About whom is St. James talking in the Second Reading? He writes: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you” (Jas 5:1).
A Washington Post article two years ago wrote about “a growing resentment that the richest people… have somehow managed to get richer while most working stiffs are just one or two missed paychecks away from a food bank”–this gap between the rich and poor is unfair. Mr. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP, said, “We know that millionaires of this world are not paying their fair share”. This cultural resentment is also displayed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, part of the Democratic Socialists of America, who wore a dress at a fundraiser that said, “Tax the Rich.” I also heard a statement from some teens criticizing wealthy people on Vancouver’s West Side and how their children don’t have to work for anything. So, is St. James writing about rich people today who don’t pay their fair share?
Today’s homily will look at what St. James is saying, what Jesus says about the sin of greed, and how we should live as Catholics.
St. James condemns four behaviours of rich people (Kelly Anderson & Daniel Keating, James, First, Second, and Third John in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 96): “You have laid up treasure for the last days… [St. James is being ironic here: The rich have hoarded material wealth for themselves, and so are liable to judgment by God.] The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out… [In this time period, workers lived at a subsistence level: If they don’t get paid that day, they don’t eat.] You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure… [This means living a life of superficiality, which is forgetful of God and others.] You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you [Earlier in his letter, St. James talked about the wealthy bringing the poor to court and using their influence to achieve a favourable decision against the poor]” (Jas 5:3-6).
But notice he isn’t condemning being rich in and of itself. St. Joseph of Arimathea was rich, and used his money to bury Jesus in a new tomb. In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, St. Paul tells rich people not to be proud, and to use their goods to help others, and thus earn a spiritual reward. That’s what St. Helena, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Thomas More, and St. Katherine Drexel all did with their wealth.
Yes, being wealthy is a spiritual danger, because it tempts us away from God, because we feel we don’t need Him, and from other people, because we can become selfish.
But, the resentment many people today feel towards rich people in general is also wrong. Perhaps rich people have worked hard for their money and earned it. It would be better to criticize a behaviour rather than a whole group of people.
If we criticize children of wealthy families for never working for anything and getting everything for free, we should pity them, not be angry with them, because getting everything for free can make us morally and spiritually weak. And that brings us to what Jesus teaches concerning greed.
In Luke, chapter 12:13-15, “Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” This is a fascinating scene! This man wants a part of his inheritance—that’s justice. However, Jesus won’t settle the case for him. Instead He tells everyone to be careful about greed, thus revealing what’s really in the man’s heart: not justice, but greed.
Perhaps that inheritance was never intended for him; perhaps it was already divided fairly and he wants more than his fair share; perhaps he’s already rich and just wants more. Jesus reveals that sometimes our desire for fairness is a camouflage for greed, and it means that we’re focused on ‘abundance of possessions.’
In another parable, Jesus indirectly teaches us that life is not fair (Mt 25:14-30). In the parable of the talents, God gives money unequally because each person’s ability is unequal: one servant is given five talents, one is given two, and another is given one. The point of the parable is that each person should invest what he or she’s been given, and glorify God. But Jesus never taught that all people should have equal amounts of goods.
St. Paul twice wrote about a situation among Thessalonian Christians where some were living off the charity of others, and so he gave a famous command: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). This command wasn’t given to disabled or elderly people who could no longer work; it was given to those who could but wouldn’t.
Question to consider: Can poor people be greedy? Yes. All people have a right to food and water, housing, and the basic necessities of life, and should contribute what they can to obtaining these goods. But, beyond that, people have to work for what they get. And because we’re all fallen human beings, it’s possible for us to blame other people for our not having what we want, and to want to have things for free.
And this brings us to how we should live as Catholics. 1) St. James is really speaking to us. We’re all rich compared to the people to whom he was writing. All of us have the basic necessities of life. Life might be hard and we might even suffer injustice, but, compared to most of the world, we’re rich. Instead of comparing ourselves to richer Canadians, have we ever thought about asking God why we were given the riches we have? Jesus, why do You give me more than I need? All of us have more than we need. That’s why we even own things we want.
2) We should always work to make the world more just, and this includes fighting for economic justice. But it’s wrong to aim for a world where everyone makes an equal amount of money—that is unjust. It means people are getting free things which should be earned—that is unfair. So, be careful about what solution you support, especially socialism, which is popular among Canadian intellectuals and increasingly among young people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes: “The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’” (2425). Now, Pope Pius XI commended the ‘just demands’ of socialists, “such as strong unions and worker protections,” but socialism goes beyond concern for the poor.
Because these philosophies are atheistic, they try to create the best life possible on earth (after all, for them there’s no afterlife); and because they’re materialistic, the focus is on material goods and on the economy. So their solution is to build a utopia, to eliminate all economic inequality. Therefore, the government tries to improve everything by controlling the means of production and distribution. They try to redistribute wealth ‘fairly,’ but there’s always inequality, because humans are sinful, and, in every country where socialism exists, government officials end up having more than most people.
Socialism used to intrigue me: The idea that everyone could have a good life, no more poverty or need, no one in distress; if we just distributed money equally, there’d be no pain.
You know what changed my mind? An Onion article (which is a satire of a newspaper), where three college students try to live out Marxism. They decide to do chores equally and share supplies. But it breaks down because only one guy is cooking, and another is skipping his turn cleaning the bathroom. After a week of complaining, the guy starts scaling back his efforts in cleaning, because it makes no difference: He gets the same as his lazy roommates. He says, “I bought the peanut butter the first four times, and this Organic Farms [stuff] isn’t cheap. So ever since, I’ve been keeping it in my dresser drawer. If Kirk wants to make himself a sandwich, he can run to the corner store and buy some Jif.” So, they all end up skipping class, smoking pot, and talking politics.
In April 2021, the Liberal Party of Canada adopted a policy resolution to give Canadians Universal Basic Income, to alleviate poverty. All Canadians, regardless of need, would get the same amount of free money. One commentator noted that this would be $24,000 annually to able-bodied, working age Canadians which costs $464 billion to taxpayers. So, why should some people work? It would make us weak and dependent on the government, and people would still complain that others have more than they. Employment insurance is good, and is given to people when they need support, but free income for all is completely different.
It says in Acts of the Apostles, “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common… There was not any one needy among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them… and distribution was made to each as any had need” (4:32,34-35). The difference between socialism and the early Church was that this was voluntary. If people want to share all their goods with others out of love for Jesus Christ, then great! And, if rich people were to give more money to those in need, great! But you can’t force them.
Don’t blame rich people if you don’t have everything you want, and if material abundance is unequal. Being rich carries many temptations, so be careful about aiming for riches. But Jesus reminds us that being greedy is a sin, so be even more careful of that.