In 1 kings, God grants Solomon’s wish:
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”
The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this–
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right–
I do as you requested.
I give you a heart so wise and understanding
that there has never been anyone like you up to now,
and after you there will come no one to equal you.
At least for the time being, we witness a glimmer of hope in the world of kings and rulers. Solomon asks for wisdom so that he may better rule the people of God. It is a selfless request. Solomon will go on to build the Temple, but the nation will be divided when the ten Northern tribes refuse to accept Rehoboam, his son, as their king.
I find an amazing parallel in this ancient story and today in America. We were promised Change we can believe in and have ended up with a Noble Peace Laureate who surged the war in Afghanistan.
If we follow the story of Solomon to its conclusion, we learn that Solomon was an idolater. He build shrines (on high places = places to worship tribal gods) to the gods of his many wives and strayed from the God who had anointed him with wisdom.
I am not questioning the intentions of our president because I believe they are noble; however, he is a victim of American idolatry. The Market is our god. We build shrines to that god inn high places—Wall Street. Healthcare represents 17% of the Market. The health care lobby has effectively blocked any significant health care reform. Corporate profit rules. The Market says that the only way to alleviate poverty is to create wealth by letting the “invisible hand” of the Market have unfettered discretion. Greed overcomes the noblest of intentions when the market rules. Our tax dollars went to bail out Wall Street and the banks and now they unabashedly grant their officers and employees unconscionable bonuses. Over 50% of our budget goes to defense where contractors reap large profits. Meanwhile, education, shelter, food, clothing and health care languish on Main Street and our street.
Governments are no longer in charge in the Market economy. Multinational corporations rule. The few reap the benefits while the many languish as the income gap widens under the market dynamics of unfettered capitalism. Those who are angry with government and our leaders should really be angry at the multinationals that now drive governmental decision making.
There is an alternative that unfortunately has not been tried—Christianity. Gandhi thought it would be a good idea for the British to practice it. Jim Wallis thinks it would be a good idea for us to find ways to apply biblical principles to our economic life.
The Bible has strong words about greed and money—mammon:
Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they were clean on the outside but were full of greed and self-indulgence on the inside (Mt 23:25, Lk 11:39). Luke warned the members of his early community: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (12:15) Paul warned the Ephesians not to let greed, among other sins, even be mentioned among themselves (5:3) and enjoined the Colossians to put to death various sins, including greed which is idolatry (3:5). Peter warned the members of his community to beware of false prophets who would exploit them in their greed (2 Pet 2:3). In fact, “They have hearts trained in greed” (2 Pet 2.14).
If we couple these warnings about greed with Jesus’ warnings about the dangers of riches, we see a strong bias against, greed, possessions, and consumerism in the New Testament. The bottom line is that it will not be easy for rich people to enter the new Kin(g)dom proclaimed by Jesus. In fact, it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kin(g)dom of God (Mt 19:23, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25). The rich young man who could not part with his possessions went away sad (Mt 19:16-22, Lk 18:23). Jesus condemned the farmer who built more silos: “This is the way it works with people who accumulate riches for themselves, but are not rich in God (Lk 12:21). Jesus told the poignant story of Lazarus, poor and covered with sores, who sat begging at the gate of the rich man (Lk 16:19-22).
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, continued to proclaim Jesus’ message about riches. In 1 Timothy, Paul speaks about those who want to be rich and “are trapped in many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (6:9). He says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” He goes on to say that the pursuit of riches has led some to wander “away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:10). James gives no quarter to the rich. They will wither away in scorching heat like flowers in the field (James 1:10-11). James chides the rich for having “dishonored the poor” by oppressing them (2:6). James invites the rich to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming” to them ((5:1) Revelation also warns the rich: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:18). The great city “where all who has ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste” (Rev 18:19). (J. Patrick Mahon, “Merton on Greed and the Current Economic Crisis,” Merton Seasonal, Winter 2009).
Our starting point is not how to maximize profit. Our starting point is how to make a sustainable profit without disadvantaging the least among us. If we do not get our priorities straight, there is a danger that our empire, like Solomon’s,will fall apart.