The idolatry of money

Daily Reading for August 1 • The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The idolatry of money means that the moral worth of a person is judged in terms of the amount of money possessed or controlled. The acquisition and accumulation of money in itself is considered evidence of virtue. . . . Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin.

This is an obscene idea of justification, directly in contradiction with the Bible. In the gospel none are saved by any works of their own, least of all by the mere acquisition of money. . . . The notion of justification by acquisition of money is empirically absurd, for it oversimplifies the relationship of the prosperous and the poor and overlooks the dependence of the rich upon the poor for their wealth. In this world human beings live at each other’s expense, and the affluence of the few is proximately related to, and supported by, the poverty of the many.

This interdependence of rich and poor is something Americans are tempted to overlook, since so many Americans are in fact prosperous, but it is true today as it was in earlier times: the vast multitudes of people on the face of the earth are consigned to poverty for their whole lives, without any serious prospect whatever of changing their conditions. Their hardships in great measure make possible the comfort of those who are not poor; their poverty maintains the luxury of others; their deprivation purchases the abundance most Americans take for granted.

That leaves prosperous Americans with frightful questions to ask and confront, even in customs or circumstances that are regarded as trivial or straightforward or settled. Where, for instance, do the profits that enable great corporations to make large contributions to universities and churches and charity come from? Do they come from the servitude of Latin American peasants working plantations on seventy-two-hour weekly shifts for gross annual incomes of less than a hundred dollars? Do they depend upon the availability of black child labor in South Africa and Rhodesia? Are such beneficences in fact the real earnings of some of the poor of the world?

To affirm that we live in this world at each other’s expense is a confession of the truth of the Fall rather than an assertion of economic doctrine or a precise empirical statement. It is not that there is in every transaction a direct one-for-one cause and effect relationship, either individually or institutionally, between the lot of the poor and the circumstances of those who are not poor. It is not that the wealthy are wicked or that the fact of malice is implicit in affluence. It is, rather, theologically speaking, that all human and institutional relationships are profoundly distorted and so entangled that no person or principality in this world is innocent of involvement in the existence of all other persons and all institutions. . . .

Freedom from idolatry of money, for a Christian, means that money becomes useful only as a sacrament—as a sign of the restoration of life wrought in this world by Christ.

From William Stringfellow’s A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

Past Posts