When Jesus says, “Happy are the poor” and “Woe to you the rich,” he is not talking about riches in the absolute sense. That is, he is not condemning the physical fact of having great material resources. There is not that kind of asceticism in Jesus that almost instinctively hates well-being and abundance, the kind that always goes hand-in-hand with extreme “other-worldliness.” In John 12:7 Jesus not only readily permits, but actually defends the sinful woman’s anointing him with an oil of nard worth three hundred denarii (v.5), which John calls very valuable (v.3) and Mark very costly (mark 14:3). In the wedding feast at Canan (John 2:1-11), Jesus was pleased to contribute, in order to enhance the merrymaking of the whole company, six twenty-gallon jars of very fine wine (v.10). Jesus has no horror of wealth, neither in itself nor in its use and enjoyment. And surely he had read that Abraham, the model of Old Testament faith, had been rich (Gen. 13:2). The wealth of the whole people is also lauded in Deuteronomy 28:1-14.
But as we were saying, “rich” and “poor” are correlative terms. When Christ says, “Happy the poor” and “Woe to you the rich,” what he is attacking is that some are poor and others rich. If I may introduce a technical term, it is differentiating, or relative, wealth that he condemns. But this he does condemn, implacably–so intransigently and unexceptionably that official Western theology is too traumatized to take a really close look at the condemnation for fear the whole meaning of the Bible may depend on it. And indeed the entire history of the West has been a falsification of Christianity simply because it has not dared to look in the face the inexorable reprobation to which the Bible subjects differentiation wealth. History has decided to turn its face away and believe that the “preferential option for the poor” is a question of tenderness and nice sentiments, when in reality it is a moral question in the strict sense.
One of the effects of this deviation is that even Christology has become a tissue of trivial and irrelevant theses. In order to be objective in reading the gospel one has to stop imagining Jesus as the sweet, conciliatory sort. He was a cutting man. Has there ever existed, in all of history, a more intransigent person than the one who turned to those who spontaneously wished to follow him and stopped them dead in their tracts with: First go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me? This is a statement that can have been made only in a harsh, pugnacious tone–the tone of the man who, when he talks about money, calls it the “money of iniquity” (Luke 16:9,11), the tone of the man who was capable of shouting out, “Scribes and pharisees, hypocrites!” seven times running (Matt. 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27 ,29), the tone of the man who, speaking about the temple, comes right out and says, “Not a stone will be left upon a stone” (Mark 13:2). Jesus had the character of a hardened revolutionary. It is time we understood that.
But let us leave the Christologies to themselves and listen to Jesus’ own words. Jesus condemns differentiating wealth. The parable of the rich man and the poor one (Luke 6:19-31) is perfectly consistent with Mark 10:25 and Luke 6:20, 24. Escapist exegesis thinks the rich man ended up in torment because he did not give alms to Lazarus. But the reason for his punishment is not a matter for conjectures. The parable itself makes it explicit: “Remember you received good things during your lifetime, and Lazarus on the contrary evil things” (Luke 16:25). What is punished is differentiating wealth, in its purest expression. The parable does not say, because you lived in abundance–which would have been to condemn wealth in the absolute sense. It says, because you lived in abundance and Lazarus in misery. What is punished in torment, is that some are rich and others are poor.
At no turn is it insinuated that this rich man was a person of especially depraved habits, or that in order to enrich himself he had committed particular acts of extortion or fraud which other rich persons do not commit. The only thing said of him is that he was rich and lived as if he were rich: “There was a rich man, and he clothed himself in scarlet and linen, and daily dined splendidly” (Luke 16:19). And since this is nothing but the story of someone who was punished in torment, the only purpose the parable can have is to tell us why. It would be unforgivably negligent of Christ if, as the escapists would have it, he did not tell us why. But he does tell us why: because the man was rich. This is the very title of the parable: “There was a rich man.”
