I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Bahá’í).
The Positive Side of the Wealth Equation
We all strive for money. To come into a bit of wealth, to achieve financial independence, is a goal worth pursuing. There is nothing better than to have the ability to take full care of one’s needs and to even afford a few perks every now and then (such as a holiday trip abroad). It is certainly life-affirming to have a surplus of funds at one’s disposal to either invest or save for a rainy day (such as when the bones are too stiff for an active life).
But wealth has two sides. It has a rosy side that is known to everyone, even children. This side can bring the whole world under one’s feet and place masses of people at one’s beck and call. It is extraordinarily liberating to have easy access to anything there is in the world just at the thought of it. It is magic.
This is the positive side of the wealth equation.
The Negative Side of the Wealth Equation
But there is another side to the wealth equation that should cause the rich (especially) to sit up. It is a disquieting side. It is paradoxical—for which reason it is not too well understood by most. It can be quite confusing to the poor, while the rich care less about it (not when the wealth is continually pouring in).
This side operates mainly at the level of the spirit, in contrast to the other which is materialistic at its core. It can be found at the negative side of the wealth equation. But why?
The Accumulation of Riches
Let’s begin with a quote from the Holy Qur’an:
Woe betide every slanderer and defamer, him that layeth up riches and counteth them. (Qur’an 104:1-2)
The verse denounces slander and defamation, but our focus here is solely on the matter of riches. What the statement seeks to draw attention to is not so much the physical act of counting riches. Rather, it is about the danger of attachment to wealth in general, of focusing too much attention on counting one's money, and of being preoccupied with hoarding as much of it as possible.
Wealth and the Divine Kingdom
But matters get trickier when we reflect on the following cautionary words addressed by Jesus to his disciples:
How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!
The disciples were understandably astonished by his words, but they were even more so when Jesus continued:
…how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:23-25)
The thrust of the message is that to “have riches” or “trust in riches” could put one in a difficult place and an untenable situation spiritually.
(The King James Version is the source of all biblical references in this article.)
The Contrasting Conditions of Rich and Poor
But the Gospel goes further than this. In Luke 16:19-31, we come across a well-known parable of Jesus concerning a rich man and a beggar:
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day….
But while the rich man was having a good time, the beggar was not at all in a good place:
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
The Afterlife Conditions of the Poor and Rich
One day, the inevitable happened:
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom….
While Lazarus was received in the heavenly abode close to Abraham, the rich man got a rather nasty surprise when he also died. He found himself in hell. Not only that, but he also became aware of the contrasting afterlife conditions between Lazarus and himself.
…the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
The Inherent Paradox of Earthly Riches
What the parable does not say is that the beggar went to heaven because he was extraordinarily pious, nor does it say the rich man went to hell because he was exceptionally evil. No, the reason given for the two contrasting afterlife situations epitomises the paradox inherent in earthly riches. It is summed up in one sentence uttered by Father Abraham in response to the rich man who, from the depths of despair, had pleaded:
Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
Abraham's response was:
Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
Timeless Lessons About Wealth
A Lesson for the Rich
Simply put, the differing afterlife conditions were because, in their lifetimes, the rich man had “good things” (meaning a good life) while Lazarus endured “evil things” (presumably, through no fault of his own). And in the hereafter, the tables were turned. Lazarus’ physical rags were turned into spiritual riches whereas the rich man’s material riches became his spiritual rags.
That is an important lesson to bear in mind. Having a good life on earth, with all the benefits of earthly existence, does not guarantee peace of mind in the hereafter.
A Lesson for the Poor
Poverty can be a choice, such as when an individual is lazy and lacks the desire to work or when he purposefully chooses to follow an ascetic way of life. But to the extent that it is not self-inflicted, poverty can lead to many rich virtues and noble spiritual qualities. Some of these are humility, modesty, patience, detachment, reliance on God, acquiescence, gratitude, prayerfulness, etc.
