Published September 14, 2022
Among the many sayings of Jesus that have echoed down through the ages, few have continued to sound so loudly or uncomfortably in our ears as his warning, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” But this does not keep most of us from trying our darnedest to prove him wrong. In every era, Christians have devised systems for helping the wealthy–camel’s hump and all–squeeze through the proverbial eye of a needle into the kingdom of God. In medieval times they might endow chantry chapels in the wills, employing a team of monks to pray for their souls. Today, the “faith and work” movement often serves to reassure Christian businessmen that by participating to the hilt in the global capitalist economy, they are doing the Lord’s work.
It has been easy — in the thirteenth century as much as the twenty-first — for “radical” followers of Christ to assume a prophetic stance against all such compromises and glorify poverty as tantamount to Christian faithfulness. But although an idolatrous love of money is a great evil, the tension between God and Mammon will not be resolved by righteous rants against upper-class greed or middle-class complacency. The questions that money raises are usually too complex and multi-faceted to be resolved by such responses.
Does setting aside money for your kids’ college, instead of giving all your surplus away and trusting God, count as service of Mammon? What about saving for a long and comfortable retirement? What about shrewdly weighing your investment options for maximal return, rather than investing in your Christian friend’s business, or spending extravagantly on Christmas gifts for friends and family? These are not easy questions.
Our starting point must be a recognition that while the spiritual and temporal domains are linked, they should not be confused. In the former each individual person encounters God’s saving power and must respond to his call through faith; in the latter, we encounter our neighbors, carry out our careers and vocations, and raise families through faithful and prudent works. In the prosperity gospel, preachers conflate God’s spiritual blessings on believers for their faith with worldly prosperity. In some forms of what we might call “Christo-capitalism,” the dynamic force of the market becomes the engine of God’s redemptive purposes in history, and the Bible is prostituted to economic ideology to encourage an almost religious faith in free-market mechanisms. Alternatively, on the left side of the politico-economic spectrum, many Christians aim to apply the logic of the “divine economy” of unconditional giving to the earthly economic order, hoping to eradicate need and social conflict, and thus incarnate Christ’s kingdom on earth, or else buy into forms of liberation theology in which poverty and righteousness, wealth and depravity are crudely equated.
Against all these confusions, we must clearly insist on the contingent, this-worldly character of wealth, without complacently bracketing it off from the demands of Christian faithfulness.
What is Wealth?
Let’s begin then by asking: what is wealth, really? It may seem like a dumb question, but although everyone seems to want it, I’m not sure we know what it is we want. Consider the common claim (by both cheerleaders and critics) that America is the wealthiest country on earth. And yet, if by wealth we mean net worth, that is hardly the case; America ranks 19th globally in median household net worth. On the other hand, the common image of America as the great consumer society, frenetically scooping up stuff, does hold up to the data; only Norway and Switzerland edge us out in per capita spending, and recent statistics suggest the average American household has 300,000 items. This suggests already an important distinction between money and stuff, one that we are all already aware of on a personal level — we all know that friend or relative who complains constantly about never having any money, even while loading up her shopping cart with the latest top-brand products. It is easy to have a three-car garage full of stuff — even fairly nice stuff — without having much in the way of wealth. Indeed, our culture and economic system encourage us to do just this, so much so that some people can earn a million a year and still be living, as it were, paycheck to paycheck.
Faced with this sad state of affairs, we may be tempted to double down on our definition of wealth as financial net worth, and extol the virtues of the thrifty saver who piles up a mountain of cash. The wise man, we lecture ourselves, is the one who counts the number of zeros in his bank account or portfolio, not the one who counts his cars or golf clubs, or even the number of zeros on his paycheck (so argued the 1990s bestseller The Millionaire Next Door). But why? What good is money sitting in the bank?
After all, we forget at our peril that the word “wealth” originates as the noun form of the adjective “well” — wealth is well-being. From this standpoint, money alone, unused, unspent, could hardly be wealth. The readily quantifiable nature of money — “cold hard cash” — tempts us to fetishize it, to make it an end in itself. But realistically, it must be a means to some end—some good end—to have genuine value, to genuinely be wealth. Of course, this highlights at the same time why mere consumption is no more wealth than mere saving is: consumption for consumption’s sake, unmoored from the fulfillment of real human needs and real human goods, sounds like the opposite of well-being.
