Jesus and the Billionaires

Are billionaires being persecuted? Certainly they feel under attack.

I understand the sentiment. They are easy targets. There are a few of them. They have a lot of power, and have access to the political elites. They may not know a lot about politics or economics, but they can make money, which always calls people’s attention. Personally, I don’t think there’s much evidence that billionaires are more thoughtful, intelligent or tasteful than anyone else; they are simply better opportunists.

Still, certainly billionaires are not necessarily the fundamental source of the problem our world faces. On this they might be right. They don’t cause all of us to pollute the air; nor do they all deny evolution and climate change. Some are libertarians when it comes to sexuality; or support projects they think effectively reduce suffering in the world.

So blaming them as a class is not exactly just.

It is, however, unavoidable.

Is it fair? Probably not. Just as some children are born into poverty, blaming the rich is part of our common life. Someone has to be blamed, and why not the powerful?

The solution offered by the prosperous? Don’t hate.  We’re just who we are. The poors are just a bit lazy, stupid, or both. They’re to blame for their own condition, and if not, the world isn’t fair anyway, and how could it be made fair without some sort of moral hazard, like restricting the freedom to have all the nice things and more, that would just make everything far worse? If we start helping people and they’ll just get a lot lazier, and the only our progeny should have that right.

Nobody will ever just give the rich a pass.

But there is a gospel solution.

In the parable of the rich young man, a man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. It seems as if he actually understands his condition: so he pays his taxes, honors the synagogue, give money to the poor. He has kept the commandments. He actually does the right thing. He plays by the rules.

Yet, he still feels insecure. So he asks Jesus, “is there anything more?”

And Jesus doesn’t go on an anti-money rant. He understands the problem.

Perhaps those around the rich young man are still envious. They call him names, and they don’t show him the appropriate love. He knows something is missing.

So Jesus says sell everything.

I suggest that this is an answer to the billionaire’s whining.  They could avoid the blame. They could diminish and deescalate the growing sense of insecurity that people have. How?

Give their money away. “Sell all your possessions,” Jesus says.

They’d be as adored as Pope Francis.

As it is, the 0.1% seem like hoarders. Most of us can’t imagine how to spend that amount of money. We can appreciate the creation of value, but we don’t see how, or if, it happens. For billionaires, who seem to have a lot of power, they instead act fearful, miserly and even weak and insecure. They may be great at making money, but clueless when it comes to other human beings.

Granted, I believe that we have a much more sophisticated and cooperative economy than Jesus had. To me, the free market is equally a system of sharing and a system of exploitation. So I would say this to the prosperous – at the very least, pay more, buy more and invest more in projects that may fail.  Venture capitalists should venture further. Pay your accountant more money; raise the salary of the managers around you; tip 80% of your bill. Give your money away freely. Don’t worry about your children or your children’s children – they’ll have plenty anyway. Live as if God doesn’t care about each penny. So pay your taxes without complaining. Be generous to local communities who lack resources. Wasting money is imprudent when running a business; but when rich, it’s alright. Actually, to some of us you are already pretty wasteful with your expensive trinkets and wines.

Often the super-wealthy seem to say, “hey, the poors should just get a job.” In itself, it’s not a bad idea. But what would be really generous is to hire and give a living wage.

In other words, nobody is off the hook.

Yes, workers should get jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if there don’t seem to be many (there seems to be a skills gap for many positions). But those who have the wealth to create them are equally obligated.

Most billionaires are just as human as the poor. They hate losing money; they are actually pretty poor judges of risk. They overestimate their own business sense and have a sense of entitlement.

The public , alternately, can help guide the investment. After all, doing all that hiring and managing could be overwhelming: let the government invest.  The state creates work through helping the prosperous circulate money: that more people benefit from the fruit of their industry. In turn, people become more prosperous; innovation is rewarded, and the lazy, hoarding rich have to deal with the creative destruction that follows.  Our current condition means improved productivity does not result in higher wages; improved productivity has meant more money for the billionaire, and more resentment by the rest of us. If anything, the current system disincentivizes good work. The plutocrats should not be surprised.

It is possible that resentment of the more wealthy, the blame of the billionaire are not attractive or moral. Nor are they dictated by the gospel. But the solution is not just “stop being resentful” and “work harder.” The responsibility here is shared. To avoid being a target, obey the laws instead of trying to change them when they’re inconvenient.

And If one really wants eternal life, give the money away.

Otherwise, don’t be surprised when people find their targets.

It is one reason why Jesus says it is so hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Behavioral economists note that nobody likes to lose money; nobody likes to think their money is taken from them. And for the rich, this reaction intensifies a thousand fold. But in the shared life that God presumes, the powerful are the ones who can bare the inconvenience of being told “enough.”

So Jesus reminds the rich: it’s just money – nothing else. Perhaps instead of thinking of losing money as theft, why not simply be generous? Unfortunately, the more one has, the more one knows how much one has to lose. And thus, it is as hard as passing through the needle. Blessed are the poor: they are not losing much. Woe to the rich, they know how much they have to lose. The solution is before them: give it away.

Only the few will do this.

Still, as Jesus notes, with God all things are possible. May the 0.1% search for Him, find Him and follow Him. It would be better for all of us.

For their sake, let us bravely discourage their worship of money. May our elected institutions incentivize their commitment to the public good.

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