Camel and Needle
Updated: May 18, 2021
A brief reflection on the morality of wealth.
Our nation is beset with discord and unrest, elements of which in the minds of some are being encouraged for partisan political advantage. And while there is no question that the gap between rich and poor in this country has grown significantly during the recent pandemic, at the expense of the middle class, that generally has been the result of ownership of appreciating assets as opposed to any concerted and intentional bad behavior. Yet the attacks on capitalism and private ownership and the demonization of wealth continue, and the cries of “soak the rich” get louder every day, as legislative proposals advance in Congress to implement the largest redistribution of wealth in recent memory, if in fact ever.
I have spent most of my career advising individuals and families whom some would consider wealthy or even uber-wealthy. I have found many to be among the ranks of exceptional people who consider themselves stewards of that wealth and are the most caring and philanthropic people I know. They do not deserve to be attacked and vilified for what is in most cases the result of their hard work, inventiveness and risk taking. Admittedly, there are others for whom accumulation is the goal. I have found those to be among the least happy and fulfilled people I know.
In my experience, wealth does not automatically buy happiness, or even security. I have often encountered clients who worry about outliving their wealth, even when the odds of that are statistically impossible. I’ve also known others who, when asked the question “how much is enough,” reply “just a little bit more.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the question of the morality of wealth. Years ago, I heard the story (which I have not yet been able to confirm) that the famous American financier J.P. Morgan, while testifying before Congress, was asked “Do you believe, sir, as the Bible states, that ‘money is the root of all evil’?” To which he supposedly replied, “No, sir, I don’t, for the correct quote is ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’” (See 1 Timothy 6:10)
My personal view is that money (or wealth) is neutral; it is neither good nor bad. It is the fact that it can be used for either good or bad purposes or facilitate good or bad actions that gives it the potential to have moral value. (Cf. Henry Ford, “Money [is] the root of all evil, unless used for good purpose.”)
It’s not really possible to have a constructive discussion of morality, of good or bad, without reference to some external standard. For purposes of this short essay, I have chosen to approach the issue through the lens of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, relying particularly on two parables from the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
One of the more confusing and challenging biblical passages for me is Matthew 19:16-26. A young man came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be saved and have eternal life. Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The young man says to Jesus “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” To which Jesus replied: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At which, the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Jesus then said to his disciples “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
The idea that a camel could pass through the eye of a needle defies common sense. It obviously would be physically impossible. If it is even more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then it is truly impossible for the rich to be saved. If that were the true lesson of Jesus’ words, then there would be no reason for rich people to care about being good, and with all their wealth they could do very bad things indeed. That cannot be the message Jesus meant to convey.
There are many varied interpretations of this passage. One looks to an alternative translation of “camel” as “cable” or thick rope, which would be difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to pass through the narrow eye of a needle. Another postulates that Jesus was referring to the Needle Gate, which was supposedly a very low and narrow entrance in the wall surrounding Jerusalem that was used for after-hours entry. The entrance was so constructed for security purposes, as the camel would have to be stripped of any saddles and packs and crawl through on its knees. This would surely be difficult, but not impossible. One issue with this interpretation is that there is no reliable evidence that such a gate ever existed.
The disciples themselves were confounded by the apparent impossibility, for they asked, “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus replied, “With men this impossible; but with God all things are possible.” The clear import of this is that faith in God can overcome all obstacles, no matter how impossible or inconceivable they may appear to the human mind.
While Jesus’ response neatly solves the issue of impossibility, I believe that this story offers additional learnings about wealth and the proper attitude toward, and use, thereof.
The young man appears to want to be good, and believes that salvation results from salutary behavior and good works; that heaven can be earned. We know this because, when Jesus referenced the Ten Commandments, he stated (possibly with pride) that he had kept them all. It is also inherent in his question, “What more do I lack?” Jesus references this when he says, “If you would be perfect,” give away all you have, and follow. The young man is unable to do that, because he is so attached to his “great possessions.”
I find it very interesting that Jesus began his answer to the young man’s original inquiry by referencing the Ten Commandments, the first of which is “I am the Lord, your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” Through the course of his interaction with Jesus, the young man shows (perhaps without realizing it) that he had placed money, wealth and possessions above his love of God. In doing so, he violated the First Commandment (I suspect he would have been quite surprised and dismayed at that conclusion). This is, I believe, the root of and reason for the saying “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Again, this is what I believe Jesus is referring to when he advises the man, if he wished to be “perfect,” that it was necessary to take action that would restore his love of God to its rightful, primary place. Absent that, he would remain “sorrowful” and have great difficulty achieving the goal he so fervently sought: to be saved and to have eternal life. In the end, the young man would not or could not separate himself from his possessions.
As mentioned above, I do not believe that it is inherently sinful to possess wealth, even great wealth. Nor do I believe that it is necessary always to give away that wealth in order to follow God’s will.
I am reminded of the “parable of the talents” (Matthew 25:14-30), in which a wealthy man, about to set off on a journey, entrusted different sums of money to three of his servants: ten talents to one; five talents to another; and one talent to the third (as a unit of currency, a talent was worth more than the equivalent of 15 years’ wages for a laborer). Upon his return, he asked each to give an account of what he had done with the money. The first had used the money wisely and doubled the sum. The second, who had been given only half of what the first had received, likewise put the money to good use and doubled it as well. The wealthy man was pleased with them both equally and rewarded them well for their industry.
