Great wealth can become idolatry

In this week’s Gospel after the rich young man departs, Jesus says to the disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Using an exaggerated image of the camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle, Jesus emphasizes the struggle the wealthy have gaining entrance into the kingdom of God.

What about riches make it so difficult to enter God’s kingdom? Two major reasons come to mind. First, possession of great wealth often allows the wealth to possess our lives. We should possess money; money should not own us. This seems to be the problem of the rich man. He went away sad because he had many possessions. Secondly, having great wealth can become a form of idolatry. If we take a broad view of idolatry as putting anything that is not God in the place of God, then the person who “worships” money practices idolatry.

Jesus has little patience with those who allow belongings to rule their lives. The story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man shows an extreme case of how lifestyle can rule one’s life. The rich man is so engrossed in his own extravagant concerns that he does not even see Lazarus at his doorstep. In another story the rich man plans to tear down his barn to build a larger one showing us an insatiable desire for more and more wealth. Both stories display how material things can come to own the person. But it is not only material goods that can possess us, for other temporal concerns such as honor and celebrity can have the same effect.

Jesus also sees that the desire for material things can be a form of idolatry. He says, “You cannot worship God and mammon (money)” (Mt. 6:24). Worship of money, as if it were God, allows this material thing to grab all of our attention and desires. To worship money in this way is a direct violation of the commandment that says you shall not have other gods before me.

Whether we allow money to possess us or worship it as a substitute god, either action deprives a person of the freedom that God wants to bestow on his people. Jesus also wants his followers to achieve freedom from slavery, especially slavery to material things. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the “Spiritual Exercises,” says that we are created to praise, reverence and to serve God. He also says that we use the things of this world insofar as they help us to achieve this end and we avoid things insofar as they hinder us from achieving this end. Money and possessions are particular instances of something that can get in the way of our praise, reverence and service of God.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.