The vision of the Magnificat was not that the wealthy and powerful made society and civilization possible for everyone else. It was that God made those things possible for all, and in God's justice the wealthy and powerful who had kept that for themselves would lose their privileges:
My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)
The vision of scripture is not that wealth makes it possible to be generous, but God's blessing
After you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you to occupy as your holding and settle in it, you are to take some of the firstfruits of all the produce of the soil, which you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and, having put them in a basket, go to the place which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. When you come to the priest, whoever he is at the time, say to him, "I acknowledge this day to the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest will receive the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: "My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful and large nation....Now I have brought here the firstfruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me." You are then to set the basket before the Lord your God and bow down in worship before him. You are to rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, in all the good things which the Lord your God has bestowed on you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1-5a, 10-11, REB)A blessing that is known only when you act on faith, which is to say: trust.
After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
How many stories of rich people do you want from the Gospels? They never come out well there:
There was a rich man whose fields produced a bumper crop. "What do I do now?" he asked himself, "since I don't have any place to store my crops. I know! I'll tear down my barns and build larger ones, so I can store all my grain and my goods. Then I'll say to myself, "You have plenty put away for years to come. Take it easy, eat, drink, enjoy yourself." But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you. All this stuff you've collected--whose will it be now?" That's the way it is for those who save up for themselves, but aren't rich where God is concerned.
He said to his disciples, "That's why I tell you: don't fret about life-what you're going to eat--or bout your body--what you're going to wear. Remember, there is more to living than food and clothing. Think about the crows: they don't plant or harvest, they don't have storerooms or barns. Yet God feeds them. You're worth a lot more than the birds!" (Luke 12: 16b-24, SV)
There was this rich man who wore clothing fit for a king and who dined lavishly every day. This poor man, named Lazarus, languished at his gate, all covered with sores. He longed to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. It so happened that the poor man died and was carried by the heavenly messengers to be with Abraham. The rich man died too, and was buried.
From Hades, where he was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off and Lazarus with him. He called out, "Father Abraham, have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am in torment in these flames."
But Abraham said, "My child, remember that you had good fortune in your lifetime, while Lazraus had it bad. Now he is being comforted here, and you are in torment. And besides all this, a great chasm has been set between us and you, so that even those who want to cross over from here to you cannot, and no one can cross over from that side to ours."
But he said, "Father, I beg you then, send him to my father's house--after all, I have five brothers--so that he can warn them not to wind up in this place of torture."
But Abraham says, "They have Moses and the prophets; why don't they listen to them?"
"But they won't do that, father Abraham," he said. "However, if someone appears to them from the dead, they'll have a change of heart."
Abraham said to him, "If they don't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead." (Luke 16:19-31, SV)
Even the Beatitudes are not necessarily so beatific:
Damn you rich!And to put the point in stark monetary terms:
You already have your consolation!
Damn you who are well-fed now!
You will know hunger.
Damn you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve.
Damn you when everyone speaks well of you! Recall that their ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way. (Luke 6:24-26, SV)
Damn you rich, indeed!The Walton family heirs, whose fortune relies entirely on predation — of labor, of the environment, of government, of small business — controls more wealth than the poorest 40 million Americans. Imagine what we could do with that fortune if they left. For all the credit Bill Gates gets, it may be worth wondering, as Peter Singer did, if he has given enough:Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the Forbes list of the richest Americans, with $53 billion. His 66,000-square-foot high-tech lakeside estate near Seattle is reportedly worth more than $100 million. Property taxes are about $1 million. Among his possessions is the Leicester Codex, the only handwritten book by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands, for which he paid $30.8 million in 1994. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given?If Gates donated all $53 billion to foreign humanitarian aid, it would be double what the U.S. government gives yearly ($23 billion in 2013). Imagine the good we could do with the fortunes of the rich, who have only amassed the wealth because of the infrastructure developed by society. Innovators regularly rely on government and academic funding for projects that corporations don’t think will be profitable (according to Singer, “less than 10 percent of the world’s health research budget is spent on combating conditions that account for 90 percent of the global burden of disease”). The arts are largely supported by public funding, not private donations. And many businesses are less self-sufficient than they imagine, requiring bailouts and competition between states to support them. Many corporations, like Walmart, dump poor employees on to government largess rather than pay them enough to feed themselves. And who builds the roads and takes out the garbage?
How much to give is one question; but how much to accumulate is another. I'm bemused by the rich man in the parable, who is going to pull down his barns and build new, larger ones, just for this bumper year. The extravagance hidden in that story underlines the point: too much is too much. As Dylan said, "Too much of nothin'/makes a man feel ill at ease."
[Texas Gov. Rick] Perry’s refusal is catastrophic health policy. For patients, it means that seeking medical care will still require risking bankruptcy, and may lead nowhere. For doctors, the message was not only that our patients’ lives don’t matter, but also that medicine—our old profession, so full of people who genuinely want to help others—will continue to be part of the economic machine that entrenches poverty. When the poor seek our help, they often wind up with crippling debt."The economic machinery that entrenches poverty." That machinery does not come from God, and is not blessed by God. Sean McElwee puts it in terms of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, with its idea of "going Galt." But he doesn't worry about industrialists leaving society:
I would fear for the world if the empathetic, the intelligent, the compassionate, the fearless and the creative left us. We don’t celebrate these virtues unless they somehow lead to monetary gain, but often they don’t....When a reporter saw Mother Teresa helping a disfigured leper, he said to her, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Theresa said, “Neither would I.”We cannot express our greatest good in monetary terms. We cannot define what we can do in terms of what we can earn. We cannot measure out life with coins and paper bills.
I wrote a paper on that painting, above, for a Pastoral Care class in seminary. It must have been in the St. Louis Museum of Art collection, or I'd never have seen it. Is the value of that painting in what the artist earned for selling it? Is it in what the museum paid to acquire it? I paid nothing to see it; the St. Louis Museum is open to the public. Did everyone get their money's worth out of that painting? Is that even a reasonable question?
Yet we tacitly ask it of the poor, in places like Texas and Louisiana (many of the patients who came to UTMB came from Louisiana, not just from Texas). Are they worth the money we have to spend on them? Rachel Pearson notes that the motto of UTMB went from “Here for the Health of Texas” to “Working together to work wonders.” Wonders for those who can afford them. Do I exaggerate? "When UTMB refuses to treat them, it falls to us to tell them that they will die of diseases that are, in fact, treatable."
That we are not even aware of this, is the root of our shame.