The following is an excerpt from a course project I wrote during my first quarter at Fuller discussing how Christians can be agents of change representing the kingdom of God on matters of money, economics, and wealth.
One of the more fascinating teachings of Jesus comes in his encounter with the rich young ruler who lived a very moral life by keeping all the commandments yet asks Christ what one must do to be saved. Jesus tells him that in order to receive the Kingdom of God, he must give away all of his possessions to the poor. After the man walks away, Jesus tells his disciples that it is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Our American understanding of wealth and riches is highly contextualized by the cultural standards, desires, and expectations of Western culture. Growing up as part of the self-identifying “middle class,” I never would have described myself or my family as rich. “Rich” was a term that was only used to describe those with really big houses, really expensive cars, and really nice things. We had all those things, but they were only moderately big, expensive, and nice – we were certainly not rich.
In the last several years, I have come to realize that the typical American understanding of wealth is seriously flawed. Somehow, the pursuit of the American dream has resulted in our being blinded by our wealth, obsessed with things, and terrified that we will not have enough for tomorrow. I was astounded when I realized that my wife and I, despite living on one income while I pay tuition for three years, are incredibly rich; According to the Global Rich List, around 85% of individuals throughout the world will make less this year than what my wife and I will pay in taxes. How, in light of that fact, is it possible to consider myself anything but rich? Because of this, there are many biblical implications for the way that I live my life and use my money because, as Jesus taught his disciples, it is extremely difficult for me, as a rich man, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This past weekend I caught a Marketplace segment on NPR as part of their What is Rich? series on money and wealth. The series is exploring American understandings of what makes one wealthy, how much is enough, and where all our money goes. In light of recent political debates, a few of their segments focus on whether a $250,000 income places someone in the “rich” or “wealthy” category. The segment I caught profiled a small family in New York City – a retired husband, self-employed wife making around $250,000, and an eight year old daughter. After living expenses (including private school tuition, medical expenses, etc.), the family described themselves as fortunate but not rich or wealthy. After all, their private school tuition expenses are between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, so they are certainly not rich.
The average household income in my current neighborhood is around $34,000, about 7 times less than the $250,000 standard being debated. Living in urban Los Angeles, the housing prices are among the most expensive in the country. It is not uncommon for family members to all work multiple jobs to contribute to make ends meet. Even in this neighborhood, however, the average family is among the wealthiest 5% in the world.
It is easy for me to critically reflect on my own suburban middle-class upbringing; in the midst of self-proclaimed “just barely making it middle-classers,” it is no stretch to point out areas of luxury, wealth, and prosperity. Yet, from a global perspective, my current neighborhood, marked by much more struggle and hardship, is also wealthy, prosperous, and even rich. I would expand a comment written by Daniel Gross in a Slate article directed at the $250k crowd to include almost everyone who has a roof, access to transportation, and a telephone -“I regret to inform you that you are indeed rich.”
If this is true, what does it say about us? What does it say about our ability to not only care about, but also pursue, justice in accordance with God’s vision for the world? What does it say about our ability to enter into the kingdom of God here on earth?