A Hobbit considers gold – or Can Christians be billionaires?

By Aian Macpherson

What affect does Christian discipleship have upon our attitudes to our wealth? Does Christian life make it increasingly likely or unlikely that we should aspire to wealth? Looking at reactions to wealth of two characters from J.R.R Tolkins The Hobbit, Thorin – a dwarf chief – and Bilbo – a hobbit – I will look a few ides around wealth.

Thorin

Thorin takes pride in the technical achievements of his ancestors and their industry. Their wealth was the product of their ambition and work. Wealth creation for Thorin is about the full development of the Earth’s resources. It corresponds to the ‘dignity and honour which God has given to the human race, to our role as stewards of creation’.[1] For Thorin hard work is rewarded, laziness is wrong. Proverbs 14:23 says: ‘in all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty’.

Even though Thorin acknowledges his people ‘have a good bit laid by’ he is determined to get the wealth back and build a home for all his people. The Methodist Church working group on social responsibility say that: ‘Rich societies are able to carry an increased burden of caring. They can make provision for the flourishing of arts, research sciences and mass cultural activities.’[2]

Thorin

However, because of Thorin’s dwarfish heart he is susceptible to greed; ‘brooding over the treasury… the lust of it was heavy on him’. Despite the just claims of others – particularly Bard, – ‘by whose hand the dragon slain and… treasure delivered’, – and the men of lake town – who suffer the destruction of their homes for aiding the dwarfs – Thorin is still unwilling to part with any of his wealth. The Bible may commend an industrious life but it also speaks of the futility of greed (Prov 23:4-5), the oppression of the poor to acquire wealth (Prov 22:22-23) and the poverty that results from gratuitous luxury (Prov 23:20-21). St. John Chrysostom comments in his sermon on the rich man and Lazarus: ‘It is not the same thing for one who lives in poverty not to help those in need, as the one who enjoys such luxury to neglect others who are wasting away with hunger.’[3]

In modernity arguments have been made that acknowledge that greed is a vice but contest that in the meantime until we reach the point of plenty it is an ‘economic necessity’ that ‘avarice and usury… must be our gods for a little longer still’.[4] Such views suggest we will one day create a world where greed will be satisfied and human character itself changed by economic plenty – scarcity currently defines economic models – is theologically and practically flawed. The current economic system in fact makes realising this utopia impossible because new products are constantly sold to the market to create new demands.[5]

Thorin was prepared to go to war to protect his treasure even from its rightful claimants, in some ways he became like the dragon he had cursed. One claim of God’s peace upon His followers is that we must ‘deny any ‘right’ to the pursuit of war, any claim on the part of the people that it may sacrifice its neighbours in the course of its own… prosperity.’[6]

Scripture is concerned that we love both neighbour and God (Deu 6:4 , Lev 19:18). If we cheat others to obtain wealth or if we are prepared to use violence to secure material possession we have failed to love either our neighbour or the God who commands us to love them (Lev 19:35).

Thorin ends his life with these words to Bilbo: ‘Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the gate… There is more in you of goodness than you know, child of the kindly west. Some courage and some wisdom blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.’

Bilbo

Bilbo was willing to give up his share in profit to avoid mortal conflict: ‘This is the Arkenstone… I am willing to let it stand against all my claim’. In the end he would take only two small chests, one filled with silver, and the other with gold. However he was wealthy because he had been given the gift of ‘a corslet of mithril-rings…  it’s worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.’[7] The significance of Bilbo and his relationship to wealth is that he received all he had obtained as a gift. When sending his disciples out Jesus commanded them to give freely because they had received freely (Matt 10:8).

Jacobs describes how the notion of charity as ‘Christian love’ over time became voluntary – rather than an obligation of – kindness to the poor and so justice, originally a personal virtue, became expanded to a social level to fill the void.[8] Whilst Jacobs discusses the problems of this change at greater length we can notice one particular conclusion. One cannot: ‘Move towards social justice by being unjust… We should be extremely wary of the idea that the personal practice of injustice can serve the achievements of social justice.’[9]

Bilbo is personally just and only by being so is he prepared to make sacrifices of himself which were necessary for the dwarfs to reach the treasure in the first place. Bilbo is not courageous, in that he does not undertake heroics for their own sake. However he is courageous because he risks his own life for his friends. Bilbo had been part of a fellowship; his risk-taking was done always for his companions not for wealth.

Bag end

Bilbo was of a content nature and had enough. Christianity should question any notion of scarcity as it pertains to our needs, Scripture shows us that God sees a world in which there should be no one in need because of the plenty he supplies (Deu 15:4). However this is set with Gods command that we should not hold debts against one another (Deu 15:1-2) and alongside the recognition that ‘there will never cease to be some in need on the earth’, which is why God commands ‘open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’ (Deu 15:11). God’s promise of plenty does not extend to our lusts and covetousness; if the desires of one person use the resources which should have supplied the needs of another then it is the human practice of justice, both individual and social, which is at fault and not the provision of God. Markets should respond to social need rather than creating additional “want” otherwise they ‘undermine the foundations on which they rest, both moral and economic’.[10] Witherington III is right to suggest that Christians need to recover a ‘sense of the difference between necessities and luxuries’;[11]

Conclusion

The ability of craftsmen to use the Earth’s resources in creative and responsible ways should be respected. Innovations of industry and science can heighten the welfare of people. Entrepreneurship should be encouraged for the communal good. Some invite poverty through idleness and some achieve wealth through honest toil. The poor are not to be favoured and the rich robed to “level the playing field” any more than the poor are to be oppressed to create wealth for the few, we are to judge justly (Lev 19:15).

Wealth, and how it is invested, are means to an end, such as the well-being and supply of needs for all people, they are not good things in their own right. The dream of “prosperity for all” in the long run cannot be used as an excuse for the greed and prosperity of the few in the present. The motive for acquiring wealth, the means by which it is acquired, the means by which it is secured and held are important. Wealth must not be set over human life – which both the rich and the poor receive from the Lord (Prov 22:2). Wealth is received as gift and should be given away as freely as it is received; we are stewards who should deal wisely, not owners who deal possessively.

Proverbs strikes a balance when it is written: Give me neither poverty nor riches: feed me with the food that I need, Or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” Or I shall be poor, and steel, and profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:8-9)

Can Christians be billionaires? Put simply: possible in theory, but unlikely in the practises of competition that dominate this world.

[1] R. Higginson, Living with Affluence, (Nottingham: Grove, 1992), 17.

[2] O. Nankivell, et al. (ed.) The Ethics of Wealth Creation, (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House), 8.

[3] J. Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. C.P. Roth (Crestwood, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1981), 22.

[4] Keynes cited in Nankivell, Ethics, 9.

[5] Nankivell, Ethics, 11.

[6] O. O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

[7] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, (London: HarperCollins, 1999), 417.

[8] A. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading, (Cambridge: Westview, 2001), 129.

[9] Ibid, 137. Italics added.

[10] Nankivell, Ethics, 19.

[11] B. Witherington III, Jesus and Money, (London: SPCK, 2010), 155.

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