It is worth noting that neither the three-car garage full of stuff nor the bank account full of zeros would have been very recognizable to our distant ancestors as wealth. To be sure, in every culture, conspicuous displays of luxury and large stores of gold have been coveted markers of wealth — our Bibles are not wrong to put “Solomon’s Great Wealth” as the heading of the eye-popping account in 1 Kings 10:14-29. But for most of history, wealth has above all meant land. We might give a nostalgic Wendell Berry-esque account of this, along the lines of the importance of place and rootedness for human well-being; the modest yeoman farmer might well feel more prosperous than the wandering maritime merchant, whatever the cash balance of the latter. But more basically, the importance of land as wealth for so much of history has been its role as the most fundamental of all means of production. In an agrarian economy, there was little of value you could produce without access to land, and to be landless, whatever one’s wits or brawn, was to be largely at the mercy of those who did have land.
In this we see the importance of the careful parceling out of land by tribes, clans, and families in the Conquest of Canaan, and the detailed Levitical legislation that sought to ensure these parcels remained well-distributed to the original families. Even as we move from an agrarian to a mercantile and industrial economy, land retains fundamental importance. Raw materials for production must be extracted from the land, and however much value workshops, factories, and offices may add to these materials, they must be built on land, and the resulting increase in land value ensures that wealth accrues to landowners. That said, rapid economic change has steadily eroded the importance of land in favor of other forms of capital.
But this retrospective glance highlights something important for us: the wealth that is truly valued is capital, which is to say a means of production—unlike money, which in itself is simply a means of exchange. This obviously makes sense when we think about wealth as the ability to fulfill human needs and procure human goods. Consumer goods may be nice, but they constantly decay, deteriorate, and of course get consumed; money is nice, as something to exchange for such goods, but money will run out. Most important, clearly, is to have the means to produce the goods you want to consume, or to produce goods you can exchange for what you want to consume. Wealth, then, means above all self-sufficiency, not just the freedom from want in the moment, but the freedom from fear of want in the future. It’s no coincidence that if you consult the promotional literature of wealth managers and investment advisors, you will encounter over and over words such as “confidence,” “security,” “protection,” “safety,” even “invincibility.” Wealth is our security blanket; or perhaps more accurately, whatever serves as our security blanket is what we consider our true wealth: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Clearly, this was a root idea of wealth in older societies, but our hyper-financialized economy has intensified it. The possession of land, after all, did not totally free one from dependency; the land itself, after all, was prone to any number of natural disasters which could undermine its use and destroy its value. With our modern financial products, we have made every endeavor to transcend earthly limitation. You can buy insurance against pretty much any risk you can imagine, and even buy insurance against the risk of that insurance defaulting. We rarely invest any longer in individual plots of land, buildings, or business operations; if we invest in particular companies at all, it is in shares of stock, where we share ownership with millions of others. More likely, we invest in mutual funds that own small fractions of hundred of different companies around the globe. By thus buffering ourselves against the “thousand mortal shocks that flesh is heir to,” we hope that our wealth will bring us full self-sufficiency.
With the detachment of land and wealth, however, a new connotation has also crept into our conception of wealth: self-determination. You can see this too in much financial marketing: one asks, “Will you have enough money to live life on your own terms?”; and another declares, “Having wealth can allow you to do anything you want with your time.” When wealth meant land, and land meant family land, and family land meant family responsibilities, to have wealth meant more to be tied down than it did to be liberated. But by converting our assets to the liquid forms of stocks, bonds, and hard cash, we aspire to have all the privileges of wealth with few of the responsibilities. We can go anywhere we want to go, buy anything we want to have, be anything we want to be. Wealth, we hope, is a ticket to freedom in every sense: freedom from fear and freedom from constraint.
It is worth pausing at this point to draw our attention to a curious feature of the modern phenomenon of wealth. We are accustomed to thinking of greed, the chief vice connected to money, as being a matter of inordinate attachment to material things. And it is not hard to see examples of such inordinate attachment in our contemporary lives, particularly when it comes to our cars, our homes, and our furnishings. But at the same time, perhaps what is most striking in modern life is our detachment from material things. We see it in our consumption patterns—we buy things, and replace them within a year. We see it in our investment patterns—as mentioned above, we invest in ways that leave us as detached as possible from the actual physical assets and people we are putting our money into.
Indeed, we even see it in our ownership patterns—those cars and homes we think we are so attached to, we are ready to swap out for a new, bigger, better one within a few years (and the car itself, for that matter, is a means to detach us from geographical dependence). We are less in thrall to greed, perhaps, than to the greater sin of pride, desiring wealth as a means to transcend as much as possible the limits of our worldly existence, free from dependence on labor, land, or even other people. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the heart and soul of the financial industry, retirement planning. The aspiration of retirement saving is twofold: (1) to be financially secure enough to need no help from governments, friends, or even family when your body starts breaking down, and (2) preferably, to have the freedom to stop work, kick back, and “live a little” for a decade or two while still of sound mind and sound body. I don’t mean to say that all retirement saving is bad, but for now it is simply worth noting how at odds much of the rhetoric of the retirement industry is with a Christian ethic of mutual interdependence.
