What the Gospel Means for Rich People

What she needed was for her particular form of poverty to be seen so that the good news of Jesus could be shown to her.

Mockingbird / 10.12.21

This article, written by Nathan Hart, first appeared in the “Money Issue” of The Mockingbird magazine:

Catherine appears flawless on her Instagram profile. The most recent picture shows her in a designer dress receiving an award for philanthropic leadership in our community. Last week she posted a picture of her husband, Tom, playing with their kids in the infinity pool behind their multimillion-dollar home. (“Catherine” and “Tom” are not their real names, but their story is true.)

Today Catherine has a 10:00 AM appointment with me in the church office. It’s 10:25 when she breezes through the doors, wearing Lululemon workout clothes and a light jacket. She recently had a baby but somehow looks totally fit. She offers a polite smile before sitting in the wingback chair facing my desk.

“Thank you, Pastor, for meeting with me. I’m sorry I’m late.” Mid-sentence, a big tear slides down her cheek and she reaches into her Louis Vuitton handbag for a tissue. The smile she displayed when she entered the building has vanished completely.

Now she stares into the tissue crumpled between her fingers. “I’m really struggling. I just don’t know what my purpose is.”

I respond with a “Hmm” to indicate that I’m listening and want to hear more.

“I wake up every morning and look for the baby, but she doesn’t need me. The au pair is already holding her in her arms, feeding her a bottle. I walk out of my room to the landing at the top of the staircase and look down toward the kitchen.”

She pauses for a moment as if seeing the scene in her mind’s eye. My wife and I have been in Catherine’s home, so I can picture it too. The front entrance of the house opens to an enormous foyer and double grand staircase, marble pillars and all. I envision Catherine standing atop those stairs, gazing blankly through all that empty space.

“I can hear the older two children eating breakfast. Their nanny has fed them, their backpacks are next to the front door, and Tom is on the train heading into the city. My trainer arrives at 8:30 to workout with me in our gym, but she doesn’t speak much English and keeps her earbuds in most of the time.”

“The feeling I have is”—she pauses to consider how to finish the sentence—“it’s worse than alone. I don’t matter. I’m not needed. I could disappear from my life and nobody would care. I don’t have any real friends here—my closest girlfriends live near our vacation house. The days feel so long when the kids are at school. What’s the point? I wish someone needed me, you know—like, anyone in the world.”[1]

As Catherine talks, I recall a conversation I had with her husband Tom as we sipped bourbon one afternoon at their country club. “Rich people,” he told me, “are the only ones you’re still allowed to hate in this country.”

I asked him to say more.

“You can’t say you hate gay people, black people, poor people. But a CEO getting a ten-million-dollar bonus? Everybody hates that guy, and it’s okay to say it.”

I was slightly taken aback. Tom, despite everything, felt he was being persecuted.

As I considered his complaint, I began to wonder how God feels about rich people. The Bible clearly and consistently warns against greed and financial idolatry. We can imagine the Apostle James wagging his finger as he says, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” The Bible is also unwavering about God’s love for the poor. In his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs, philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff introduces the phrase “quartet of the vulnerable” to describe some of the people about whom God especially cares: widows, orphans, migrants, and people who are materially poor. As the prophet Zechariah says, for example: “Show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor.”

This theme continues in the Gospels. Jesus’ first public statement was that his mission was to bring “good news to the poor,” and one of his final messages was that he would divide his followers from his detractors, as a shepherd divides sheep from goats, based on who did and did not feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners.

In accordance with these themes, your church’s bookstore probably includes titles like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, explaining how wealthy Christians should be using their privilege to give more, spend less, fund charities, feel guilty about that sports car, etc.

Maybe Tom is right. Maybe rich people simply can’t be tolerated, especially by God.

But look again at Catherine. Look again at Tom. They have every material provision a person could wish for, yet they feel alone. They are materially rich but relationally poor. Is it possible that Jesus’ “good news to the poor” is applicable to their form of poverty, too?

Let’s consider the story of Zacchaeus. In Sunday School I learned he was a “wee little man,” but in his own community he was probably a dominant personality. Maybe he climbed up that sycamore tree because he was so short, and maybe also because he was accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get ahead. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was resented and judged by his community because he betrayed it to gain extravagant personal wealth. He was rich and famous for all the wrong reasons. We can be fairly sure that everybody hated this guy, and that it was okay to say so.

See Zacchaeus in his tree, like Catherine on her staircase and Tom in his club: wealthy but alone.