Official exegesis cannot bear this message. Its instinctive revulsion goes beyond its strength and lucidity. But a complementary trauma is still in store for the official exegesis: Neither does the parable suggest that the poor man was especially virtuous. Here as throughout the Bible, the poor person’s interior dispositions are of no importance. He is rewarded for the simple reason that he is poor: “It happened that the poor man died and was carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). The total incompatibility of this criterion with the the official conception of what Christianity is ought to have called the official conception into question from head to foot–without the uncritical supposition that there is anything in the official conception not open to discussion, even the conviction that Christianity is a religion. The sole reason for the condemnation of the rich man (“You received good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus, instead, bad things”) is precisely the reason given in Luke 6:24: “Woe to you the rich; because you have received your comfort.” The disjunction now is between being able to accept Jesus, and being faithful to a “Christianity” that sets up a fundamental obstacle to the understanding of the gospel. The theologians who question the authenticity of the curse of the rich in the Sermon on the Mount have not taken into account the fact that it says exactly the same thing as the authentic parable on the rich man and the poor one.
Before we proceed, let us notice that at the end of the parable Jesus says, by implication but with all clarity, that his condemnation of wealth is the teaching of the Old Testament (“Moses and the prophets”). The rich man asks that somebody go to warn his brothers on earth, “so that they may not come to this place of torment as well” (Luke 16;28). The answer is, “they have Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29); “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). This means: Anyone who reads the Old Testament knows that (relative) wealth is immoral; if people are so blind that they do not understand this moral reprobation when they read it, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Jesus would have to say the same thing today with regard to his own teachings in the New Testament.
Since the Old Testament condemnation of wealth is clear, it is not a matter for wonderment that Luke 1:53 places it on the lips of Jesus’ mother. Let us now join this text to mark 10:25, Luke 6:20, 24, and the parable. It says, “He filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he sent away with nothing.” It does not say that he filled equally with good things the hungry and all the inhabitants of the land –which is what a simple communist would have to do after “tearing the rulers down from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). It says he will fill the poor with good things and will send the rich away without anything. The same principle is formulated in Psalm 34:11: “The rich will be left poor and hungry.” No one can take the Bible seriously without concluding that according to it, the rich, for being rich, should be punished. Not to admit them into the kingdom when the whole point is to establish the kingdom, is clearly punishment. To commit them to torment, as the parable teaches, is punishment. To deprive them of all their goods and send them off with nothing is also punishment–for the simple crime of being rich.
I can hear a cry of total indignation; “But why?” The entire Bible is going to answer us, in its language, in the subsequent sections of this chapter. But in this section, let us try to explain the “why” in our modern language.
From the texts cited, it is inescapable that according to the Bible there is no legitimate fashion of acquiring differentiating wealth. Unless this moral thesis of economics is supposed, the punishment of the rich in quantum rich will be altogether incomprehensible. All these texts imply that only by illicit means is it possible to reach a higher economic level than that of the majority of the population. It is evident that ‘illicit” does not mean: by transgressing the positive laws currently in force. The fact of legislation of nations authorizing means of acquiring wealth does not make these means to be licit, does not make these means licit. If there is anything of value in the Christian intellectual tradition it is that the criterion of good and evil does not depend on current laws or decrees or customs.
To be concrete, let us suppose that a big Mexican industrialist, a bread manufacturer, wishes to explain his position to us. He leads us to the top floor of the tallest building in his plant, and there, through a large window, shows us the vast expanse of his economic empire. ‘Look,” he tells us, “from there,what is now Seventh Avenue, to Luis Vives Avenue (which I built), there used to be nothing. Just meadow land. Do you understand? Before I started all this there was nothing here. Now, after what I have done–and because of what I have done–there is a whole plaza of wealth here, the most prosperous firm in this city. Get it? Before I built this there was nothing. Now there is wealth. The only conclusion is that I did it. And so it’s mine. Can I offer you something?”
You sure can. You can tell us what you mean by “There was nothing.” There were at least three things in this country: raw materials, labor, and market. If you had lacked even one of those three things, not only would you not have been able to do anything, you would not even have been able to have the idea.
The magnate interrupts us. “But I bought everything at a just price! In other words, I acquired everything by contract, to which both parties freely agreed!”
