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Rights and Responsibilities

What Do We Do With Money?

Rights and Responsibilities
Wednesday, September 22, 2021

In his unpublished notes on money, Fr. Richard explores a parable that has often troubled faithful Christians, including pastors, theologians, and scripture scholars alike.

Maybe the key to an honest Jesus hermeneutic around money has been lost in a parable that many of us never liked—the parable of the ten gold coins (Luke 19:11–27). Let me offer you a different slant on this story that, in my experience, few preachers have addressed:

A nobleman pays his staff equally well beforehand, and then upon leaving, says to them: “Do business with this while I am away!” (Luke 19:13). He leaves the country, freeing the servants from any pressure or duress. For anything to be a virtue, it must be a free choice, not just a mandate. Most of us were never taught that psychological truth! Jesus’ words must be seen as descriptive (what is possible) much more than prescriptive (what must be done). He is always describing and thus inviting his listeners into a big, inclusive life of love, which he calls the Reign of God. No language of counting or commanding can get you there.

The nobleman is telling his servants to do something with the money: “Yes, I am paying you well, but do something with it!” It is the one servant who refuses to do any business with the money who is deemed fully at fault. He loses what he stashed away in fear (Luke 19:20–21). He claims his right to the money but shows no responsibility for putting it to use.

This always-bothersome text has finally become more clear to me: money becomes evil when rights are not balanced by responsibilities, and responsibilities are not balanced by rights. When these are balanced, money can do a great deal of good—both for the giver and the receiver, and hopefully for others. There’s surely nothing bad about that!

This interpretation keeps us from wrongly framing the issue, as so many have done in history—by making the rich or the poor inherently bad or inherently virtuous. Individuals in both economic groups can be materialistic consumers or generous-hearted givers, just at their own scale. Paul never said money is the root of all evil, as he is often quoted to have said. He says, “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). This is a major difference.

When, at the individual or family level, we balance our rights with our responsibilities, money can be a moral good for all concerned. A corporation acts morally when it balances its rights to a just profit with its responsibilities for the common good—upon which it depends and profits. Most Western individualism refuses to recognize this common domain. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky were wise to name themselves “commonwealths” instead of states, although now it has just become an empty word. When a person, a community, or a corporation does not consistently seek this balance, they no longer work for the common good. This can become a web of deceits that benefits the very few. When the dominance and enthrallment of money controls almost every aspect of life, as we largely see today, it has become a demon, beyond moral control. Today, this “demon” is destroying the common good and even “our common home,” as Pope Francis calls the planet.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Money?, unpublished notes, 2020.

Story from Our Community:
In 2000 I formed a nonprofit food bank and thrift store where nothing is priced; people pay what they can. If a person needs a coat and has no money, they pay nothing. Money and services are freely given and money is always there when needed. Through all of this, God gave me the strength to never deviate from our original mission—we operate the way Jesus would have us: to give without judgment. —Mary K.

Image credit: Raul Diaz, Lamp Posts (detail), 2012, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: Identical lampposts are all in an ordered, symmetrical row, like a factory output of goods for our uncontrolled consumption. Both money and spirituality are tools, neither good nor bad. If they become weapons for manipulation, they have the potential to harm deeply.
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