Faith and Wealth: Rich Dad, Poor Dad Revisited

Rich Dad, Poor Dad is one of this generation’s most iconic financial literacy books.  Written by Kiyosaki and Lechter in the late 1990s, it has sold over 26 million copies and has been touted by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith—not to mention Donald Trump, who later collaborated with Kiyosaki to leverage Rich Dad, Poor Dad into a follow up book entitled Why You Want to Be Rich.

In the late 1990s, today’s civic, business, and political leaders were in their formative adult years, likely reading these books or ones like them. But what were these types of books saying about wealth, and what impact did their ethos have on the development of our economic and civic culture? Time offers perspective—as has happened with Rich Dad, Poor Dad and the myriad of other financial literacy books, philosophies, and prescriptions. In hindsight, I would offer that the entire genre of wealth management and financial literacy has missed an opportunity to get to the very heart of wealth.

In the spirit of a “Rich Dad, Poor Dad Revisited,” I invite our Fathers in faith to guide our understanding of the timeless, complex issues of wealth that plague the human experience.

First Things First: The Camel and the Eye of the Needle

The well-known businessman and author Dr. Steven Covey is associated with the common expression, “First Things, First,” which expresses the need to prioritize and deal with important things first. To understand the spiritual nature of wealth, we must first understand the principal truth that our Christian faith teaches us: that faith and wealth are connected.

From Jesus himself, we have the quintessential story of the rich man found in Matthew 19:16-21. In this story, Jesus instructs the young man, who has inquired about how to obtain eternal life, to keep the commandments. When the young man presses further by insisting that he observe the commandments, Jesus explains that if the young man wishes to be perfect, he must “go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The Gospel goes on to say that the young man was saddened by this response because he had many possessions. Then addressing his disciples, Jesus said: “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

It is clear from the words of Jesus that the issues of faith and wealth belong together. The notions of faith and wealth are elevated to theological issues by their very nexus to the plan and promise of salvation. Justo Gonzalez, in Faith and Wealth, concludes that not one of the Fathers of the Church has held that the issues of faith and wealth should be held separate.

Gonzalez’s ground-breaking study of the origins of early Christian ideas on the significance and use of money concludes that there is remarkable unanimity among the early Church Fathers on the themes drawn from Scripture and the emphasis that the Fathers find in the classical wisdom of Greece and Rome on this issue.

Drawing on the wisdom of the Fathers of the early Church, we learn of (1) the meaning of wealth and poverty, (2) the notion of private property, (3) the spiritual danger of wealth, and (4) the gift of wealth.

The Meaning of Wealth and Poverty

Wealth is often best understood by defining its opposite: poverty. Simply stated, poverty is the state in which one has no more (and often much less) than one needs, and if one is poor in the purely Christian sense, he wishes for no more than he needs. This description helps to understand both the material and spiritual dimensions of poverty. Correspondingly, wealth then is having more than one needs—yet still feeling unsatisfied.

St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD), in Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved, was one of the earliest Church Fathers who expressly addressed an allegorical interpretation of the notions of wealth and poverty. However, this dualistic (material and spiritual) understanding of wealth and poverty has long been part of Tradition. Recall in Psalm 40:17 when King David describes himself as “poor and needy,” suggesting that the word “poor” is meant to describe anyone who is in distress of any kind—material or spiritual.

In The Instructor, St. Clement of Alexandria defines “true wealth” as something that resides in the heart. He offers the image that a rich person, piling up gold for no purpose (except for his own pleasure) is “like a dirty purse.”  He extols that only good people possess good things and that these “things” are the source of genuine wealth and can never be taken away.  He explains: “Holiness is true wealth, and the Word is more valuable than all treasure; these are not increased by cattle or fields but are given by God. They cannot be taken away for the soul alone is such a man’s treasure.”

Pope Saint Leo the Great (d. 461 AD) in his Homily on the Beatitudes agrees. He notes that when Jesus explained that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he was not suggesting that “poverty by itself would appear sufficient to win the kingdom of heaven which many suffer from hard and heavy necessity.” What he is saying is that “the kingdom of heaven must be assigned to those who are recommended by the humility of their spirits rather than by the smallness of their means.”

The Notion of Private Property

There is a theme common among the Church Fathers that in creation God intended all things to be in common and that the notion of private property exists because of our fallen condition. What this suggests is that what separates us from Eden is sin and that this is why there is often seen a frequent connection between the notion of private property and sin. St. Ambrose (d. 397) was perhaps the most outspoken on the sadness of our fallen condition as it manifests in the practical realities of private ownership: “But this not even in accord with nature, for nature has poured forth all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few.”