The wealthy man had a very different response to the third servant, who had merely kept the money in safekeeping rather than putting it to productive use. The owner’s reaction was swift and brutal: he accused the third servant of being unfaithful to his charge, banished him and gave his one talent to the first servant. It is likely that the third servant was quite surprised at the owner’s reaction, since he clearly believed that merely protecting the money was sufficient.
So, what are some of the lessons that can be gleaned from this story? Jesus makes it clear that, ultimately, salvation is an unmerited gift from a loving God. While we cannot “earn” heaven, we can please God by trying to do his will, as revealed in the scriptures and as communicated to us individually. Those to whom God has granted abundance in earthly possessions have a choice to make: to become attached to those possessions, and the act of possessing them, to the point where they become a principal purpose of their life; or to view them as gifts entrusted to their stewardship, to be used in ways and for purposes which would be pleasing in God’s sight and consistent with his will. It has been my experience that those two approaches produce very different results in terms of individual happiness and fulfillment.
I also enjoy reflecting on the (no doubt coincidental) double meaning of the word “talent.” In the biblical context it means money, but in the modern vernacular it means “natural aptitude or skill.” God has given each one of us certain talents, the kind, mix and degree of which are unique to us individually. Like money, talents have no real value unless put to use, for good or for ill. They are a wealth unto their own, and unlike mere worldly wealth, cannot be taken away from us. If we use our talents for good and in keeping with what God wants for us, then we are like the first two servants and may hope for a similar reward (“Enter into the joy of your lord.”). If instead we “sit on” our talents and miss the opportunity to share them with the world, then we are like the third servant.
We are all likely familiar with the biblical phrase “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24; the original word for money was “mammon,” which could also be translated as “materialism and worldly gain”). Many people interpret the phrase as meaning that wealth is an impediment to salvation. I believe that they are mistaken. The key, I believe, to understanding this phrase is the word “serve.” To “serve” money would mean to elevate it to a status equal to or even above God, which would violate the First Commandment. Basically, we are all asked to choose where our priorities lie, and the clear message of that phrase as used in its context (the Sermon on the Mount) is that our lives should be directed principally towards the service of God and participation in his plan for the salvation of the world. To the extent that money or wealth is available to be put to that use (i.e., to serve God's purpose), it has the potential to be very good indeed.
A case in point: Argentine businessman, Enrique Shaw, who was declared venerable (the first of three stages leading to canonization as a saint) by Pope Francis on April 24 of this year (approximately two weeks ago) – see https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-americas/2021/04/argentine-candidate-for-halo-shows-maybe-you-can-serve-god-and-mammon/amp/.
Shaw was the youngest graduate of Argentina’s naval school (and remains so to this day), and by the time he retired at the age of 24, he was a full lieutenant. He founded Argentina’s Christian Association of Business Executives and helped found his country’s Pontifical University. In between, he became CEO of his wife’s family industry, Rigolleau Glassworks, fathered nine children, headed the male branch of Argentina’s Catholic Action, and helped found the local office of Caritas. At his company, Shaw established a pension fund and a health care system to provide for the 3,400 workers, offering medical service, financial support in case of illness, and loans for important life events such as marriage, birth and death.
Shaw died at age 41 of cancer, after a six-year battle during which 260 company workers donated blood “to help the man who knew them by name. often asked about their families, and always had a little notebook in hand to write down any specific requests an employee may have.”
I have been privileged to know many people like Enrique Shaw who have achieved great success and personal wealth through the wise application of their God-given skills. They are not the people whom demagogues rail against in their pursuit of partisan political agendas. Many have used their unique talents to put their material wealth to productive use in support of organizations and causes that advance the common good of the communities in which they live. In my opinion, they do not need to give away their wealth — either voluntarily or by government confiscation — in order to live virtuous lives. In the end, how they live their lives, and the consequences thereof, are matters between them and their God. None of us has the right to sit in judgment on them, least of all those to whom have been (temporarily) granted the power of governmental authority.
We all want to live in a world that is compassionate and just, in which those blessed with abundance care for those in need. We know we are not there yet. But government action to take from the rich and give to the poor is not the solution, certainly not a permanent one (Matthew 26:11). Morality cannot be imposed externally; if it truly is to exist, it must come from within individual hearts and minds. To the extent that our political leaders wish to address the widening wealth gap that threatens the stability and future of our great nation, the better route is to find ways to foster greater economic opportunity for all citizens, particularly those in the middle class who traditionally form the backbone of our economy. Government should be partnering with religious and other groups to encourage private philanthropy. The current demonization of wealth must stop. We would be wise to remember that Robin Hood was an outlaw and, as Margaret Thatcher famously noted, "The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."
Changing course will be difficult, but not impossible. And even then, there still would be reason to hope.
Permit me a mini-sermon of sorts: All of us, of whatever and various talents and means, are faced with the choice of path for our lives to follow. The Bible tells us that the path to darkness is wide, and the path to light, narrrow. Perhaps when we come to the entrance of heaven, we will find it also to be narrrow, much like the Needle Gate. That, I believe, will be the true test of the issue of the morality of wealth. Will we have lived our lives like the third servant who did nothing with his talent, or the young man so attached to the things of this world? If so, we may find ourselves like a camel unable or unwilling to shed saddle and packs, and thus unable to pass through the narrow entrance. Or will we have emulated the other two servants who used their talents wisely and productively and for the benefit of others, as Enrique Shaw did? If so, it is possible that we could share in the good fortune of the camel who, shorn of all unnecessary burdens and attachments, passes humbly on bended knees through the thick walls and small opening to receive his reward. Perhaps, in our case, also to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”