The ugliness of hoarded wealth

| Father Jan Michael Joncas | September 26, 2018 | 0 Comments
Greedy hoarding of wealth


One of the most memorable characters in Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel “Great Expectations” is Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster jilted at the altar, perpetually in mourning for what might have been and wearing her decaying wedding dress every day for the rest of her life. She directed that the remnants of her wedding breakfast and cake remain rotting on a table in her dilapidated mansion.

Here is how we meet Miss Havisham early in the novel: “Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”

Truly a pitiable, if not horrifying, figure!

Where Miss Havisham is an imaginative creation of a novelist, the American aviator, film magnate and entrepreneur Howard Hughes (1905-1976) presents an all-too-real-life example of a pitiable if not horrifying multi-millionaire. A founder of the Hughes Aircraft Company and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Hughes lived the last decade of his life in absolute privacy in the penthouses of various luxury hotels, unseen by anyone except a few aides. When he finally died in 1976, his six-foot-four-inch body — exhibiting long hair, beard, fingernails and toenails — weighed barely 90 pounds, with malnutrition and possible drug use contributing to his death from kidney failure.

The sacred author of the Letter of St. James presents just as horrifying a picture of the fate of the wealthy as we note in the cases of Miss Havisham and Howard Hughes. Of the several men named “James” (Jakobos) in the New Testament, the authority behind this letter seems to be James, “the brother of the Lord” (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:5), although most Scripture scholars hold that it was probably written by a disciple who admired James as the Christian authority most loyal to Judaism after James had been executed.

Although the text presents itself as a letter addressed to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” it has the character of a homily preached to Christians strongly identifying with their Jewish heritage. The author has already raised the theme of wealth twice earlier in the letter (1:9-11; 2:1-9) and in the passage read at Masses Sept. 30, he mounts an impassioned attack on the wealthy, picturing their fate as did the prophets and Jesus himself.

First, the rich are reminded that “you can’t take it with you” — their possessions and cash rot and corrode, and by hoarding these earthly goods, they are storing up worthless “treasure.”

Second, not only will these time-bound treasures not prevail into eternity, they are a present testimony to unjust behavior: The wealthy are only able to accumulate these goods because they have unjustly defrauded their workers. (It should be noted that in Jesus’ day, the cultural assumption was that wealth can neither be increased nor decreased, only re-distributed; if some people disproportionately possess the goods intended for all, that must be the result of shameful greedy behavior.)

Finally, living in luxury has so dulled the perceptions of the wealthy toward God’s intentions for human society that they actively oppose the righteous one whose very life is a condemnation of living only to accumulate possessions and power.

I think most of us are made acutely uncomfortable by the message of James 5:1-6. We want to claim that we are not part of the “1 percent,” and that therefore this message doesn’t apply to us. However, in Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” we are confronted with the message of the Letter of James updated for our culture and times.

The Holy Father writes: “[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

In the same vein, in a 2015 speech to grassroots organizers in Bolivia, Pope Francis asserts: “[B]ehind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea … called ‘the dung of the devil.’ An unfettered pursuit of money rules. That is the dung of the devil. … Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater; it is a commandment.”

What good news can we derive from today’s message in James 5:1-6? That through prayer, reflection and faithful membership in the Christian community, our hearts and our behaviors can change under the influence of grace. We can move from selfishness to selflessness under the Holy Spirit’s tutelage. We can lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6:20).

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Sunday, Sept. 30
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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