However, notwithstanding the noteworthy economic sharing in the first Jerusalem Church that led to a rejection of private ownership (that we still see manifest in some religious orders), throughout Scripture we see the legitimacy of private property consistently confirmed. Gonzalez notes that it was St. Clement of Alexandria who first argued that “if no one possessed anything, it would be impossible to obey Jesus’ commandment to give to the poor.”

The early Church Fathers base their understanding of limitations on private property as rooted in the notion that all property is in some sense alien. They argue that alienation may mean, as Gonzalez describes, one or a combination of three things:

  1. All property ultimately belongs to God.
  2. Due to death, man cannot claim more than temporary ownership of property.
  3. Injustice is at the root of the acquisition of ownership of property.

In response to the notion of alienation, the Church Fathers developed a two-pronged standard for assessing the legitimate use of wealth:

  1. Sufficiency: Wealth used to meet need. Meeting need is subjective and ultimately between God and the individual.
  2. Usefulness: Wealth used for things that provide some measure of productivity.

The Spiritual Dangers of Wealth

Jesus himself warns of the danger of wealth in Matthew 13:22 when he explains that “the seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.” St. Basil the Great (d. 379) in The Rich Fool warns that there are two kinds of temptations: “There are afflictions that try the hearts of men like gold in the furnace, testing their metal by patience. But sometimes—and this is true of many—the very prosperities of life become a temptation. When things go ill, it is hard to keep a brave soul; when they go too well, it is no less hard not to be puffed up with overbearing pride.”

St. Basil points to the first temptation seen in Job when the “devil’s violence bore down on him like a torrent” and how Job’s perseverance was manifested by “the fiercer and closer this adversary’s grip, the greater [Job’s] triumph proved over his temptations.” The second temptation, St. Basil suggests, comes from Luke 12:18 where the rich man contemplates tearing down his existing barns to build larger ones in time for great blessing. However, instead of sharing the plenty among the poor, the man—in stress and anxiety—hoarded his plenty not knowing that that night would be the night of his soul’s accounting.

Perhaps St. Leo the Great summarized the spiritual dangers of wealth most succinctly when in Sermon 9 he notes that “the devil knows that God is denied not only by words but by deeds; hence he has deprived the charity of many whom he could not deprive of faith.”

The Gift of Wealth

In On the Love of the Poor, St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 390, who himself was an incredibly wealthy man) offers one of the most direct and hopeful lessons for the wealthy when he urges the wealthy to “give thanks to God that you are among those who can do favors and not among those who need to receive them; that you need not look up to the hands of others but others to yours. Do not be rich only in your wealth but also in your piety; not only in your gold but also in your virtue, or, better still, only in the latter….”

With thankfulness also comes humility, and the most manifest way to express humility is to seek forgiveness. Origen (d. 354), in his Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Mathew, explains various ways that Christians can obtain God’s forgiveness. The third way (or what he calls path) calls for giving alms as a method of cleansing one’s soul, and the sixth path calls for a charity, citing Matthew 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

Akin to Origen’s sixth path, nowhere else in the theology of the Fathers of the Church is mercy more evident than in the notion of koinonia—the sharing in the self-sacrificing, cross-bearing life of Jesus. Nowhere is koinonia more powerfully expressed than in the Eucharist. Sharing in the Eucharist draws the faithful into participation in the mystery of the cross—in both a spiritual and material way. Arguably, it is precisely the self-sacrificing of the wealthy that works in conjunction with the cross-bearing of the poor that works to bring a fallen humanity closer to the oneness of God.

Lessons from Our Fathers

Our Fathers have taught us that Christianity requires social solidarity. No matter how challenging, even the poor must think of their neighbors—and the wealthy carry an even heavier burden.

Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew concludes that people of wealth are often possessed by their riches; the riches give them the power to do as they please, and various temptations and sinful inclinations are therefore more difficult to resist. Still, with God’s indescribable power and grace, and if the “fat of evil,” he writes, should be trimmed away, perhaps it is possible for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye?

Talking About These Issues in the World

Regardless of political ideology, we would all agree that wealth and social equality have risen center stage this election year. It started with Senator Bernie Sanders’s push for economic and social justice. Then we heard sentiments in the acceptance speech of Republican nominee for President Donald Trump highlighting the poverty rates in the African American and Latino communities and the diminished labor force participation in the American economy at-large. And then we heard sentiments in Democratic nominee for President Secretary Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech juxtaposing “working people” and American corporations.

Ideas of work and wealth are inextricable aspects of public life and are indeed important issues not only for our nation, but for all people. These issues are important because they strike at who we are as mankind, made in the image and likeness of our Creator who commissioned us to be fiduciaries of the material world. God gave us our vocation to cultivate and care for the world before the fall of man, not as a burden but as a means of fulfillment. The fruits of our labor were intended to be used to their highest and best use. This is the advice of our Fathers: Rich Dad, Poor Dad Revisited, indeed.

[Feature image by Benjamin Disinger via Unsplash]