In the prayers at church recently, this phrase popped up:
“…wealth is the privilege of the few…”
And yet when I read through the book of James, I find that wealth seems to be almost a burden. The rich are called to weep and wail. Wealth is seen as challenging rather than freeing.
So which is it? Privilege or trial? Certainly, we can look at the lives of the rich, and see that they do often live with great ‘privilege’. They have vast houses, fancy cars, and apparently easy lifestyles. Conversely, we can look at those in poverty and see struggle, hardship, and difficult choices to be made. And there are certainly more people with not enough money than there are with an abundance of it. So the rich are definitely ‘the few’.
And yet James makes it clear that wealth is not quite the privilege we might expect it to be. It blurs things for us. Our hoover’s just broken. (Vacuum cleaners suck…) We’ve got a couple of options. We can get it fixed, or replace it. Replacing it costs more (obviously!) but comes with a five year guarantee rather than a one year guarantee. So we’ve replaced it. And we can afford to do so. So there’s no need to rely on my engineering abilities (though I did dismantle the old one a bit to see what parts needed replacing). There’s no need to rely on the kindness of others in helping us to pay for a repair man. We are independent. Or that’s how it feels, anyway. But I guess if you dig a little deeper, we’re not quite as independent as we might think. Our house is provided by our employer. Our employer also pays us. We rely on them to give us money (albeit in exchange for a service). Even our hoover is used more often by our cleaner than ourselves – someone else we rely on. We rely on the banks to look after our money and not to lose it down the back of the stock market sofa. We rely on the supermarkets to provide our food, and we rely on the farm workers and factory workers to provide the supermarkets with our food.
So while we might be financially independent, that doesn’t make us truly independent. It’s just a little blurred by money. It seems we can provide for ourselves. But actually we need other people to do stuff for us. And this blurring of the lines of independence can affect our spiritual lives too. We can become so used to relying on ourselves that we end up assuming that that’ll work in our spiritual lives. Jesus operates as a backup option, rather than Plan A. He’s something to fall back on in hard times, rather than to walk through every day with. Whereas for the poor, reliance can sometimes come more easily. When our needs are clearer, and our options more limited, sometimes we’re better at relying on the provision of others, rather than on our own resources. And maybe that’s why James talks about the ‘high position’ of those who find themselves in ‘humble circumstances’. Maybe it’s partly because they’re the ones who have a better grasp of need, and a better understanding and appreciation of God’s lavish grace.
But one thing wealth does bring is a great responsibility. A couple of times in my life, I’ve received cheques that genuinely left me speechless. Do we who are rich use all that we have to God’s glory? We’ll never match God’s generosity, but have we ever really tried to emulate it?