Can wealth, then, ever be a good? If the essence of wealth lies in this desire for transcendence and independence, this striving for godlike infinity, is it any wonder that Jesus declares Mammon the chief rival to God? And yet wealth clearly is a good, not just in common sense experience, but clearly in Scripture itself. Over and over, God blesses his people with wealth, and they in turn, at least sometimes, use it to bless others and to glorify his name.
But it is important to be clear about what we are dealing with. Frequently, against the perceived danger of “leftist Christianity,” many Christian authors rally to the defense of wealth, describing it in terms of a healthy enjoyment of God’s good gifts of creation and materiality, and accusing their adversaries of a Gnostic asceticism that would scorn these blessings. But if the modern pursuit of wealth is more about detachment from and transcendence of materiality, this defense rings hollow: indeed, the lowly subsistence farmer may be far more in tune with God’s good gifts in creation than the high-flying Wall Street financier. The more important question, then, is not whether God minds us enjoying material goods, but how much God wants us to pursue self-sufficiency. While it might be easy to answer piously, “Not at all; he wants us to depend on him every day for our daily bread,” the very structure of creation warns against taking this dependence too far. To teach humility to Israel in the wilderness, God made them dependent on a daily rain of manna and quail, but that is not how most of mankind has lived.
Rather, we raise sheep and shear their wool, raise cattle, drink their milk and eat their meat, plant wheat, water it and harvest it. Which is all to say, God calls us to take possession of means of production and use them to produce the things we need. He calls us, in short, to a mediated dependence on Him, not to an absolute dependence or an idolatrous independence. Wealth, rightly used, is the means by which we display the image of God in ruling over the world as his stewards; yet if we are not very careful, it becomes the means by which we seek to become as God, displacing him and ruling ourselves.
A Survey of Biblical Teaching
When it comes to the question of what the Bible says about money, there are, unsurprisingly, about as many opinions as there are about money itself. Christians who extol money as one of the greatest earthly goods find in Scripture a defense of wealth-accumulation (e.g., Jon Schneider, The Good of Affluence). Those who rail against it as almost always idolatrous find in Scripture a sustained polemic against the pervasive power of Mammon (e.g., Doug Jones, Dismissing Jesus). Those who see it as a good, but a good that must be well-distributed, see in Scripture an attack on inequality and a blueprint for redistribution (e.g., Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger). It has become common for advocates of different attitudes to wealth to divvy Scripture up among themselves: the Gospels (minus a few awkward parables) and first four chapters of Acts for the social justice warriors; the Parable of the Talents and the book of Proverbs for the free market zealots; the Deuteronomic code for the distributists. Others have thrown up their hands in despair at the diversity of Scriptural teaching on wealth, denying the possibility of discovering a consistent biblical wealth ethic.
At the level of principle, however, the diversity of Scripture’s witness on wealth is overstated. For instance, the Book of Proverbs, often pigeonholed as offering a bourgeois morality in which wealth equals blessing and poverty equals laziness, spends much more time warning the rich against idolatry and oppression than it does warning the poor about sloth. The Gospels, likewise, are less interested in condemning wealth per se than they are in exposing—again—idolatry and oppression. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes in his classic study, Sharing Possessions, the Bible’s concrete practical prescriptions about what to do with wealth may be all over the map (and why not, given the diversity of social, historical, and personal circumstances involved?), but its basic message is surprisingly consistent: wealth is a God-given good for the sustenance and enrichment of human life, but is also a dangerous source of idolatry and oppression.
It bears emphasizing that to say this can hardly be a means of downplaying the dangers of wealth. Many are the sermons on the Rich Young Ruler in which the congregation exhales a sigh of relief on learning that the rich young ruler’s problem wasn’t that he was rich, it was that he was idolatrous about his money—“Phew,” we all say, “I almost thought Jesus might be talking to me there for a minute!” Much fewer are our sermons on Isaiah or Amos, but when they do happen, we are relieved to hear that the prophet only declares “Woe to those who join house to house and add field to field” (Is. 5:8) because they got rich by “oppressing the poor” and “crushing the needy” (Amos 4:1); we, on the other hand, make an honest living as a mortgage loan officer at the bank, and get our household goods from Amazon, so no worries.