A poor man is more likely than a rich man to pray each morning for his “daily bread” before setting off for work and to show gratitude for the tiniest of gains that come his way. It is attitudes and virtues like these that draw a soul closer to his Creator.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom for the Rich
Yet it might seem quite a cruel turn of events if the rich man in the above parable was being punished simply for having a good life. The reason, it seems, goes further than this.
We can obtain a deeper perspective of this matter by turning to another parable of Jesus—one that deals with events of the end times. From this parable, it becomes apparent that one could be wealthy and still make it to the blissful abode of heaven by living a certain kind of lifestyle. It is not all doom and gloom for the wealthy. Let’s turn to the Gospel to learn more.
The Parable of Sheep and Goats
The Gospel of Matthew explains the character and lifestyle of those for whom heaven and hell are reserved at the return of the Christ of the Last Day. To those found wanting and deserving of hellfire, the Christ will say:
Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not….
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25:41-45)
Another Lesson for the Rich
So, this explains it all. In the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the rich man went to hell simply because he ignored Lazarus, followed a selfish lifestyle, and failed to recognise the moral responsibility he had towards the well-being of the poor and needy in society.
The Responsibility of the Rich Towards the Poor
Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, has a lot to say about the poor and the responsibility of the rich towards the needy in society. His general counsel is:
If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, #CXLV)
Then he addresses the rich directly:
O ye rich ones of the earth! Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God’s inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted. (Ibid.)
He then explains what happens in the unseen Kingdom when a wealthy individual turns his sympathetic attention to a poor person:
By the righteousness of God! Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action. (Ibid.)
By “Concourse on high” is meant the angels, saints, and holy ones of the heavenly realm.
The Mystery of the Widow’s Mite
Another paradox in the matter of wealth comes through in the narrative of the widow’s mite (see Mark 12:41-44). Jesus was in the temple with his disciples and took a keen interest in the contributions of worshippers to the temple fund:
…and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury….
This is very intriguing: Although the widow had very limited means, her little contribution ranked higher than all the large amounts given by other worshippers. But why?
The Mystical Dimension of Contributions
The reason for the disparity is down to these words of Jesus:
For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
It was to do with the spiritual quality of her contribution as measured by the degree of self-sacrifice that went with it.
A Lesson on the Spiritual Value of Wealth
The general lesson here is that when the assets at one’s disposal are in very short supply through no fault of one’s own, their spiritual value goes up markedly when freely and joyously deployed in the service of God and humanity. While men might look and see only pennies, in the heavenly assemblage that same pennies are transformed into millions of dollars. And while men may look at the contributor's attire and see only rags, in the eyes of the saints above he would appear as one beautifully clothed in silk and brocade.
In summary, the less of an asset one has earned or been endowed with by God, the greater its spiritual value is when sacrificed.
Wealth as a Poisoned Chalice
There are times when wealth is thrown into the path of an unsuspecting individual for a rather sinister purpose, and the jubilant beneficiary would be blinded to the danger that lurks beneath the glitter.
The Báb, Forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh, suggests in one of his revealed prayers that an individual could come into a bit of wealth, not as a gift or a favour from God but as divine punishment. The prayer says in part:
Indeed… shouldst Thou ordain evil for a servant by reason of that which his hands have unjustly wrought before Thy face, Thou wouldst test him with the benefits of this world and of the next that he might become preoccupied therewith and forget Thy remembrance. (Bahá’í Prayers)
When a relatively huge amount of wealth is thrown in the path of an unchastened individual, he might become engrossed in daily counting, managing, and investing it, or be caught up in buying, selling, building, travelling, partying, etc. He might become so preoccupied with such mundane activities that he eventually forgets about God.
