September 9, 2013
“Rich people tend to be…”
The way you complete that sentence has profound social, political and spiritual implications!
David Wolfe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; in yesterday’s LA Times, he was featured in their OpEd section, under the headline, “The Compassion Deficit.”
A thoughtful and well-researched essay opened with these words: “We know that wealth does not always make people happy, but does it make them kinder? Studies suggest exactly the opposite. Instead of being more magnanimous, the rich are more likely to lie, cheat, steal and – in general – display less compassion than the poor. And this finding remains consistent even after controlling for gender, ethnicity and spiritual beliefs.” Near the end of his challenge, he makes this statement: “One of the glorious paradoxes of psychology is that once we understand our natural tendencies, we can successfully fight them. I am privileged to know some very wealthy people who are paragons of generosity and empathy…”
His observations of stinginess at the front edge of the socioeconomic bell curve are supported by all of the contemporary empirical evidence; it’s foolish to deny the facts. Because of the insular nature of privilege, people who have climbed the ladder can live above the clamor that characterizes the crowd who dwell beneath them. That’s why the game-changing impact of the Gospel – and, the profound agenda for personal transformation that follows the redemptive beginning – has the potential for the dramatic overhaul that allows the followers of Jesus to break loose from following their peers.
John the Baptist was putting the Jewish community of the 1st Century on notice for what was coming, in Christ; he shocked the crowd with disruptive challenges: “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’” (Luke 3:7-14)
Truth from God – in that event, delivered through John’s messaging – is foundational, and has equal bearing for everyone, up-and-down the societal segments. But the application of that truth becomes very specific to one’s situational assignment: the crowd – the broad populace – had their marching orders, as did the tax collectors and the soldiers. Each player in the game comes to the field with his own particular action steps: when the play commences, some block, some fake, some run a pattern and catch the pass. Truth in action becomes a personal challenge…
Left to themselves, crowds don’t share their shirts and food with the needy. When they’re doing what comes naturally, people with power – in John’s audience, the tax collectors – will use that power to serve themselves. The occupiers – the Roman troops who oppressed Israel – were out for themselves, and abusing human rights. When a relationship with Jesus becomes personal, those consistent manifestations of self-serving human behavior are transformed by the Power of God.
Rabbi Wolfe reports that, in America, rich people tend to be selfish. The Apostle Paul – an informed Jewish voice from another era – says that, in the Kingdom, rich Christians should be generous (1 Timothy 6:18). It’s one or the other: aligned with the culture, or aligned with the Christ.
This week, you and I are completing that sentence. How will our lives finish the thought?