No, if Scripture tells us anything at all, it is that wealth and idolatry go together like salt and pepper; it is rare to find much of one without the other. Idolatry is not some rare vice that afflicts a few of the careless wealthy, but a temptation that follows almost inescapably upon any acquisition of wealth. Indeed, it is not a vice of the rich to which the poor are immune—the longing for wealth that one does not have, while it can arise out of legitimate need or grief at injustice, easily degenerates into an idolatrous envy and a burning obsession every bit as crippling as that of the miser. Nor is injustice and oppression some odd pathological, or culturally specific add-on to greed, as if back in primitive biblical times, they could only get rich by exploitation, but now we’ve discovered how to get rich by honest productivity.
Rather, if idolatry and oppression seem to go hand-in-hand in almost every biblical discussion of wealth, it is because there is an intimate structural connection. If one worships Yahweh as God, then the human persons created in his image must necessarily be valued above all, and valued as persons, ends in themselves, rather than means to other ends. If Yahweh is displaced by inanimate creatures, human persons will become instrumentalized as dispensable means toward the service of the new god, Mammon. To the extent that wealth is viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a product of one’s own labors and cleverness, the idolization of wealth shades over into an idolization of self, in which all other persons, or at least less wealthy ones, are perceived as radically inferior. Thus Naboth comes to be seen as far less valuable than his vineyard, and our garments and gadgets far more valuable than the third-world workers who make them.
Some readers will have instinctively bristled at my comparison of Naboth’s vineyard and Bangladeshi garment factory workers. There is a world of difference, they will say. In Ahab’s pre-modern economy, the only real way to get wealthy was at the expense of others. Wealth was, as we noted already, above all a matter of land, and there was only so much land to go around. If you wanted more, you had to go to war and conquer someone, find ways to reduce your neighbor to debt servitude so you could acquire his land at a rock-bottom price, or use a rigged legal system to deprive him of it on the basis of trumped-up charges. Nowadays, in a market economy characterized by the free global flow of capital, you can get rich by making your neighbor (including the Bangladeshi garment worker) rich. Everyone wins.
Someone might well retort that this rosy picture is frightfully naïve about the on-the-ground realities and imbalances of power in the global economic system; particularly in natural resource industries, which do still depend above all on that scarce resource of land, old-fashioned Ahab-and-Naboth style exploitation, plus more sophisticated World-Bank-aided forms of it, remain depressingly common. But this is not an essay in macro-economics, so let’s sidestep that objection for now, and grant the main force of the argument: yes it is true that in our modern, non-agrarian economy, the accumulation of wealth does not depend nearly so directly on oppression and injustice as it once did. There is much more room today to get rich by one’s own hard work and brains, and to build that wealth in the ethereal world of the financial markets rather than in hard assets like land, iron, and gold.
But precisely the factors that might seem to weaken the link between wealth and injustice are liable to strengthen the link between wealth and idolatry. Note the key features of the valuation of wealth that we discussed above—self-sufficiency and self-determination. We noted that even in an age when wealth was primarily measured by tangible assets, its greatest lure has always been the power it promised: beginning with the desire for the freedom from want, and freedom from control by others, increasing wealth eventually offers the satisfaction of the freedom to control others and transcend ordinary human limitations. But wealth measured largely in real estate, as it would have been in biblical times, could only offer so much transcendence; the land itself had to be constantly cared for, and was always at the mercy of the elements. Now that our wealth consists increasingly in abstract financial instruments—stocks and bonds and insurance products—that know no geographical limits and need no caretakers, the illusion of transcendence that it offers is far more powerful and persuasive. I say “the illusion,” because of course, as the 2008 financial crisis showed us, even the most abstract instruments offer little buffer against the risk and chaos that is an inescapable part of human life: the financial speculator who added derivatives to derivatives was no better off than the real estate investor who added house to house and field to field.
Likewise, the explosion of options that our modern technology has given us— in goods, services, and transportation—and the unparalleled fungibility of modern money, mean that wealth offers almost limitless opportunities for self-determination. With a Visa or Mastercard in your pocket, there’s nowhere you can’t go, nothing you can’t buy, and ultimately, we tell ourselves, nothing you can’t be. In Biblical times, even the wealthiest landlord or merchant tended to be bound to a certain place or community, while modern forms of wealth hold out the promise of freeing us from any limitations beyond what we choose for ourselves. Old-fashioned greed thus shades over into the deadliest of the sins, pride, the idolatry of the self, and the narratives we tell ourselves, that wealth is a reward for ingenuity, hard work, and productivity, simply cement the idolatrous connection between my net worth and my self-worth.
