Few issues provoke more debate among Christians than the question of wealth. Some demonize the rich and canonize the poor. Others see riches as a sign of God's favor for the righteous and view poverty as his punishment for the wicked. This controversy is by no means new; Christians have wrestled with this question since the founding of the church. And the solutions they proposed then are equally valid today.
Saint Augustine, for example, addressed this question by thinking about Luke 16:1931, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. “Although the haughty and rich man,” he writes, “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, died and was tormented in Hell, nevertheless, if he had shown mercy to the poor man covered with sores who lay at his door and was treated with scorn, he himself would have deserved mercy.” In other words, the rich man was condemned not simply for his costly clothing and extravagant meals but for his pride and contempt.
“And if the poor man's merit had been his poverty, not his goodness,” Augustine continues, “he surely would not have been carried by angels into the bosom of Abraham.” If Lazarus had been wicked and poor rather than righteous and poor, his eternal fate would have been the same as that of the rich man. As Augustine concludes, “On the one hand, it was not poverty in itself that was divinely honored, nor, on the other, riches that were condemned, but that the godliness of the one and the ungodliness of the other had their own consequences.” The real issue, therefore, is not the size of our bank accounts but the state of our souls.
To be addressed fairly, wealth and poverty need to be thought about not only economically but also theologically. This integration of the economic and the theological is the focus of the Acton Institute's intellectual mission, and I thank you for the support that allows us to undertake it.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico