Reflections on Riches

16 April 2018

There has been much media coverage regarding the Paradise Papers that were revealed to the world as an exposé of who and where rich people were placing their money, which was often in tax havens. The indignity has not contained to those characters who are routinely vilified, as it was discovered that even Queen Elizabeth’s tax advisors were taking advantage of schemes to avoid paying tax.

On the domestic front, in the United Kingdom, there have been public outrages as comedians (such as Jimmy Carr) and singers (such as certain members of the group Take That) were shown to be profiteering from tax avoidance schemes. Although it was in the letter of the law, many members of the public considered the schemes to be outside the spirit of the legislation.

In addition, there is the saddest annual publication of all – the Sunday Times Rich List. It itemises the amount of money that people will leave when they die. It is supposed to be a celebration to the god of wealth, and it achieves its goal by provoking envy in its readers. In reality, it is the testament to the temporal and temporary.

In more recent times, the BBC (the public broadcasting service in the UK) had been under much private and public pressure to reveal the salaries of its employees, as it was considered that the licence payers (as the BBC is funded by a public tax) were paying over the odds for the ‘stars.’ The result was that the BBC did indeed publish the earnings table, with the individual identification of those people who were owning more that £150,000 (approximately $206,000).

The outcome of the BBC’s revelation was that it exposed pay gaps that lead to jealousy (particularly among its employees who discovered that they were not being paid what they thought were equitable salaries) as well as the exposure of inequalities (as women were not paid in parity with their male counterparts). Firstly, there was the difference based on gender. It was followed by those who stated that there were also inequalities as far as race and socio-economic groups were concerned. There may have been very valid reasons for criticising the pay gaps (which was acknowledged by some of the well-paid male white presenters agreeing to a voluntary salary decrease), but most of the British public did not care about the internal wranglings as there was and is the perception that the BBC was paying its more prominent employees too much in the first instance. There was also a feeling of greed and envy among the licence payers that they should be paid more too for the work they do, after all their employment was more important than ‘appearing on the telly.’1 

In the midst of these publications, there is the acid test that goes: would a person still do the job if they were paid considerably less or nothing at all? The test exposes whether the person loved the job or they loved the financial rewards. It reveals whether a person is more interested in their own standard of living rather than in the welfare of humanity.

It has calculated that, in 2009, the curves for both happiness and life expectancy flatten off at approximately $25,000 per capita (around £18,000), although this figure may have increased slightly in the intervening years. The principle still holds true that there is a limit to which a person can have an income and feel happier. It is a truism that the more a person gets of anything – whether it is a loaf of bread or cars – it contributes less to their sense of wellbeing.2

Wealth can have a way of destroying contentment with our lives, our wellbeing and contentment. David wrote in the lyrics of a psalm: ‘Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.’ (Psalm 37: 16)

Neil Diamond expresses his views that money is not everything in the song ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’:

Money talks
But it don’t sing and dance
And it don’t walk
And long as I have you
Here with me, I’d much rather be
Forever in blue jeans.

It tells of the intrinsic problem with pursuing riches in that relationships are either not formed or are stunted because all the person can see is the currency sign. There may be suspicion that the other person is only in a relationship with them because of their riches, the other person is actually in a relationship because they seek the other person’s riches, a person may wish the other person to be dead so that they can lay hold of their inheritance earlier (which is vividly portrayed in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son), there is jealousy among colleagues because of pay differential (whether real or felt), or there can be 101 alternative scenarios.

In the end, the sight of reality is lost as more precious than all the cash that is in this world is genuine, real friendships that cannot be bought. When a person’s soul is filled with the lure of cash, the ability to relate to others is limited or twisted, as portrayed by the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol.

The concentration on the accumulation of cash is illustrated by when one of the richest men in modern history, American multi-billionaire John D Rockefeller, was once asked: “How much money is enough?” His famous supposed retort was: “Just one more dollar.”

His attitude can be also observed in the American bumper sticker: ‘He who has the most toys wins.’

Doug Coupland wrote of the futility of this attitude: ‘All you are doing with your life is collecting objects and nothing else.’ It is truism that is often brought to the minds of those pursuing wealth to the exclusion of all else when faced with the mortality of others or (more poignantly) of themselves.

The problem is that earthly wealth is so transitory as proved by the following illustration:

In the Middle ages,Charlemagne ruled what today is much of the European continent. By a strange situation, this ruthless ruler conveyed an important spiritual message to the world -but not during his lifetime, instead it was after his death, by the bone of his index finger! When he died, he was entombed in a grand style, having his body set on an ivory throne decked out with gold and precious stones. On his head, they placed a crown of jewels, and by propping up his arm they had him holding a sceptre, the symbol of power. On his finger was a signet ring; he wore a robe of purple, and on a scroll placed in his lap were written many of the deeds, many which were evil, but with Scripture verses mingled in so as to give a sense of approval by God. The burial unit was sealed finally. Centuries later, the seal was broken to reveal some surprises. The flesh had rotted like any man, now only a skeleton sat on the throne. His flesh had turned to dust and settled at the feet of the throne, along with the dust of his earthly robe that had also rotted. The prop that had held up his arm and hand had disintegrated also, and his skeleton hand had dropped to the floor taking with it the scroll that once sat on his lap. When those who unsealed his tomb noticed that his skeleton hand now resting on the open scroll on the floor seemed to be coincidentally pointing with his index finger they bent over and read where by chance his finger bone was pointing...and it was to this: "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul." Luke 9:25. The bone of a dead man spoke greater truth than that man had ever spoken in his lifetime!

In more modern times, two friends were talking after a funeral, one said to the other: “How much did he leave?” The other one responded: “Everything.”

It is no good being the richest person in the cemetery. We cannot take anything with us as illustrated that we can dig up the grave goods of the Anglo-Saxons, ancient Egyptians and other people.

Job expressed this reality when he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.’ (Job 1: 21)

The ancient Romans knew well the temporary nature of success and material gain. In the triumphal processions after famous battles, when the captured enemies and booty was being displayed, there would be a man whispering into the ear of the victorious general as they rode on his chariot: “All this will pass.”

Solomon had the right attitude when he pleaded to God: ‘Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God,’ (Proverbs 30: 8 – 9)

He re-emphasises the point in the book of Ecclesiastes, when he states that (in chapter 5) that the chasing after riches is meaningless. (The word ‘hebel’ translated as ‘meaningless’ actually means ‘brief, without substance, froth.’) Philip Yancy has written that such unsubstantial pursuits as: ‘flat emotions, a radical indifference to others, the sensation of drifting, numbness to pain, a resigned acceptance of a world gone mad.’

Paul, in the New Testament, agreed with this perspective. He wrote to his young protégé: ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing in the world and we take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a toot of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.’ (1 Timothy 6: 6 – 10) The sentence regarding the love of money is well-known and the emphasis is correctly paced on the love rather than the object; but, in doing so, the consequences have been downplayed in that it will cause us to live out of fellowship with other people and with God.

One of the positive outcomes for the present young generation is that their attitude toward wealth has, for the most part, transitioned. They know that the previous generations, especially the ‘baby boomers,’ have enjoyed economic success and that they are destined to be known as the ‘rent generation’ as they are unable to find their way onto the housing ladder. Instead, they are discovering that experience counts for far more than material possessions and rejecting the words of Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street, ‘greed is good.’

There is the temptation to be the gods of our own empires, thinking that the here-and-now is all that there is to live for. It is as though we con ourselves into thinking that that we can convince the Almighty that we deserve eternal rewards because we were successful in building what is transcient. There can be no mistake that there can be no hoodwinking of God as He owns everything in any event. We are reminded in the hymn:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.

We need to be humble before the great Creator God who owns everything (e.g. Psalm 50: 10 – 11), even the breath that we partake, yet laid His glory to one side so that He did not even have anywhere to lay His head (Matthew 8: 20).

In following the Suffering Servant and eschewing the path of material wealth, we see those people who live with moral value (such s doctors, nurses, etc.). But there are those who give up even more to be of service to a broken world such as missionary doctors, pilots who work with the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) – all forsaking lucrative salaries that could have been theirs.

We need to have an eternal, heavenly perspective and cultivate our relationship with God so that we can echo the words of Paul: ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4: 12 – 13)

However, great or little we have in terms of monetary value, we need to avoid the trap of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

1.    For example, Martin Saunders, ‘Why are we outraged by BBC salaries? 20 July 2017
2.    Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level – why more equal societies almost always do better (Penguin, London 2009) p. 8