This is precisely the weak point in your reasoning. This is where it falls apart. The only way you can acquire wealth is to buy cheap and sell dear. You have no right to suppose that society accepted your self-enrichment and that of your fellows of its own free will, knowing that it remained subjected to the will and the constraint of your capital. Let us take a closer look. The country folk who sold you their wheat had no other alternative. Either they accepted the price you felt like offering, or their harvest would rot and they would die of hunger. Of course they agreed to the various contracts offered them–and congratulated themselves on having found a buyer. But objectively you cannot speak of freedom of contract when the only alternative is hunger and misery.
This is not an appeal to emotion. We are not being sentimental about the suffering that goes on in the countryside. This is not rhetoric but rational argumentation. The moralists of the establishment have completely passed over this fact: when I am threatened with hunger and misery my acquiescence is not free. As far as a valid or invalid contract is concerned they might as well be threatening me with a pistol.
Next, the people who sell their labor, the workers, when confronted with the employment offer you made them, had as their only alternative unemployment, and the disasters of all kinds that go hand-in-hand with unemployment. In other words either they had to sign your contract regardless of its terms, or face hunger and family disaster along with their wives and their children. It is a grotesque joke to talk about a free work contract. Of course the workers held a fiesta when they got steady work in your firm; but in terms of strict morality it cannot be said that they freely agreed when the alternative was hunger.
Note that I speak in the categories of the most traditional moral philosophy. If the parties do not enter into the contract with freedom and cognizance of cause, the contact is invalid, and all its effects as well. Its effects are your wealth.
And as for the market, as for the consumer: no one ever asks us whether we agree with the price of a loaf of bread. We pay for it or abstain from it. Of course we are at liberty to eat cob-loaves or candy bars. But we are not asked if we agree with the price of the candy bar, either. Either we pay , or we abstain from eating it. Of course we can always eat tortillas. But we aren’t asked if we freely accept the price of the tortilla, either. And we don’t have to eat one of the three things. This is not a matter for discussion; it is an organic necessity. Where is the liberty?
The wealth you boast of could, and can, be acquired only by millions of expressed or implied contracts: contracts of sale and purchase of the raw materials, contracts of sale and purchase of the labor, contracts of sale and purchase of the end product. The only possible source of wealth is to make off with the difference. Well, those contracts are invalid, because the consent of the weaker party was affected either by the violent constraint of circumstances, or by radical ignorance of what he or she was doing (an ignorance cultivated by the establishment by ever ideological manner and means), or by both at once. The mechanism of constraint functions across the gamut of the social groups, as we have seen. But even conjointly, it is absurd to suppose that society even as a whole is willing to have a small group acquire, whether little by little or all of a sudden, the power that henceforth will permit it to impose its will on the whole of society. Or if it did give its consent, it is evident that it did not know what it was doing, that someone defrauded it by concealing from it the true significance of the facts. And fraud or ignorance suffices to invalidate a contract.
Perhaps our industrialist will object, “But I bought the raw materials and the labor at market value, and I sold my bread at market value at the price at which bread is sold in this part of the country.”
I answer, in the first place this has absolutely nothing to do with the moral plane which is the basis of our discussion. The contracts were not signed by both parties freely. The price of the labor in the labor market is imposed on the worker, just as both of the other prices are imposed on the weaker party.
But in the second place (and here is where we touch the systemic nerve of the question–right here is where the medieval doctrine of the just price betrays its superficiality, and at the same time unmasks itself as part of the establishment), as we were saying, the market value is imposed on the weaker party. The market value must always be the one that allows merchants and managers to take a profit. This, according to the medieval doctrine, is the “just price”–the one that permits “each person to live according to his social position.” Naturally, it is supposed that there ought to be various social positions. But the differentiating social position of the rich can exist only to the extent that they take a profit. In other words, when we suppose that there is a just price we are committing the fallacy of begging the question–by presupposing that there is a legitimate manner of acquiring differentiating wealth. This is precisely what the Bible denies. None of the means of acquisition can be legitimate, because the terms of the contract are necessarily imposed on the weaker party, which invalidates the contract together with all its effects.