A final point is worth noting in this connection. Too often Christians concerned to defend the essential goodness of wealth focus narrowly on wealth as an absolute measure of material well-being; wealth, on this account, is simply the possession of various goods that enable a comfortable and perhaps luxurious life, and the financial means to continue purchasing more. Accordingly, writers of this sort are quick to point out that even the poorest Americans today are generally better off than the rich of Biblical times. If the Bible had really meant to denounce material bounty as such, well then we’d all better strip down, empty our pantries, and move into small shacks, they sarcastically argue. But if the essential allure of wealth is in its promise of self-sufficiency, self-determination, and transcendence, then wealth is much more a social construct than a simple calculation of how many goods and services you can afford. The rich young ruler could glory in the fact that, being far wealthier than most of his fellows, he was freed from any sense of dependence on them, and indeed knew that they often depended on him. He could rejoice that he had far more freedom and power than his fellows, that he was master of his own life. The inner-city single mother living on welfare, even if she has access to luxuries he never dreamed of, and even a richer and healthier diet, has no such sense of transcendence. This is why conversations about wealth that start with the question, “how much is too much?” are bound to lead nowhere. The key question rather is, “how does this wealth make you feel about yourself, and about others?”
Thus, regardless of whether it is the case that you can only get rich at the expense of others, it is true that you can generally only feel rich at the expense of others. Thus concerns about inequality, such as we find throughout the Scriptures, can hardly be dismissed as outdated zero-sum thinking. In short, we ignore or marginalize the Bible’s constant warnings against the perils of wealth at our peril. They are not the relics of a long-gone agrarian age, but speak directly to the idolatry that captures our hearts today.
The Virtue of Liberality
When asked what virtues should govern our relation to wealth, many of us tend to think in terms of a two-track morality. First are the basic rules of justice in buying and selling and such, which are binding on everyone all of the time, rules like “don’t steal,” “don’t defraud,” “honor your contracts,” etc. Then there are “cherry on top” expressions of charity, in which we are encouraged to freely give away money or sacrifice our own advantage for that of others. The first are required, the latter optional; the former a matter of sin or innocence, the latter a matter of extra merit; the former primarily a matter of don’ts, the latter primarily a matter of dos. Sometimes in politically conservative circles, this distinction gets mapped onto claims about the appropriate reach of civil laws, which can and should enforce duties of justice, like “Don’t steal,” but not those of charity, like “share with those in need.” While there are relevant distinctions in this neighborhood, this bifurcated vision often reinforces a bourgeois morality in which our basic moral obligations in relation to money are pretty minimal—don’t take other people’s stuff—within which we are encouraged to maximize our profits so that one day, as the Spirit moves us, we might benevolently part with some of our hard-won gains.
We are thus liable to be a bit flummoxed when we encounter the way our Christian forebears talked about the eighth commandment, that good old bastion of private property. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes: “You shall not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.” Notice the negative and the positive held together as a unit.
The Heidelberg Catechism sings the same tune in Q. 111:
“Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
And the Westminster Larger Catechism amplifies this theme:
“The duties required in the eighth commandment are: truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretiship, or other like engagements, and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.”
This emphasis is apt to catch us somewhat off-guard—here we thought we were doing great and keeping the commandment by maintaining a careful distinction between our neighbor’s private property and our own, and now we find that if we’re not actively endeavoring to “further the wealth and outward estate of others,” we’re stealing! What this means, concretely, is that at no point in our economic lives can we bracket out as irrelevant our duty to love our neighbor and seek to maximize his good. If I’m in a position to price my product, or pay my workers, at a level that maximizes my profit and leaves others the slimmest of margins, I must recognize this as a temptation to violate the eighth commandment. Likewise, if I can afford to bless someone by buying a product and tipping generously, well there’s an opportunity to obey the eighth commandment. This isn’t how we Americans like to work—we’re happy to give generously later, we tell ourselves, but when it’s time to do business, we want to make sure we don’t leave any money on the table. But of course, leaving some money on the table—or some grain at the corners of the fields—is exactly how God told Israel to practice their charity.
The reason why we can never bracket out our neighbor’s profit while seeking our own becomes clear when we consider our economic relations from the standpoint of virtue. Virtue is neither about mere good intentions, nor merely law-abiding actions, but a pattern of action conducive toward the good that flows from a soul formed by the right desires and habits. Our outward actions with respect to money both reflect and shape our inward desires. A man who thinks that he can, in certain business contexts, ignore the neighbor’s need in order to get the best deal, will soon find his heart deadening toward his neighbor’s need in general, and being drawn instead toward money as a good in itself, not merely a tool toward other goods. However much he may tell himself that he is making money to give it away later, odds are that that “later” will never come. Of course, this does not mean he needs to ignore his own good as well—we are not called to irresponsibly fritter away our own wealth by being a doormat, always deferring to others and letting them take advantage of us. But this is a less common temptation—as Aquinas says, “To spend on oneself is an inclination of nature; hence to spend money on others belongs properly to a virtue.”
