Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 3:16-21; James 5:1-6; Ecclesiastes 5:8-20; Jeremiah 17-18
Today’s passage in Ecclesiastes pulls no punches about money and riches. Our world exhorts us to invest our lives into earning money and buying things. John D. Rockefeller was the world’s richest man at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and is said to have been asked ‘How much money is enough money?’ He replied, ‘Just a little bit more.’ He also noted that ‘If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it’ (Complete Speaker’s and Toastmaster’s Library, 1992).
Ecclesiastes likewise notes that money will never satisfy us. The more we have, the more want, and the more we consume. As we accumulate and hoard money, it hurts us. We become anxious about whether we can keep it, or whether we can get more, so that the rich sometimes do not sleep well (5:12). Keeping our money for ourselves can lead to oppression of the poor. James 5:1-6 points to injustices that come with wealth. While few of us would refuse to pay wages to those who work for us, how much of what we buy is affordable because it has been made by people living in deplorable conditions and paid pennies? Just because we do not run sweatshops does not resolve us of our responsibility for their existence.
James also points to the temporal nature of wealth, while Ecclesiastes reminds us that it will all be lost or inherited eventually (5:14). If we think about it, what James and Ecclesiastes say about wealth and riches is obvious. Our proverbs say the same thing: ‘There are no pockets in the shroud’; ‘We can’t take it with us.’ Then why do many people spend their lives working for and worrying about money? Ultimately, the problem is spiritual. Jeremiah 17:9 declares that the human heart is deceitful and beyond cure. As a result, we pursue wealth unjustly, not realising that our riches will eventually desert us. The problem is not money itself, but entrusting ourselves to riches, instead of to the Lord.
Even someone like Rockefeller saw this. While amassing massive amounts of money, he spent his last forty years giving it away. He remains a controversial figure, having been both an aggressive money-maker but also a generous money-giver. He said that ‘God gave me my money. I believe the power to make money is a gift from God, to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience’ (in God’s Gold (1932) by John T. Flynn). Seeing our lives as gifts from God, and enjoying them as such, ties into Ecclesiastes. Wealth viewed as a gift from God can lead to contentment. As such, as Rockefeller stated, it should be used to benefit others, not exploit them. How well Rockefeller did that remains debateable, yet his philanthropy continues to benefit others.
Ecclesiastes concludes with a difficult sentence, primarily because of uncertainty around the word usually translated ‘occupied’. This suggests that God gives people some joy to distract them from thinking too much about life. This rings of the Marxist critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. However, the Hebrew term in 5:20 can also be translated as ‘answers.’ This interpretation suggests that God answers people’s questions about life with gladness of heart so that they do not brood over their lives. When we are content with how much God has given us, we are less inclined to worry and fret about what we do not have. That gives us sweet sleep no matter how little we have, instead of lying anxiously awake no matter how much we have.