The establishment ideologues, like the Chicago Boys and, earlier, the whole classical school of economics, have deliberately generated confusion as to who determines prices–so that the exploited may believe the prices determine themselves all on their own, or are determined by some kind of natural causes, somewhat as if they were determined by God and hence beyond appeal. But in a mercantile economy, the market price is necessarily the one which allows capital to take a profit. Otherwise capital is not invested. Hence it is the rich, and no one else, who determine the market price.
If there were true freedom and cognizance of cause, the workers would refuse to work unless they were guaranteed the same standard of living as that of their employers. And differentiating wealth would be done away with automatically.
Our mogul objects again. “But if there is going to be an exchange of merchandise, there has to be some just price.”
I reply: Now that is just the point. What is in question is whether a system can legitimately exist whose resource and productive activity are intended for exchange–when it is possible to establish a system whose resources and productive activity are destined exclusively for the satisfaction of the needs of the population. The former system necessarily involves the forcible imposition on the weaker party to the contract of such a price as will permit the stronger party to acquire differentiating wealth. This is nothing but the systematic exploitation of some persons by others. The moralists of the establishment have passed over the fact that my contractual agreement is not free when I am threatened with hunger–because they consider this threat to be a natural one, simply the necessity we are all under to work for a living. But the necessity we are all under is to work for the satisfaction of needs, not to work to make some rich at the expense of everyone else so that they dominate everyone else. If the proletariat were not the victims off cultivated violence and ignorance, they would automatically refuse to work for the enrichment of a few. At the same moment the capitalist system would cease to exist.
Even within capitalism itself, it is a patent fallacy that entrepreneurs deserve profit on account of risks they take. The value of the product is exactly the same whether risks are taken or not. Thus the mere fact of taking risks does not create value in a product, does not add anything to it. In no way is it legitimate to remove a part of the product in order thereby to remunerate an activity which has contributed nothing to is value. But the real question is whether a system ought to exist in which anyone has to take risks, when we can produce exactly the same goods in a system without individual investment and without anyone’s risk. To defend the former system you must either be masochistically in love of risk–or merely seeking a pretext for making differentiating wealth look honest. In actual fact it is uncritically supposed legitimate–and gets the post-factum message of either the “risk” sophistry or some other specious “justification.”
The deep undercurrent, running along beneath the surface energies that are its corollary, is the fixed idea that differentiating wealth is an indisputable given. This is the mere historical continuation of the notion that some are born to be masters and others to be slaves, that some are born for a higher standard of living and others for a lower. This is why the Bible directly attacks differentiating wealth. Where a determinate kind of work is concerned, the first thing that has to be clarified is whether it is necessary or unnecessary. If it is unnecessary it should be eliminated. But if it is necessary, nothing and no one can legitimate the punishing of the one who performs it with a lower living standard.
Another empty pretext, like the risk pretext, is to say that the capitalist contributes to production by doing mental work. Actually, as Frank Cunningham says well, capitalist have no work to do at all, neither mental or manual, if they so wish, for they can hire others to do it.
The greater part of their “mental work” contributes nothing to the effective production of the goods, but consists in thinking up ways to “kite’ negotiables, ways to create artificial needs for the consumer, ways to squeeze more labor out of the work force, ways to carry on commerce more effectively, to drive out the competition, and the like. Or, in the case where their mental work does indeed contribute to production, this is but the contribution of one person among the many whose contribution and toil are necessary, in combination, to make a product. They should receive appropriate wages in remuneration, like the others.
As nothing justifies penalizing certain necessary types of labor with an inferior standard of living, it ought to be obvious that the alleged legitimacy of differentiating wealth is a mere historical prolongation of the slave mentality that says some are born to live better than others. This is indubitably how the authors of the Bible, and Jesus with them, perceived the affair. Hence their implacable condemnation of differentiating wealth. Why communism? Because any other system consists in the exploitation and spoliation of some people by others through the imposition of different prices. Just because of that.
*excerpt from Communism in the Bible by Jose Porfiro Miranda