Next to religious leaders, the New Testament is hardest on the rich. Serving God and Mammon don’t mix, we are told. Getting a rich man to heaven is about as easy as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. And so on. But as the son of a rich man, I want you to know there’s another side of the story, which comes down to this: that it’s virtually impossible to live the Gospel if you don’t consider yourself rich. If you feel that the goods of life are scarcethat there is too little food or land or respect or love or forgiveness to go around, and that therefore you must hoard, stinge, hold onyou are in deep trouble. Life then becomes a zero-sum game, and eventually you will have to resort to violence to protect the little you have.
Whether it be domestic violence or ethnic cleansers in Rwanda and Kosovo, or the intractable strife in the Middle East, Sri Lanka or Sierra Leone, ask yourself this: Is it not always a case of one or both parties perceiving themselves as pressed up against the wall with no space to maneuver, no surplus, no reservesand hence feeling that they cannot afford to offer anything to their adversary without depriving themselves of what they need to survive? There can be no flexibility, no compromise, because there is nothing to spare, no realm of plenty or abundance from which to drawso it’s a struggle to the death. Either me or you; one of us must die if the other is to live.
I learned an opposite lesson from my father, who started out in life poor, the son of a railroad man, and ended up a very big spender living in a robber baron’s mansion on a riverside estate with eight acres of lawn. Good fortune was to be shared, Dad believed, spread aroundno fair keeping it to yourself. Our home was always fullof people, of talk, of laughter. Growing up, I can hardly remember a weekend that we didn’t have guests at table; and at Christmastime (my father spent the year anticipating that season), the parties came thick and fast, including a huge masquerade ball for 150 guests every New Year’s Eve. The message? The more the merrier. Don’t skimp or hold back the good wine; there’s plentyand always more where that came from! Nothing has to be rationed. (The only time we came close to running out of liquor was when my mother died.)
Yes, by current environmental norms the whole show represented conspicuous consumption on an unsustainable scale. And in retrospect I don’t know how the servants (or my mother) put up with it. But try as I will to think politically correct thoughts, I cannot escape the conclusion that my father was busy giving usand all his lucky friendsa foretaste of the eschatological feast in the heavenly kingdom. This is where my basic theology comes fromfrom the hearth of my big-spending fatherand it means there is always space to spare, time to give, bread to break, treasure to share.
Yes, I know I could have learned the same large-heartedness from poor Bedouin nomads or Appalachian dirt farmers, both famous for their open-handed hospitality. And yes, I realize there’s no necessary connection between wealth and generosity. It is often quite the opposite: Think of the fabulously wealthy Hetty Green or Howard Hughes, both misers, both miserable. But it doesn’t follow that all rich people, down deep, are unhappy. It was my good luck to know a few, like my father, who actually had a lot of fun being rich, and the fun consisted in letting as many others in on their good fortune as they could. When my father died, I didn’t worry for an instant how he was going to get through the eye of that needle. He had landed on earth, he seemed to declare, to bring life, and bring it in abundance (Jn. 10:10).
David S. Toolan, S.J.