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THE TEACHING OF JESUS CONCERNING THE RICH
How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of
Who, then, is the faithful and wise steward whom his lord shall set over his household ? . . . Blessed is that servant, ... of a truth, he will set him over all that he hath!
We pass from the innermost circle of social relationship— the family, and find ourselves in a larger but concentric circle. At the centre the individual is inquiring concerning his place and function in the social order, but round him now sweeps the life of a community, made up of many families associated in the complexity of the modern world. No sooner does the individual contemplate this larger circle environing his life, than a new social problem confronts him. He observes the extreme diversity of social conditions which each such community represents. Some of these families are hungry, for food or for work, and some, on the other hand, seem overburdened by superfluous possessions. Some of these homes are tempted by their poverty, and some by their prosperity. The individual looks about him at the scene presented by the modern distribution of wealth, and it is not a peaceful or sunny
prospect. About him lie, it is true, great tracts of general prosperity, a rolling country with gentle undulations of greater or less possessions; but in the midst of this smiling landscape rise a few abrupt and overshadowing peaks, making more sombre and sunless the deep cañons of incompetency and want which lie between. It is a spectacle abounding in suggestions of pathos, not unmingled with an element of irony. Each extreme of this diversity involves its own special peril; each social type— the dwellers on the heights and those who never see the sun — has its own temptations; each type tends to become isolated and fixed in its conditions; yet within each type there are groups which have a curious kinship in habit and needs. On the one hand is the group of the unemployed and laboriously idle rich, and on the other hand is the group of the unemployed and professionally idle poor. The two groups have much in common. Each is a detachment of what is known as the army of the unemployed. Each is characterized by loss of respect for work. Each, therefore, has its share of responsibility for the revolutionary agitation of the time. The instruments of this revolt are likely to be found among the exasperated poor; but the provocation to revolt is likely to proceed from the unemployed and self-indulgent rich, the spenders of that which others have gained, the persons of whom Mr. Ruskin said that their wealth should be called their “ill-th,” because it is not X
well, but ill, with their souls. Thus, while the main current of social life is healthy and free, its motion has thrown up upon the surface a kind of life which may be described as social froth, and has deposited at its bottom another kind of life which may be described as social sediment; and who shall say which is the more threatening social peril, — the submerged poor or the light-minded rich; the restlessness of the social sediment, or the thoughtlessness of the social froth?
It should be noticed that this diversity of social condition, which appears to create a new social question, is not itself a new situation or one of unprecedented gravity. On the contrary, one of the most obvious facts of modern civilization is the enormous advance in general prosperity and in purchasing power of every social class. It is by no means true that as the rich grow richer the poor are growing poorer. The concentration of great wealth in a few hands is accompanied by an extraordinary distribution of comfort among many millions, so that conveniences and resources, which two generations ago were the luxuries of the few, have come to be within easy reach of the humblest. This progress in general prosperity has not, however, been a uniform progress. While the rich have been growing richer, the poor have been growing less poor, but they have not maintained the same pace of progress. Thus, while general progress may be admitted to be real, it may be still indicted as inequitable, and it is this
sense of inequity which gives to the present social situation its specific character. It is not true that the hand-working class have less, but it is true that they know and feel and desire more. Thus, the modern social question is one fruit of the education of the masses. It is not a sign of social decadence, but a sign of social progress. “The people had been made blind, like Samson,” remarks Mr. Graham, “the better to toil without being dangerous. ... In 1870 it was felt . . . that a measure of education was necessary and politic, and Lord Sherbrooke (then Mr. Robert Lowe) expressed a very general feeling in his well-known aphorism, “We must educate our masters.'”1
In such a situation, however, the social question presents itself in a much more radical form than it has, under other conditions, assumed. It is not a question of economic reforms or philanthropic schemes. It considers the very existence of these extremes of condition. Ought there to be any such types in social life as the rich and the poor? Is the possession of wealth on any terms justifiable? Is poverty by any means eradicable? Is a social order just and rational which permits great accumulation of wealth in single hands? If not, shall not a new social order be established, where the valleys of social life shall be exalted and its mountains and hills brought low? We speak of a rich man as being “worth” a certain sum. How much, asks the modern spirit, is a rich man in fact
1 Graham, “The Social Problem,” 1886, pp. 23, 25.
worth? Is he worth what he costs? In a time when the majority have the power, but have not the wealth, is it not possible, either by legislation or by revolution, greatly to restrict or hamper the accumulation and perpetuation of wealth ? May not the way of the rich, like that of the transgressor, be made very hard ? If the private owner. ship of wealth brings with it no public utility, or if, still worse, it turns out to be a source of demoralization, are there not ways of dealing with it as one deals with any common nuisance, so that it may be in large degree abated ?
Thus the modern social question tests the institution of private property by its contribution to the public good. Does it foster a quality of social life which is worth perpetuating? Does money-getting fulfil a moral purpose? Is it, on the whole, best that the way to wealth shall be left open toward the top, so that a man who has the gift for getting rich may have all the benefits of that gift; or, on the other hand, ought rich people to be abolished, because it is impossible to be both rich and good ? What is this fact of diversity of condition in modern social life, but a challenge to the poor to use their power, like a Samson who is no longer blind, to drag down the pillars of a perverted civilization ?
Such are the questions which, often with bitterness, often with apprehension, are beitig asked by the present age. Wealth is brought to the test of utility. If it cannot be proved to fulfil some public service, then it is very probably digging its