Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The second reading for this coming Sunday is from chapter five of the letter of James, v. 1-6. I am particularly struck by this reading, which begins, "Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries," given the recent sentencing of Enron's Andrew Fastow. You see, the letter of James is not simply decrying wealth, but is chastizing those who gain wealth by witholding wages from their workers. The letter states, "the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your field are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (v. 4)." Fastow's sentencing was lenient (6 yrs. instead of the possible 10 yrs. Fastow agreed to in the original 2004 plea bargain), because Fastow, according to those present at his sentencing including his prosecutors, has changed. NPR reports that,
When it was Fastow's turn to speak, he wept as he apologized to Enron's employees, its investors and his family.
"I'm ashamed of what I did, I wish I could undo what I did at Enron but I can't," Fastow said. He said he would accept whatever sentence was imposed without bitterness. Judge Hoyt told Fastow that he'd been drunk on the wine of greed. NPR Story

What a refreshing change to hear about someone admitting he made a mistake and saying he is sorry for his actions. The warning seems to come in Judge Hoyt's statement about being drunk on greed. Too often it seems, when people get so focused on gaining wealth and getting ahead, they are blind to the ways in which their actions hurt others. Wealth can too easily become the controlling force in our individual lives as well as in our world. In this election year, just look at the extent to which wealth currently controls our political landscape.

Scripture warns in many places of the dangers of wealth. The Hebrew Scriptures try to build justice and care for the poor and vulnerable into their lawcode, because their covenant with God obligates them to try and act as God would act. The prophets, however, demonstrate how difficult it was for the people to live in this way. In the gospels Jesus also warns against the dangers of wealth, from saying to his disciples, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24)," to his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16: 19-31). The temptation today is to soft-peddle these passages or to "spiritualize" them. Many of us, myself included, live very comfortable lives and really have no intention of selling all we have and giving everything to the poor. Nevertheless, I think we have to continue to hold these passages in front of ourselves and let them challenge us.

I was very disturbed to see the headline on the cover of Time on Sept. 18th, which stated, "Does God Want You to be Rich?" (See Time.) The article talked about the revival of a movement called Prosperity Theology that builds on the idea that God promises to be generous with us in this life. While proponents and skeptics of Prosperity Theology can both quote Scripture to support their opposing positions, I think ultimately it has to come down to a deeper reflection on the place of wealth in our lives and the challenge of what it means to be Christian in a world where there is a vast gap between the haves and the have nots. Rather than spending our theological energy justifying our somewhat extravagant lifestyles, it would seem a time for an examination of conscience. In what ways am I benefiting from the oppression of others, and are there ways I can change those situations? What do I value most in my life, and what do I sacrifice in the name of that value (e.g., do I sacrifice career advancement to spend more time with my family, or do I sacrifice my relationships with my family for the sake of my career?)? Am I happy and at peace? Inner restlessness can be a key indicator that what I am valuing most in my life is not fulfilling for me. Am I making the world a better place? This question is a big one for me, because I believe that having more resources gives you a greater responsibility to use those resources (and the power that often comes along with them) to make a difference in the world. If the second reading on Sunday makes us a bit uncomfortable, gives us cause to squirm a bit in our seats, that is not a bad thing. As the saying goes, the Scriptures should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!" (A quick google search showed that this quote is from Finley Peter Dunne and really is in reference to the newspaper, but the sentiment still holds!)