I want to explore today what it means to be rich and follow Jesus. I want to explore this theme from the angle of being a pastor. Not only are we in the West blessed with enormous wealth, we are also in the position wherein our churches are extremely wealthy.
If we are to follow Jesus then we have to struggle through the implications of being rich and among the rich.
For too long pastors have been explicitly condoning an uncritical accumulation of wealth. Wealth accumulation didn’t flow into wealth distribution. This has to stop. Not only for our own sakes but also for the community’s we are part of.
When I started the precarious position of pastoring in a mega church I was in an extremely wealthy context (in all senses of the word). What I observed was that the leaders of the church spent most of their time with the ‘major donors’ of the community. Although home visitations were officially something designated to ancient history; these donors always had plenty of face time with the pastoral leaders. They were the ones to be kept happy. The quid pro quo was established in a silent, nonverbal transaction wherein the pastoral staff spent their time “servicing” these wealthy donors and in exchange for this “servicing” the donors kept on donating.
It essentially boiled down to the fact that the clergy didn’t challenge these rich folk and they recompensed by keeping the budgeting needs of the community afloat. Embedded within this dynamic are personal transactions like paying the pastor a “market related” salary, giving them gifts like vacations, overseas trips and weekends in luxurious second-, third- or fourth homes. All of this serves as a way for the rich to silence their potential critics and to appease their own consciences. The contract is materially beneficial.
As a young pastor I was inundated with conversations that went something like this, “You won’t understand how rich this person is! He is worth ________ (fill in some amazing amount). He just bought himself _____________ (some amazing car). In one of the most bizarre exhibits of this kind of thing, someone in the church once took me for a spin in his brand new Ferrari. At 240 km/h I almost vomited. At that particular time my desire to vomit wasn’t spiritual – It was just that the body was not meant to drive so fast in a car!
I often wonder how I would approach the same situation today (for it’s alive and well in Christianity today). How are we to follow Jesus and minister to the rich? Especially when we are rich ourselves! This has become an issue for me and a few friends.
I offer here a few reflexes that helps us:
Admit that we are rich ourselves. We had to live up to the fact that we have a lot of stuff.
Purposefully build relationships with the poor. Not in an outreach patronizing way, but a real friendship way.
Ask “why” instead of saying “Wow!” We had to retrain ourselves to not be sucked in by the pervasive materialistic culture of always upgrading, always upsizing and alway consuming more.
Love the poor as real people and challenge the rich as real people
I’m thinking about all of this because I’m busy reading Clement of Alexandria’s treatise “Who is the rich to be saved” for probably the hundredth time. He starts this treatise in the following way:
“Those who offer praise to rich people seem to me to be appropriately thought of as dishonorable flatterers. Not only do they vehemently pretend that disagreeable things give them pleasure, but they are godless and treacherous as well.”
How is that for an introduction?
I sometimes wish I had Clement as a conversation partner fifteen years ago when my immersion in church capitalism started. He starts his treatise by talking about those who are working with the rich and he warns them against:
So here we see three very practical tools for working with the rich (ourselves) included. I’ll end this post with a practical confession of flattery. If I’m rich myself, and I am, then I have to face how I flatter myself. What are the ways in which I rationalize myself into a life of, as Clement puts it, “wallowing in an abominable life”. i added a picture taken by a friend in Pretoria …