It might not surprise that the catechisms lumped together so much of our economic morality under one heading—they were after all trying to describe all morality in terms of just ten commandments—but Aquinas similarly organizes his discussion of our approach to money under a single virtue (out of the dozens he surveys in the Summa): liberality (ST II-II Q. 117). A number of elements of his discussion might strike us as curious. First is the name, which has to do with giving stuff away; surely, we think, there are other virtues pertaining to our wealth, perhaps beginning first with prudence. Second is the fact that he classifies this virtue of giving stuff away with his discussion of justice, rather than, as we would assume, charity! Lest we might worry that it is a bit extreme to say that the only way to be virtuous with our wealth is to give it away, he clarifies—and this is the third thing that may baffle us—that “It belongs to liberality to make good use of money” and that “the use of money consists not only in giving it but also in spending it.” How can we make sense of all this?
Let’s look at how Aquinas characterizes liberality’s relationship to justice. In his typical “yes and no” manner, Aquinas acknowledges that it is not a “species of justice” per se but it is rightly “reckoned by some to be a part of justice, being annexed thereto.” The key difference, he goes on to clarify, is this: “Justice establishes equality in external things, but has nothing to do, properly speaking, with the regulation of internal passions: wherefore money is in one way the matter of liberality, and in another way of justice.” Justice is the virtue of rightly-ordered external actions regarding money, liberality of rightly-ordered affections. And liberality is not simply the same as charity, because charity is primarily a matter of one’s love for the recipient, whereas liberality is primarily a matter of one’s non-love for the gift: “But the giving of liberality arises from a person being affected in a certain way towards money, in that he desires it not nor loves it.”
In other words, the key consideration in liberality, which makes it a virtue foundational to all our financial dealings, is whether wealth has found its way into one’s heart, displacing the love of God and the love of others. The virtue of liberality, then, is that of having a heart that holds money loosely, that is neither unduly bothered by the lack of it, nor unduly enamored with the possession of it, that receives it and also lets it go with equanimity, investing it with no value beyond the concrete goods it can achieve.
This, then, is why liberality includes spending. There are certainly problems with the careless or compulsive spender, but they are nothing compared to those of the hoarder, the one who has made money his god, confusing a means with an end. Money is meant to be used, and “the use of money consists in parting with it.” To be sure, there is a virtue of prudence “to keep money, lest it be stolen or spent uselessly,” but at some point it will need to be parted with. And when one parts with it, says Aquinas, it is most virtuous to part with it most fully, so that “parting with money by giving it to others proceeds from a greater virtue than when we spend it on ourselves.” Although he here appears to create a simple dichotomy between spending for one’s own good, which is OK, and giving to one’s neighbor’s good, which is especially good, his remarks elsewhere in the Summa allow us to pull these two together more clearly. In describing the purpose of private property, Aquinas notes that it is ordained to maximize the common use of this world’s goods, and accordingly we should aim whenever possible to use things not merely for our own private good but for the good of others. Accordingly, even when we spend money on ourselves, it is not as if we bracket out the good of others. Of course, we all recognize this—we speak of “patronizing” a store or restaurant, and when we make a purchase, we exchange mutual thanks with the cashier or waitress. We have both served one another and been served by one another, at least if it is a fair exchange. But this is precisely why we cannot content ourselves with a minimalistic view of fairness but rather, as the catechisms above showed, rigorously apply the Golden Rule to our financial dealings: are we trying to do as much good to our neighbor as possible? Of course, one has to ask this question in the context of one’s entire financial life, not each individual transaction: sure, I might best “further the wealth and outward estate” of the waitress by giving her a 150% tip, but this might not be sustainable in view of my other financial obligations. But I should strenuously seek, if I am a seller, to price my products as close as possible to their true value, rather than exploitatively convincing my customers (by tricks of marketing, concealed information, fictitious sale prices, etc.) to pay prices they will later rue. And if I am a buyer, rather than obsessively trying to drive the best bargain I possibly can and ditching my favorite vendor as soon as I find someone with a lower price, I should try to bless my neighbor from whom I am purchasing by paying the fair price he asks.
Liberality is the mindset, disciplined by long practice, that refuses to value money as a good in itself, but holds it lightly, using it freely in whatever way maximizes its usefulness, whether that be giving it away to those who need it most, or spending it in a transaction that brings the maximum benefit to both parties. By pursuing this virtue in every area of our financial lives, we can overcome the schizophrenia, so characteristic of Americans, that parsimoniously connives to maximize profits today with the promise, so often reneged on, of giving back to the less fortunate tomorrow.
