Sean Coghlan S.J.
At the beginning of the fifth chapter of his epistle, James makes a fierce and sustained attact on a certain type of rich person. Shortly after I read the chapter I decided, for interest's sake to save up some of the reports on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings which were just about to start in Hong Kong. The next day I stopped collecting! One reason was that there were so many of them. The second reason was that I could hardly understand a line of what was being reported.
However, I could see that an extraordinary event was happening. I fell to contemplating the amazing sight of so much money and power, so many influential people gathered in one small area. There was something almost beautiful in the financial energy present. I thought of all the good that could be done if so much money could be harnessed for the genuine service of the greatest number of us all, dwellers of this planet.
My contemplation was helped by a radio programme I heard and an article I read during the week. The radio programme was about a farming project on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Uganda. Some agricultural instructors introduced bee keeping and honey production methods to subsistence farmers in the area. The dedication of the instructors and a very modest financial investment in the project brought self belief and dignity to the farmers. What a good use of the riches entrusted by God to the human family!
On the other hand I read an article in "The New Yorker" about Bosnia, a part of the former Yugoslavia. It was a chilling account of human brutality. Because of their savage greed some of the political leaders stirred up fear, suspicion and racial hatred among the Croatians, Serbs and Muslims. As a result of murder, intimidation and "racial cleansing" houses and land fell vacant. Some people became rich beyond their most selfish dreams. So, riches can be double edged.
In general what have the Old and New Testament to tell us about riches?
They tell us somewhat cautiously and without too much emphasis, that riches and possessions are good and useful. They are from God, like the stars and the sea and our bodies and music and football. And then the warnings start!
There is an almost amusing warning from Jesus. It is very suitable for I.M.F/W.B week. He speaks like a good investment adviser. He tells us to invest our money wisely. We should invest in people. We should be shrewd enough to make influential friends who will do us a good turn when we need one. He is referring to the poor, widows, orphans and the sick. He warns us to make sure that we have eternal credit laid up in the Bank of Heaven.
Jesus also warns potential investors that no investment, no share, no cheque is absolutely and totally reliable. We cannot depend on money. He was not being interviewed for the local equivalent of "The Asia Wall Street Journal". In fact, even that journal in its field would have to agree with him -- and history would back it up. He was, in fact, talking about attempts to safeguard our whole human life, material and spiritual, present and future. Nothing but the grace and help of God and a good conscience can guarantee us ultimate security.
Very clearly implied in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is that while riches are good, or, at least, neutral, they are dangerous, very dangerous. They are addictive. Nowadays health warnings are printed on all cigarette advertisements. Perhaps addiction warnings should be printed on all banknotes higher than, say, $50.
Money can blind us to every value but itself. It can make us materialistic and hard-hearted. It can convince us that because we have lots of money, we can make our own rules, do anything we like, buy anybody we want. I heard of a rich young woman who asked a priest to help her leave home and find a room to live in. The priest asked her why she wanted to leave home. She said that she was being corrupted. Her father thought of nothing but money. The young woman said that she half-believed that when her father got to the gates of heaven and St. Peter showed some hesitation about letting him in, her father would laugh and say, "OK, OK; I understand. What kind of money are you talking about?"!
Once upon a time, Jesus told his disciples that it was impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. They were shocked and protested. In reply he said (my words) "Well, its impossible for anyone to get into heaven by one's own efforts. But, with God's help, even a rich man can get into heaven".
Do you feel sad when you cannot cage the golden-red sun, setting behind Lantau Island and keep it forever? Do you feel angry when the hwamei singing so gloriously from the bushes behind Big Wave Bay, flies away and leaves you bereft. Not too sad or too angry, I hope. You thank God that such loveliness should just be.
We thank God for the power and energy of money and for the goodness, joy, comfort and beauty it can bring with it. We thank God when we have some money ourselves, but we need to ask him to teach us to be content when we have enough and we need to trust him when we are in need. He will help us not to become addicted. I knew a man once. He was a good man, but even his family and friends would shake their heads in wonderment and say, "You know, he really loved money".
Did you ever hear about the gold prospector in the good old days in Alaska? He slaved for months in the bitter cold, in the mud and the darkness to fill his poke with gold. He came into town and lost the lot in fifteen minutes at cards. As he left the saloon he shrugged his shoulders and said philosophically, "Ah well! Just like my old granddad used to say 'Easy come, easy go'". We need to be somewhat similarly relaxed about money.
I would be almost embarrassed to recommend to you to trust in God when things are not going well for you financially. I find it hard to suggest that a young man or woman consider giving up everything and following Christ poor. Why do I hesitate? Perhaps, like the man in the Gospel, I do have faith, but not enough - yet. Maybe the most we can squeeze out of ourselves is a desire to want to want to be poor and depend on God.
Finally, let me tell you that I do know a woman in Hong Kong who does put herself in God's hands and gets by on what I would consider very little.