Christians often talk about reaching the marginalized. Who do we picture when we use that term? It’s not usually people like this, but why not? Zacchaeus probably had no friends, and for good reason. In all likelihood, he was isolated from his community and resented. Jesus saw him in a different light. He didn’t merely see an intolerably privileged person needing to change his behavior for God’s sake. He saw a human being who was relationally and spiritually impoverished. By entering his home and showing him friendship, Jesus became good news to Zacchaeus in his particular form of poverty. He gave him what nobody else would: nonjudgmental friendship.

How would Zacchaeus be viewed in our world today? Even if we can agree that he’d be relationally sidelined, perhaps we’d think, “Ah, but he’s in this situation by his own choice, his own sinfulness!” And that’s what Zacchaeus’ acquaintances thought of him, too. According to Luke’s gospel, they called him “a sinner.” As the narrator, Luke uses the neutral, matter-of-fact term “rich,” but how did Jesus refer to him? He called him “lost.” Like a good shepherd seeing a sheep who has been isolated from the fold, Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ deep poverty of relationship and had compassion on him. The story concludes with Jesus saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Think about that. Oftentimes when we picture “the lost,” we think of people who are down-and-out, not up-and-out. But when Jesus said he came to seek and to save the lost, the man he was talking about was probably the richest person in town.

In 1994, Mother Teresa visited the United States to give a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. It was the only trip she ever took to this country. In her remarks, she interwove a narrative about material versus spiritual poverty. Her travels from the dust of India to the opulence of the United States seemed to have startled her—she said she was “surprised at the West.” The visit awakened her to the reality of deep poverties that cannot be measured materially. As she spoke, she contrasted the hungry people in India who smiled when she served them a plate of rice with people living in the U.S. who long for something more. A person who has every material comfort but who feels neglected, Mother Teresa explained, experiences a form of poverty that cannot be solved with a plate of rice. She described a visit to an assisted living home in which people were wealthy but relationally impoverished:

I can never forget the experience I had in visiting a home where they kept all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them into an institution and forgotten them. I saw that in that home these old people had everything—good food, comfortable place, television, everything, but everyone was looking toward the door. And I did not see a single one with a smile on the face. I turned to Sister and I asked: “Why do these people who have every comfort here, why are they all looking toward the door? Why are they not smiling?” I am so used to seeing the smiles on our people, even the dying ones smile. And Sister said: “This is the way it is nearly every day. They are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.” And see, this neglect to love brings spiritual poverty.

Mother Teresa’s vivid illustration shows the type of poverty that permeates many wealthy communities. This spiritual poverty, caused by relational neglect, she said, is “much harder to solve” than material poverty. Which may seem a little insensitive, given how persistent and cruel material poverty is. But Kenneth Gergen, a social psychologist and author of The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, estimates that more than twenty new psychological problems have arisen in the twentieth century because of society’s emphasis on self-fulfillment through material advancement. These problems include bulimia and anorexia, low self-esteem, and extreme levels of anxiety. Gergen’s research suggests that even as poor people earn more money and find success, their spiritual problems may get worse.

Madeline Levine is a therapist and co-founder of Challenge Success, a project at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. In her book The Price of Privilege, Levine tells us, “Parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids.” Members of rich households, kids and adults alike, tend to be overscheduled and under extreme pressure to perform well in order to maintain an expected level of excellence and affluence. Children are constantly attending sports practices or academic tutoring sessions while parents are constantly attending work meetings or physical workouts, every member of the household spending their time in separate geographical locations, isolated from each other. In the case of affluent suburban moms, Levine says, relational isolation can be particularly acute. This is because of their “impossibly high standards,” their commitment “to never appear either self-absorbed or vulnerable,” and their constant guarding of privacy, “lest the façade of perfection be torn away.”

That’s what I witnessed in my office when Catherine visited me. Her façade of Instagram perfection had been torn away, revealing the truth about her loneliness, sorrow, and relational destitution. In that honest moment, it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to hand her one of those books about how privileged Christians should act justly toward “the marginalized.” What she needed was for her particular form of poverty to be seen and acknowledged so that the good news of Jesus could be shown to her.

Unconditional love propelled Jesus to do what nobody else thought was acceptable: to enter Zacchaeus’ home as a friendly guest. After all, he had come to seek and to save the lost, to bring good news to the poor, to love the unlovable. It may be true that the rich need to act more justly, to use their privilege for good. But they’ll never be judged into those actions. Resentment won’t get them there, either. The unconditional grace of Jesus is the best, purest, most thorough kind of motivator.

“We love because he first loved us.” This is what happened to Zacchaeus. At the end of that story, he repaid the people he had treated unfairly. But he did that good deed only after his own relational poverty had been attended to.

God sees Catherine on her staircase, Tom in his country club, Zacchaeus in his tree. He sees you, and he sees me.

Can we see him on his cross? No one has ever been more alone. He is abandoned by his friends, forsaken by the Father, completely outcast. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” writes Paul in 2 Corinthians, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”