Sunday Verse 5: Mammon and Rewards

I’ve been enjoying recent re-visits to Ayn Rand’s work, and my own Lady Anne has just re-read the full text of Atlas Shrugged and is plowing through Rand’s non-fiction work now.  This makes for enjoyable discussions (but I confess a bias toward always considering discussions with my Lady to be enjoyable). Along the way (and spurred by Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness available here as a .PDF file), some lively and surprisingly vehement discussions about definitions of “selfishness” and “self-interest” and “altruism” have taken place, and I have another post on that topic coming soon.  But for my purposes at the moment, in this discussion of thought-provoking Bible verses pursuant to the Food for Thought award based on Citizen Tom’s rather flattering nomination, I’m going to look at Biblical treatments of wealth, and a slightly different take on altruism.

Matthew 6 discusses giving — and has given rise to some controversy which I’ll touch on. This chapter contains what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” It also contains the seed of a familiar expression: “his right hand doesn’t know what his left had is doing.”  Would you have guessed that the original subject matter was charitable giving?  But there’s a reason for it as noted in this Young’s Literal Translation version of Matthew 6:

6 `Take heed your kindness not to do before men, to be seen by them, and if not — reward ye have not from your Father who [is] in the heavens;
whenever, therefore, thou mayest do kindness, thou mayest not sound a trumpet before thee as the hypocrites do, in the synagogues, and in the streets, that they may have glory from men; verily I say to you — they have their reward!
`But thou, doing kindness, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth,
that thy kindness may be in secret, and thy Father who is seeing in secret Himself shall reward thee manifestly.
`And when thou mayest pray, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, because they love in the synagogues, and in the corners of the broad places — standing — to pray, that they may be seen of men; verily I say to you, that they have their reward.
`But thou, when thou mayest pray, go into thy chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who [is] in secret, and thy Father who is seeing in secret, shall reward thee manifestly.

First, the word “kindness” appears several times here.  In other versions, it has been rendered as “charitable giving” or “acts of piety” or “alms” or “righteousness.” These are translations from the Greek words eleemosune (alms giving) and dikaisune (any act of religious observance). There is a dispute as to whether one of these was a sort of transcription error, and perhaps the Bible verse means that all religious observance should be done in private. (That would conflict with other verses, incidentally.)

But beyond that, there is the issue of reward as discussed in Matthew 6 and elsewhere. If one is to be rewarded by God for doing altruistic acts, an argument can be made that they’re not then altruistic.  (Suddenly, a very different creature has come to mind; I’ll make that post separate.)  It isn’t clear from Matthew or from other Biblical verses whether all of the rewards for doing good for others would come only in the afterlife.  It’s ambiguous here, and there are many passages that refer to lives enriched by God for people who do good works.  In other words, not just afterlives.

We all know the quote about how hard it supposedly is for the rich man to get into heaven, like “a camel passing through the eye of a needle” (discussed here).  And yet the Bible contains ample references to prosperity being granted. Proverbs contains  a number of these:

22 The blessing of Jehovah — it maketh rich, And He addeth no grief with it.

Phrased differently in other versions such as “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” These do not all seem to be referring to metaphysical wealth or spiritual wealth.  And yet, material wealth is a problem elsewhere.  Though free enterprise is not: Honest scales are praised as Godly, and the idea of selling something measured with them meets with evident approval. Proverbs 16 voices approval of profit (KJV):

23 In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.

It certainly makes profit seem good, and penury — poverty — undesirable.

Profit can accumulate (to one who follows the Proverbs of Solomon) to become wealth. Does the Bible condemn wealth?  Yes and no.  People with means are exhorted to share some of it:

17 But whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?

(I used the “American Standard Version” here. The closer translations involve “bowels” which may seem a little odd, though the effect makes sense if you substitute “heart” instead.)

And in some cases which we’ve discussed, the possessor of material wealth is encouraged to give it all away — and give up the idea of obtaining wealth. (Hmm. Doesn’t this also mean give up on philanthropy?)

But Solomon was given great wealth by the Lord without asking, according to 1 Chronicles:
11 And God saith to Solomon, `Because that this hath been with thy heart, and thou hast not asked riches, wealth, and honour, and the life of those hating thee, and also many days hast not asked, and dost ask for thyself wisdom and knowledge, so that thou dost judge My people over which I have caused thee to reign —
12 the wisdom and the knowledge is given to thee, and riches and wealth and honour I give to thee, that there hath not been so to the kings who [are] before thee, and after thee it is not so.

Not just wealth, but wealth greater than any previous king, or any king of the future.  (This article discusses that wealth and attempts to quantify it.)

It seems to me that wealth, per se, is not a problem according to the Bible … unless it becomes the driving force in one’s life, and/or supplants a person’s Christian duties and obligations. And wealth actually enables charity, of course.

But left open is the notion raised by references again and again to rewards from Heaven, both material and in the hereafter. If such rewards are the motivation for “altruistic” behavior, is it truly altruistic?  One non-theistic viewpoint would be “it doesn’t matter — the absence of God from the equation means that such a Christian’s actual works are altruistic in effect.”  The only difference, perhap, is that a non-theist’s acts are done knowingly, keenly aware that he cannot expect Godly rewards.

To the Christian’s favor, it does seem that the Christian traditions motivate a lot of people, and a lot of organizations, to do such good works.  This is all to the good, in my opinion.  Christians are well known to give more to charities than non-theists and non-active churchgoers, in general, though I suspect that the non-theists are now tromping Christians in political contributions.  This does not have the same sort of benign effect, in my view.

But whether you are a non-theist, a Christian, or a follower of any other of the eight thousand or so faiths on the planet, you can make the calculation that helping others can be to the ultimate benefit of you and those you care about, including your country.  In my case, it is the United States … which heads off toward political contributions as well. It may amuse some of you, who know that I am a conservative who strongly believes that our border should be closed, to know that I am on the board of a charity providing (among other things) free medical services to illegal immigrants.  It’s specifically aimed at them — and I have been for years the champion of this program among the board members.

To me, there is no conflict.  It pleases me, and if Randian hedonistic selfishness is all about doing what pleases you, then it’s perfect.  (That isn’t what Rand’s selfishness is at all … but that will wait for another time.)   My mentioning this work here means that my performance is not exactly Biblical, but hey, what the … hmm.  Ah.  Never mind.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle