The Hidden Poverty of Affluence
When our family moved to Nashville from our 850 square-foot apartment in New York City, we were hoping for more living space… but not too much more. We had grown accustomed to the smaller space, which drew us together and enabled us to live more simply. We asked our realtor to find us a modest house within five miles of the church where I would serve as pastor. “Anything around 2,000 square feet will be plenty,” we told him. But the smallest house he was able to find for us – the house where we now live – is almost twice that size.
Moving day would be the first glimpse that either of our daughters would have of our new home. When we arrived, our justice-driven, sometimes bleeding heart, sensitive-to-global-poverty daughter exclaimed that the house was too much. Way too big. Why do we have so much space? This standard of living seems wrong. Although we didn’t say it out loud, in some ways Patti and I felt the same.
Two ironies soon emerged from this moment. First, our 3,650 square foot house ended up costing us about half of what the 850 square-foot New York apartment did. Secondly, within weeks, we all noticed that our big house was starting to feel small relative to some other homes we had visited.
Our former New York church and our Nashville church are unique, as both churches have an unusual number of well-off and “celebrity-types” in the mix. This has forced us to wrestle with the question of wealth and fame. What does Jesus think about wealthy people and celebrities? Is there a place for them at his Table and in his circle of friends? Are others in our church – namely those living bankrupt or paycheck-to-paycheck – more virtuous because they have less? Is Jesus’ imperative to the rich young ruler – that he must sell all he has and give it to the poor – a non-negotiable for all of his followers?
The Opulence of Jesus
Mary took a pound of expensive ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus…The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas said, “Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:1-8)
Despite Judas’ protest, Jesus received the gift – a full year’s wages worth of perfume – as he lounged comfortably at the table like a boss. This was the same Jesus who was born in a stall, died on a trash heap, and had no place to lay his head. This same Jesus enjoyed – and did not resist in spite of passionate, social-conscience driven protests – certain perks that would only be familiar to corporate executives, preferred country club members, and privileged blue-bloods.
What’s more, Jesus in his infinite wisdom – a wisdom that is higher and greater than ours – has appointed some of his children live poor and others to live large.
Job, the most God-like man on earth, was also the wealthiest. Abraham was made prosperous with land and cattle. Solomon asked God for wisdom and got wisdom and great wealth. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both influential and moneyed men, had the honor of securing Jesus’ burial site. History begins in an extravagant paradise, and will end in an extravagant city with many mansions, precious gems everywhere, and streets paved with gold.
Yet it’s also true that…
If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Timothy 6:8-10) No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
The Bible never says that having wealth is a problem, but desiring and serving wealth. It never says that money is a root of all kinds of evils, but the love of money.
Why would Jesus tell the rich ruler give everything to the poor, but not also demand the same from Abraham or Job? Because the rich ruler didn’t really have money. Money had him. The man who thought he couldn’t live without his money, in truth, wouldn’t be able to live with it.
Compassion for the Rich?
The rich ruler chose money over Jesus. The idea of losing his upscale identity felt like too much to bear. But as the rich ruler ran into the arms of wealth, Jesus looked at him and loved him.
In a world where blame is placed on the infamous “one percent” – and where income gaps between rich and poor bring out the best in some and the worst in others – are we able to see past greed, wherever greed truly exists, to the fears and insecurities that drive the greed? Are we, too, able to look at the rich ruler and love him? Are we able to look at Zacchaeus, the wealthy, crooked, unjust and friendless tax collector and say, “We’re coming to your house today…” We want to eat with you, to be your friend?
Did you know that anxiety and depression are most prominent not among the poor but the rich? As Thoreau has said, most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. This is a biographical statement about many of the world’s rich, who, in the poverty of affluence, have been pierced with many griefs.
America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, ‘children of affluence’ experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country…twenty-two percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. This is three times the national rate of depression for adolescent girls. (Madeleine Levine, The Price of Privilege)
Things are not always as they seem.
Jesus looked at the rich man as the rich man walked away. And he loved him.
We Are All the Top Percent – Now What?
As I think about my own position, I really don’t have any basis for indignation about the extravagance of others. As with every other thing, I need to examine my own situation and heart with thoughtfulness, care, and big doses of reality.
Over half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 per day. This means that I spend more on coffee than most living image-bearers spend on their entire livelihoods. My family’s little 850 square foot New York apartment has a name to these image-bearers, to the over-50-percenters: Its name is Mansion.
This isn’t a cause for guilt. But it is a cause for perspective. In our standard of living, most of us are much closer to the 1% than we are to the over-50%. What does this mean for us?
The first thing that comes to mind is that God wants his people in every place, not just some places. It is right and good – a calling from God – for some to live their lives in the wealthiest neighborhoods, work at the wealthiest firms, have memberships at the wealthiest clubs, and run in the wealthiest circles. Why? Because the three-times-the-national-average depressed and suicidal preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families, along with their moms and dads who are haunted in quiet desperation, as well as the executives, the celebrities, and the rich rulers – these also need proximity to and community with those who have found lasting riches in Jesus. How cruel would it be for the world’s wealthy to be denied access to the embodied light of Jesus, who alone is the answer to the anxiety, depression, isolation, impossible expectations, never knowing who the true friends are, and fools gold at the end of the rainbow that so many of the world’s rich experience every single day?
Maybe the answer lies in the lyric from Si Kahn that was popularized by David Wilcox, that It’s not just what you’re given; It’s what you do with what you’ve got.
Jesus said something similar in a parable. A manager entrusted a certain number of “talents” to three of his workers: one got five, another got two, and another got one. The one with five doubled what had been given to him, leaving him with ten. The one with two also doubled his share, leaving him with four. (Matthew 25:14-30)
Both workers got the same reward at the end of the day. Their “net worth” was different, but their true worth was the same. As Patti likes to say whenever we find ourselves in the company of a “person of note…” Everyone is a person of note, and everyone puts his/her pants on one leg at a time.
Said the richest (and wisest?) man in the world:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. (Job 1:21)
So maybe, in the ultimate sense, it’s not what we do with what we’ve got that matters most. Maybe doing something with what we’ve got – whether it’s the poor widow giving her small coin in the temple, or the man with five talents turning it to ten – what it’s really about is what Jesus has done with the talent entrusted to him, yes?
Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing. Jesus, who, though he was rich, became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich. (Philippians 2:6-7; 2 Corinthians 8:9)
Maybe if we all started there, the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” could see how much we all need each other? Maybe we could see how, apart from Jesus, we are all poor in the truest sense? Maybe we could meet at his cross and, in his name and because of the love with which he has loved us all, bear each other’s burdens – the unique burdens of having little, and the unique burdens of having much?
Because, rich or poor or somewhere in between, everything minus Jesus equals nothing.
And Jesus plus nothing equals everything.