There are two kinds of people that consistently seem to daw from Christ a lot of harsh, critical, even abusive language. The first is the self-righteous hypocrite, the person more concerned with image than with principle, and the second is the rich, the person who is well off, comfortable. In most of Christ’s parables, one or the other of these is cast as the villain.
The fact is that scripture gives conflicting messages about material prosperity. On the one hand, there is Christ’s consistent use of the rich as a horrible example in his parables. There is the opening line of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor. The kingdom of heaven will be theirs.”
On the other hand, Christ’s actions don’t always seem to follow that direction. He certainly did not scorn every rich person in the Gospel. He even befriended a number of them.
So, the Gospel really does not set up any clear-cut opposition between rich and poor, at least not in terms of good and bad. The message of the Gospel is that ultimately there is nothing particularly evil about being rich and comfortable. Ultimately there is nothing particularly good about being rich and comfortable. Ultimately, it just doesn’t matter very much.
But while the goods of the world are not evil, they are risky. Wealth can be very deceptive. It can give us a picture of ourselves and of one another that simply isn’t true. Prosperity can build in us the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we are independent, and that others should be so as well. Always being able to satisfy every need, every wish, can give us the foolishly false impression that it is only right that we should be satisfied, that we deserve to be satisfied, and that if we are not, it is terrible.
So, clearly the sin of the rich man in the Gospel is not that he was rich. Christ doesn’t care if a rich person us rich or not. His sin was that he was insensitive to the pain of the poor man, who by God’s design was a part of him, who had a divine right to be dependent on him. The illusion of self-sufficiency, on independence, is a dangerously immoral thing.
None of us are independent in anything that matters. We are very much dependent on one-another. That is the way God made us, and it is the way we are expected to live – interdependent, intertwined, spiritually, emotionally, economically.
It’s a parable about the good we fail to do, what are called sins of omission. So often, we examine our conscience and think, I didn’t kill, I didn’t steal, I didn’t slander, I don’t know what to confess. I can’t think of anything wrong I have done.
But what about the good we fail to do? This parable asks us some questions that can profoundly enlarge our Christian life.
What are sins of omission? Do we even notice the good we fail to do? Is our Christian identity defined by the evil we are avoiding or by the good we are doing? Are we making others strong in body and spirit? Or are we only taking care of ourselves materially or spiritually?
The judgement against the rich man in the parable is based not on what he did but on what he didn’t do. He lost forever his chance for doing good. But like his brothers in the parable, we still have ours.