The Vices of Greed and Prodigality
Rightly understanding liberality helps break down a two-track morality of money, enabling us to see that even our spending should be seen as a service to our neighbor, a form of giving, even if still distinct from outright charity. But where virtue is naturally unified, vices are always plural, pulling us apart in different directions. So now we must examine two key vices that represent opposite forms of a disordered love and use of money (although many others could easily be added): Greed and Prodigality.
Greed is the most obvious vice in this list—indeed, it is so debilitating a spiritual disease that St. Paul would call it a source of all other vices: “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Paul also lists the greedy alongside idolaters, drunkards, and the sexually immoral as those with whom Christians should not even associate (1 Cor. 5:10-11) and says they will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10), frightening words for a culture so addicted to wealth as our own. Of course, we questioned earlier whether this is actually an apt diagnosis of American society—our addiction to debt and spending, to satisfy our cravings and impress our peers, actually trumps our regard for real wealth most of the time.
We will come back to our spending addiction in a moment, but let us not dismiss too quickly the idea that we might still be prone to suffer from old-fashioned Greed in the more specific sense. So what is that sense? Aquinas defines it as “the internal affection which a man has for riches when, for instance, a man loves them, desires them, or delights in them, immoderately.” In this, he says, man sins against himself, by not loving what is most to his true good, and consequently, sins also against God by putting temporal things above eternal things. But what might make us love riches in this way? Clearly money is a means, not an end, and who could be irrational enough to love it as an end in itself? The Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:16-21 gives us wonderful insight: “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”
The most striking thing about this little soliloquy is its solipsism: “within himself,” “I,” “I,” “my,” “I,” I,” “my,” “I,” “my,” “my,” “I, “my.” Here is a man who is completely wrapped up in himself, so much so that he makes little speeches to himself, talking to his soul like an old friend. This gives us the first key to the heart of avarice.
Another key is found in James 4:13–14: “Go to now, ye that say, today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”
Riches are valued chiefly as a source of false security, a way of helping us feel in control of our lives—absurdly so, since they are even more transient than life itself.
If we want to ask ourselves if we are tempted to greed, we should look for these two dangers—solipsism and false security—which are the heart of greed. Greed, in fact, is closer to Pride tha n to Envy among the Seven Deadly Sins, because in Greed, we turn inward and ignore others altogether; we retreat into ourselves and seek to be self-sufficient. When we do this, we deny what we were fundamentally created to be. The first thing the Scripture says about mankind is that we were formed from the dust of the ground, and made alive by the breath of God: we are wholly dependent, secure only as we rest upon God. The second thing the Scripture says about us is that “It is not good for man to be alone.” We were created to share; nothing is more natural to us. Consider the instinctive reaction of the little child when she discovers some new marvel in the backyard—“Come and see.” Consider your instinctive reaction when you hear a new piece of marvelous music or see a great new film: you tell everyone about it and try to get them to experience it as well. We are never more human than when we are sharing, and in nothing is the Fall clearer than in the barrier it introduces to such sharing (the first thing Adam and Eve did was hide their bodies from one another). Greed, then, is fallen man’s descent into solipsism, the evidence that we have become incurvatus in se (“turned in upon ourselves”), in Augustine’s memorable phrase. This of course brings us back to the theme of idolatry highlighted two posts previously: since God only is truly self-sufficient, and the only one in whom we can genuinely rest secure, idolatry occurs whenever we treat some other object as a source of self-sufficiency, inviting us to rest secure in it, and isolating us from other creatures and from our creator.
Do we Americans ever do this with wealth, then? Certainly. We need look no further than our retirement savings (or our dreams and worries about such savings if we don’t yet have them, as is the case for too many Americans!). I’m not about to recommend to people to stop saving for retirement, and yet it is a sad and troubling commentary on our times that we have become so dependent on these individualized investment accounts instead of on one another for support in our old age. There are good practical and demographic reasons for this shift, and yet by shifting our focus from flesh and blood sources of support, to a mesmerizing series of digits—bound to multiply, we imagine, by the magic of compound interest—we readily lull ourselves into a false security. Of course, the enormous financial industry seeks by every means to encourage this false security, selling us the lie that with enough money, invested rightly, we can be secure against “the thousand mortal shocks that flesh is heir to.” And so we put our faith in technology stocks, or housing, or gold, or the next sure-thing investment, and get burned every time but still never learn, so powerful is our faith in this idol. Obviously, not all prudent saving becomes idolatrous greed, so I will return to say more about this specific issue in the next post.
