Does Your Attitude Toward Money Bring You Closer to Christ, or Do You Walk Away Sad?

A proper relationship to God puts a proper relationship to money in its proper place, neither denying nor exaggerating its significance.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful” (photo: Public Domain)

Last Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-30) recounted the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. The young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to attain to eternal life, and Jesus pointed him first to the Commandments: these are sine qua non to reaching eternal life. 

But the young man pushed further. He insisted he kept the Commandments from his youth. Was there anything else?

Jesus sees he is serious and is willing to push him further. He counsels him to embrace evangelical poverty: “Go and sell what you have and give to the poor.” 

Jesus warns against the difficulties the rich have attaining to the Kingdom of Heaven. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ advice to the rich young man was the straw that broke that camel’s back. “He went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

A traditional presentation of today’s Gospel would distinguish between the Commandments and the counsels. Everybody needs to keep the Commandments. There are no exceptions there. 

But embracing the radical demands of evangelical poverty has traditionally been recognized as a calling that is not for everyone. The Church has spoken of the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience as relating to spiritual perfection. But the Church also defends the right to private property and condemns socialism precisely for abridging that right.

Contemporary theologians tend to recognize that today’s Gospel is not just for some people. Perhaps not every person is called to the radical giving up of material possessions that, say, some religious do. But every person is called to be ready to ensure that nothing gets in the way of God’s primacy in his life. That’s not a counsel. That’s a Commandment. It’s the First Commandment.

“I AM the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have other gods before me.” 

The First Commandment is not just addressed to people who worship jackal-headed Anubis or elephant-headed deities or great nothings. An idol is anything that takes the primacy of place God must have in one’s life. Power. Sex. Money. They all can be idols. 

Remember when Belle, Ebenezer Scrooge’s fiancée, dumps him? What was her justification for breaking their engagement? “Another idol has displaced me. A golden one.”

Love is exclusive. Belle would not and should not have had to compete with money. God should not have to compete with anything. If he does, it means we are idol worshippers.

In considering the message of the Gospel, we should read it in conjunction with the First Reading (Wisdom 7:7-11).

The First Reading and the Gospel normally are closely related in the Sunday readings. One of the great reforms of the Novus Ordo Missae was the introduction of the First Reading, which usually comes from the Old Testament, because the Old Testament has often been terra incognita for Catholics. 

The First Reading speaks of praying “and prudence was given to me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom was given to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne.”

The narrator, at least for purposes of the example, is Solomon. Now Solomon was hardly poor. He was a king. He had great wealth. He had lots of concubines. He had his virtues … and his vices.

But Solomon is distinguished for his “wisdom.” Read the First Reading in conjunction with I Kings 3:3-15, where Solomon did in fact pray for wisdom. The Biblical writer tells us that “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked for this” as opposed to “long life or riches or the life of your enemies.” Why?

Let’s remember what “wisdom” means in the Old Testament. “Wisdom” was not about book knowledge. Wisdom was knowing how to live right, how to live well, how to live in good relationships.

Read that last sentence. It can be read in a very secular way, and it was in the ancient Near East. “Wisdom” was not unique to Israel. The kinds of writings that we find in the so-called “sapiential books” of the Old Testament, like Proverbs, had parallels among the writings of Israel’s neighbors.

What was unique about “wisdom” in Israel came from Israel’s understanding of who it was: God’s People, freely chosen by God with whom he made a “covenant,” that was quite personal: “You will be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 30:22).

For Israel (and for us, as “spiritual Semites” and heirs of God’s gifts), if “wisdom” is about knowing how to live right and well — well, you can’t do that without God. So, first and foremost, the “wise” man is the one who lives in right relationship with God. He’s the one who has his priorities right — and his first priority is God.

That’s nothing more than the First Commandment.

It’s also why, for the Old Testament, the “fool” is not a person who is illiterate (since it’s not about book learning) but the person who lives his life as if God doesn’t exist, as if he has to give no account of his life to God. “The fool has said in his heart: ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1).

Fools are not just those who proudly wave the flag of atheism. Fools are those who live as if God in practice doesn’t exist, see or judge — even if they profess him on their lips. Sunday’s Second Reading reminded us of that: we will have to render an account of how we lived (Hebrews 4:13b). Did we live wisely — or like fools?

If we read the Gospel of the Rich Young Man in light of what “wisdom” means in the Bible (and Solomon’s paean to wisdom in the First Reading), our perspectives get adjusted, even in modern life.

The Book of Wisdom praises the gift of wisdom for two reasons: because wisdom is valuable in itself, and because other good things come with wisdom.

That wisdom is intrinsically valuable is biblically self-evident. Living well as living in harmony with God is necessary and worthwhile in itself.

But it also can come with benefits. As Wisdom tells us, “all good things together came to me in [wisdom’s] company” (Wisdom 7:11). If wisdom for antiquity was about “living right and living well,” then Wisdom was about properly ordered relationships. For Israel (and us Christians), no relationships can be properly ordered unless God occupies first place. But if that relationship is in order, the possibility of our relationships with other people and the world being in proper order also increases.

Of course, people have been persecuted for insisting that their relationship with God comes first. Of course we ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Of course, we might be called upon to make sacrifices, sometimes even great ones, because of our love for and devotion to God.

The Book of Wisdom is not guaranteeing that life will be a rose garden. But it is affirming that things cannot be right in this world unless they’re right with God, and more likely capable of being right if they are.

That requires faith and trust. It requires faith in Divine Providence, that God will not abandon us because we try to live wisely, i.e., in proper relationship first of all to God. Sometimes, it may require that faith even when it seems that remaining faithful to God appears, in the world’s view, to be foolish.

Do we want to be the world’s fools or God’s wise ones?

Money plays a role in our lives, and prudence dictates that we want to be economical, thrifty, and to plan for the future. But there is a difference between trusting in our riches (which usually means trusting in our own resourcefulness) versus trusting in God. We can be prudent but, as God reminds the rich farmer who filled his siloes with the agricultural wealth of his day: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you!” (Luke 12:20).

We act prudently, according to our own situation. But, in accepting the kind of indifference to riches that Jesus counsels the rich young man, we recognize that it is ultimately God, not us, who are in control. The stock market could crash tomorrow, wiping out your 401(k). Thieves could break in and steal, from your house or by hacking your bank (Matthew 6:20). 

Our relationship to money is disordered when we begin to believe or, more likely, just act as if we can be guarantors of our own security, that our relationship with our banker (rather than with God) will ensure we live well and good, that we are architects of some human providence. The worst expression of this comes when, in the name of our financial reckoning, we decide to deny or end the lives of our own child because we “can’t afford another baby.” That is the ultimate act of faithlessness and foolishness, the same perverted unhappiness that sent the rich young man away, because God was asking too much.

A proper relationship to God puts a proper relationship to money in its proper place, neither denying nor exaggerating its significance. But it’s a huge act of faith in today’s world, driven by its material priorities and reliance on self or government. 

A priest friend, Father Matt Zuberbueler, observed that last Sunday’s Gospel, on the 10th day of the 10th month, led him back to John 10:10: “I came that man might have life, and have it to the full.” Or, as St. Irenaeus reminded us, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” Alive to God, not in constant pursuit of some gold ring.

It’s the challenge of the old adage: dare we let go and let God?