In these weeks leading up to the beginning of Lent, we’ve been hearing from the Letter of St. James. One of the things I like about James’ teaching is the way he presents a kind of balancing act using couplets of behavior: the inadequacy of faith without works, the emptiness of a life of worldly pleasures that lacks eternal ones, the contrast between rich and poor.
It’s the last one that I want to address briefly. Much is made of how James urges us not to favor the wealthy man over the poor one, and rightfully so. Indeed, a great deal of this Epistle could be read as a warning (not an indictment) to the leaders of Corporate America to keep their priorities in order. To this I would fully subscribe. And yet this calls for a word of caution, one that I think James intended for us to recognize as well.
There has been a great deal of talk over the last few years about class warfare. Today’s political atmosphere, with its polarizing agendas, has done much to engender this talk. And, viewed in the light of politics (or perhaps we should say "darkness"), much of this talk has been counterproductive, if not destructive, to our society. It seems as if there’s nothing we like better than to demonize our opponents (read: those who disagree with us). And in the world of Us vs. Them, the "Rich" have become a prime target.
There’s much to be said about the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s work. Chesterton was a great believer in the importance of private property, especially the ownership of land. There’s so much to be said about this, in fact, that I’m not going to say it right now.
No, what I’d like to point out is just this: that we should take care not to sanctify the poor simply because of their poverty, nor should we stigmatize the rich simply because of their wealth. Someone reminded me the other day that quite a few people have, as their goal of accumulating wealth, the intent to perform great works of charity with it. This isn’t to suggest that the ends justify the means, far from it. It merely points out that some people desire money in order to give it away, one way or another.
Likewise, there are those in poverty who have wound up there through their own actions – crime, drug use, or simply sloth, to name three. While we should show great compassion for these people, and are called to do whatever we can to help them (as the Holy Father pointed out in his recent encyclical), we should not anoint them with some type of holiness simply because they are lacking in material possessions. And while we must provide them with those material things that can provide them life-saving comfort, we simply cannot ignore the spiritual gifts that can provide them with soul-saving comfort.
So I think James would add that we should not view the piety of the rich man with skepticism, simply because he is rich. Wealth and the responsibilities it engenders are a great burden (I hasten to add that I have no personal knowledge of this!), one that definitely requires spiritual guidance in order to be properly exercised. And if in fact our worst suspicions regarding the character of the rich have any validity at all, is this not all the more reason to welcome them when they come looking for the comfort which only the Truth of Christ provides?
"Show no partiality," James exhorts us, "as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory." (James 2:1) Whether rich or poor, dressed in fine cloths or rags, we are called to share that saving message with all those with whom we come in contact. If we can afford to look at others with scorn, cannot our Lord Jesus look at us likewise?