Having spent so much time on Greed, let me be much quicker in surveying its opposite: Prodigality. If Greed is too much love of money, then Prodigality is too little. This seems like an odd sin to be guilty of—who do we know who makes this mistake? Well actually, as soon as we ask ourselves that question, a dozen examples are likely to spring to mind (at least half of them among our in-laws, no doubt!). We roll our eyes and groan at the endless trials of a friend or family member who complains that they never have enough money, and yet they always have plenty of income, and plenty of nice clothes and a new car, for that matter. Of course, our love of judging others in such matters can easily lead us astray here, but it remains true that we all know plenty of people afflicted by Prodigality, and one of them is likely to look us in the mirror every morning. This is the vice of failing to recognize that wealth is a very important tool that God has given us to effectively rule the world as his stewards, and thus failing to take appropriate steps to manage it prudently, instead throwing it around loosely and thoughtlessly, whether out of bad motives or good. We are apt to assume of others the worst motives, assuming that their spending is driven by a gluttonous inability to control their myriad cravings, or an envious desire to keep up with the Joneses, or a vainglorious need to be cool and important by having the newest things. And indeed often these are our motives for prodigality, but frequently this vice feeds on good motives as well. The great annual ritual of prodigality that takes place from November to December of every year is fueled by many motives, but still perhaps the chiefest among them is the laudable desire to give good gifts to loved ones—especially our children. But aside from the fact that the most important thing we can give others is ourselves, not some newfangled plastic creation or wad of cash, we are doing our children no favors if we are modeling for them each year the vice of prodigality—spending first and finding a way to pay for it later.
Indeed, when Aquinas discusses the vice of prodigality, it is entirely in the context of giving too much, or too carelessly, even to urgent needs and worthy causes. Why? Well, God has given us spheres of responsibility, and warns us that we must take care of the closest ones first—“if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Indeed, the Christian who fails to do so, because he gave away all his savings to World Vision, will soon find himself having to plead for the charity of others just to keep himself and his family fed and clothed, becoming as much a burden as a gift to others. Giving too much right away can also make us less able to give later. That said, in my experience it is a comparatively small number who err in the direction of such charitable prodigality—for every Christian who does, there are five others who, enamoured of wealth’s promise of power and security, keep too tight a hold on their purse-strings.
“Love God, and Do As You Will?”
In one of his most arresting formulations of the task of Christian discipleship, St. Augustine proposed the maxim, “Love God, and do what you will.” At first glance, it is hard not to revolt against the seeming libertinism of this proposal, which we are apt to misread as a license for self-indulgence. Anyone who has spent much time with the great Church Father, however, will understand just how much is packed into those first two words: “Love God.” All of human life, Augustine argued, is governed by love; it is love that drives the quest to pile up wealth for the sake of peace and security, love that compels some to spend recklessly in pursuit of pleasure or the attention of others, and love that motivates some to give freely to the neighbor in need. All of us love, but not all of us (indeed, this side of glory, none of us), love rightly, because our loves are not rightly ordered. As Augustine tirelessly taught, the great task of Christian life is to bring all of our loves into proper subordination to our overriding, passionate love for God himself. If once we ever achieve this right ordering, insists Augustine, the rest of our moral life will fall into place; we can “do what we will,” because we will always will to do what we ought.
Applied to the all-important and often all-absorbing question of our financial discipleship, this maxim can come as a great relief and yet a profound challenge. On the one hand, it can free us from sterile legalistic prescriptions which would try to solve the moral problems of money simply by relocating it into someone else’s hands, inviting us instead to a creative obedience that can adapt and faithfully respond to an ever-changing social and economic landscape. On the other hand, though, we would be missing Augustine’s point–and Scripture’s–if we thought this made things easy. Christ warns against serving both God and Mammon because there is perhaps nothing else under the sun that is so apt to displace God as the ordering principle of our loves. The ways in which wealth tempts us to idolatry are manifold, and constantly shifting and disorienting us with each fresh evolution or revolution of economic structures. That which can look like generosity in one setting can be revealed as a tool of oppression in another.
To our love of God then, we must add a determination to discern the contours of the world in which God has called us to work. Only with our hearts aligned to use money in the service of God, and our minds attuned to understand the meaning of money, can we be faithful disciples in an age of unprecedented wealth.
- This is important to note, in light of how readily modern economists mock the “zero-sum thinking” that dominated pre-modern economic thinking. The fact is that land, the dominant factor in pre-modern economies, is a zero-sum game. ↑
- Using the Reformed numbering ↑
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.