And forgetting about God is the ultimate punishment for any soul because the individual becomes detached from the Source of his spiritual sustenance. It is akin to hell. No wonder Bahá’u’lláh cautions his followers in these stark terms:
By God! In earthly riches fear is hidden and peril is concealed. (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 219)
The Spiritual Odyssey of the Rich
It is not easy for the rich to excel in the spiritual arena of life. As we have already seen, Jesus seemed to imply that it is impossible:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25)
Bahá’u’lláh suggests that it is still possible for the rich to make it, but only "a few" will succeed:
The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. (The Persian Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, #53)
What all this means is that, in general, the rich have to work harder to reach the same level of spirituality as the poor. Indeed, owing to the difficulty involved, the rich who makes it in this spiritual odyssey of life will be regarded as a jewel in the heavenly Kingdom. He would surely have earned himself an enviable place amongst the inmates of paradise.
Bahá’u’lláh affirms it in these words:
Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendour of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth! (Ibid.)
The Bahá’í Philosophy of Wealth
There is a framework within which wealth becomes desirable for a Bahá’í. Some of the elements (as gleaned from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s successor) are as follows:
Wealth Must Be Acquired Honestly and Used Appropriately
Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts and the grace of God, in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes. (The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 24)
The Wealth Must Help Others to Climb the Ladder
It is important to stress at this stage that Bahá’ís do not advocate for equality of wealth, which their holy writings describe as a “chimera”. They rather promote the principle of the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty. Such a principle cannot be achieved through the fantasy of trickle-down economics. It can only be achieved through robust, long-term social action to eliminate poverty and alleviate misery from the face of society for all time.
Bahá’ís subscribe to the philosophy that:
Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor. (Ibid.)
The Utilisation of Wealth Must Include Philanthropic Pursuits
A wealthy Bahá’í will reflect on the following proposals for expending his wealth:
…if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this, and it would rank in the sight of God as the supreme achievement, for such a benefactor would supply the needs and insure the comfort and well-being of a great multitude. (Ibid.)
He could set out to apply his wealth in some of the following specific areas:
If… [the wealth] is expended for the promotion of knowledge, the founding of elementary and other schools, the encouragement of art and industry, the training of orphans and the poor—in brief, if it is dedicated to the welfare of society—its possessor will stand out before God and man as the most excellent of all who live on earth and will be accounted as one of the people of paradise. (Ibid.)
A Takeaway Message for the Rich
When Death Knocks on the Door
To die and leave a huge fortune behind (perhaps valued at millions or billions of dollars) can be quite a shame. This can be especially so if one’s heirs end up flaunting that hard-earned wealth and wasting it on frivolities. Just imagine for a moment how many lives could have been touched if the original owner had understood the mystical dimension of wealth and used his vast resources in a spiritually appropriate way to bring untold benefits to many more people.
How to Touch the Lives of the Needy
By this is not meant giving money left and right to just anybody simply because they are poor. But it could mean setting up programmes, institutions, systems, agencies, organisations, foundations, or businesses (not as investments for accumulating even more wealth but) as means of bringing undreamed-of opportunities to others less fortunate. In this way, the rich could make a real difference in the lives of masses of people in this earthly plane of existence before they transit inevitably to the next.
The Wealth of the Afterlife
Remember, no one can carry his physical assets with him to the next life—neither mansions, superyachts, ranches, jewellery, nor cash. The only things you are allowed to carry with you when crossing over are your spiritual possessions, the mystical wealth you have acquired in this life.
This mystical wealth is in the form of lordly virtues and divine attributes—like love, truthfulness, justice, integrity, mercy, compassion, patience, forbearance, generosity, kindness, charity, service, humility, modesty, etc., etc.
The Spiritual Way of Life
If you are not inclined towards a “religious” lifestyle, that should still not be a hindrance to a “spiritual” way of life. One could always live the spiritual life by adopting the following simple recipe based on the reported saying of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
Dost thou desire to serve God… serve thy fellow man for in him dost thou see the image and likeness of God. (Portals to Freedom, p. 85)
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Kobina Amissah-Fynn