The Wealth of Nations and The Kingdom of God.
It is a commonly held belief that, some 2,000 years ago, a book, in it’s complete form—edited with annotations—fell from the heavens. Nothing could be further from the truth. The work of scribes, prophets, mystics, and priests, the Bible, as we know it, evolved over the course of hundreds of years—beginning in the 8th century BC and concluding in the 2nd century AD, though the canonical version we enjoy today wasn’t compiled until the latter half of the 4th century.
Another book that fell from heaven was Adam Smith’s, The Wealth of Nations. This book was the fiery chariot that delivered the Gospel of Capitalism. It is hard to say which one has had a greater impact on our society. In America, Capitalism and the New Testament are attributed the same privileged status: They are off limits—you do not question either of them without being branded a heretic or un-patriotic. Their un-examined status is essential in maintaining amicable relations between the two, as they are in principle diabolically opposed to one another.
St Paul, who wrote more than half of the New Testament, says, in Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Adam Smith begs to differ. He says, in the The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One warns against selfish ambition, while the other suggests that it is the very force that makes the world go around.
This apparent contradiction, which we as modern people embody, is avoided at all costs. Like all contradictions, it is a symptom of serving two masters. And as Jesus said in Luke, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
What happens when two masters collide?
“Teacher!,” a young man called out to Jesus, as he approached him to ask, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” In a dismissive tone Jesus shot back, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” Jesus must have sized him up on the spot, because his answer is loaded.
In his answer, Jesus emphasizes that there is only One who is good, but when the young man asks, which commandments to keep, Jesus conspicuously leaves the first commandment—You Shall have no other God’s before me—off of his list: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself,” was Jesus’ answer. Jesus was a confrontational teacher and his answer is creating a teaching moment—a situation where he hopes to wake the young man up exposing his hypocrisy or the contradiction he embodies.
This is where the conversation gets interesting. “All these I have kept,” the young man said. This young man is a symbol for modern culture in more ways than one. His voice is the voice of so many people in our society. They are spiritually starved. They have kept the commandments—they haven’t killed, they do not steal, lie, they respect their parents, and treat others with decency. In addition, they followed all the rules—did well in school, graduated from a great college, have a decent job, a nice home, a beautiful spouse, and 2.5 kids. But somehow it still feels like something is missing. So many people say that they feel dead inside, lifeless. With one voice, people of today and the young man from our story asks, “What do I still lack?” How do I enter life?
This is where the conversation gets real. Rather than turning away from the friction, Jesus turned right into the kid’s contradiction. Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Essentially, Jesus points out that he has two masters. And as Jesus teaches elsewhere in Matthew, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money.” This was the moment of truth—the moment where that young man stood there exposed to his own hypocrisy. He had not kept all the commandments. He had broken the most important one, the one Jesus purposefully left off of his list, the first law—“You shall have no other Gods before me.”
Jesus seemed to be alright with prostitutes and tax collectors. It was the idolaters that he considered hopeless. Not the ones that worshiped pagan gods, but the idolaters who bowed down before the almighty dollar. They go to church and proclaim the name of God with their lips, but deny the living God within them three times before they walk out the door in the morning. We betray God when we place the pursuit and maintenance of wealth and status above our commitment to basic sanity and well-being.
Jesus considered these idolaters especially hopeless, not because their sin was any more egregious than that of the prostitute, but because they betray the indwelling presence of God with a kiss. Their behavior is not only socially acceptable, it is praised. They have no source of accountability. In a capitalist society, idolatry is rewarded. Why would they change? There is no pressure applied to them. So, they turn and walk away.
“The un-examined life is not worth living.” ~ Plato
When the young man walked away Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This young man worshiped Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” He separated himself from the Spirit of Truth, which breathed life into him, and as a result felt lifeless. So, he came to Jesus in search of life. Jesus offered him another way. He told him, if you can sever ties with your master, then you can come and follow me. Of course, this kid could not. “He walked away sad, because he was a young man of great wealth.”
Jesus drew a line in the sand. He knew it was more likely that a camel would pass through the eye of a needle than this rich kid would give up worshiping money. But there was no other option. Jesus turned into the friction, because there was no other way to reach out to that kid. That internal conflict, the contradiction has to be exposed.
It is tough to give up the busyness—the obsession and drive—that characterizes the pursuit of wealth. Wealth has sharp hooks. It sinks its teeth deep into our psyche. Before you know it, money is our master. Religion and politics also have deep hooks. All the stereotypical hang-ups—validation, security, and status—have sharp prongs. They arouse strong emotions and we become very defensive. Then, we close down. This closing down is what separates us from the Spirit of Truth that breathes life into our being.
We all have two masters. One is a red herring and the other is what really drives us. The red herring is the one we boisterously promote. This is the one we rant and rave about like our favorite sports team. The one that drives our behavior lurks in the shadows. This force, our actual master, stands out of bounds, just beyond the borders of examination, in the land of taboo. We have to, as Jesus did, step over these boundaries. We must abandon all “the things” of this world—the solidity of our our preconceived ideas, expectations, and fears—if we hope to have the breath of life enter our hearts and renew our minds. But first we must abandon all taboos and leave no area of our life off limits. There can be no un-examined territory.
“The un-examined life”—even the tiniest little slice of un-examined territory—“is not worth living.”
We are not a finished product. We are forever growing into the fullness of who we are—out of the shadows and into the light. The unconscious wants to be made conscious, and until that happens “it will,” as C.G. Jung said, “direct your life and you will call it fate.”