. But this is the question I have for you, and it relates to my last post on strike the shepherd: What is the essential nature of God’s promise to and through Abraham? Is it geographical or ontological?

    1. But Abraham takes all of his goods (τὰ ὑπάρχοντα) with him (Gen 12:5). This seems opposite, rather than parallel.

  3. Touche’ Ahmad. You remind us that the salvation of God is never retail, but tailor made. I believe the difference has to do with identity. In Mark, he was known as a “rich young ruler.” Abraham was not known because of his wealth. Also, Abraham had other souls to consider on his journey. If anything, Abraham’s identity was connected to his father. That’s what he was asked to leave behind. Both injunctions were, however, essentially the same…”Leave behind the temporal and be enjoined to the Eternal One.” Our salvation always depends on how we respond to that.

  4. To add another perspective, if you have an annual income above $30,000, you are in the top 1% worldwide. Taking measures of income, wealth, and consumption after government transfers, there are virtually no Americans not in the top 10%. So isn’t the minimum wage and government transfers imperiling the spiritual welfare of these top 10% folks by making them richer? ;-)

  5. Your thoughts are causing me to revisit some ponderings on the whole question of how “rich” is defined that I made way back before Obama was elected President. While I attempted to include some theological reflections at the time, and was even then very much aware of the general definition of “rich” as “people who have more money than I do,” I certainly don’t go as deep (theologically) as you do here.

    I like the “has a lot of stuff” definition. Well, “like” is perhaps the wrong word, as it definitely puts me in the “rich” category. But I think it rings true.

    Perhaps even more importantly, though, I agree with the idea that this is perhaps a word we need to use less often, especially because we so seldom use it for ourselves when the words of Jesus to those who are “rich” so clearly are meant for us.

  6. Oh how greatly we desire to be given things to feel guilty about; and how gratified we are when they come along. Poverty and riches are relative, and most people are at neither extreme. I wonder about a comparison with Luke’s Gospel, in which there seems to be a constant theme of privilege/possession/role reversal. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. The rich man wore purple and fared sumptuously every day; the beggar at his gate hoped for crumbs and his sores were licked by the dogs. But when both were in hell their positions were reversed: “… thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” Is it the case, then, that there should and shall be a total reversal of positions? Or should/shall there be a levelling to equality? How much stuff is a lot of stuff? More than we absolutely need?

    P.S. I like the KJV.

  7. This is so true. I come from a family of 2%ers and never really knew it. Everyone has degrees, most have advanced degrees. Until the last couple of years, nobody was divorced. We have more than one never have to work again multimillionaire. But because we had 9 kids, we didn’t have a great house or cool cars and we never went on an airplane or took fancy vacations. So, clearly we weren’t rich. And even our rich relatives weren’t really rich since they all had pull-yourself-up-by -your-bootstraps stories.
    Yet we couldn’t have told you when my dad got paid or if he spent down savings to start his business. And we certainly had no idea how much my dad made or when he got a raise. There was always more than enough as is expected when you trust God and hard work to provide. So it was nice to get paid, but it wasn’t the most important thing.
    The only thing that opened my eyes was following Jesus’s teachings. (The real ones. Not the ones you hear in public Christianity, that is.)

  8. Good word, i love how you make theology from 2000yrs ago ring true today. Here in Africa “rich” is relative. I am reminded of the different things that choke/obstructed the word (seed) in Matt 13. Cares and worries. In many ways its easier over here= less distractions. No one is in a hurry. People are late continually (and over stay for hours). Its my opinion that tech (internet) has been helpful, but somehow people are still lonely. With all this social networking people are still distanced. People are still farther apart. Too many options perhaps? There is a positive and negative in every society. Thanks for sharing.

  9. It’s almost as if God gives us things so that we can give them to others… :-p Not just ‘things’, too: see Jeremiah 9:23-24 and Matthew 13:52 (noting that ‘new’ means the disciple is constantly learning).

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