No, no. I’m not referring to a cleverly-worded smack down of Republican tax-plans. I’m talking about turning the preferential option on its head–at least as it is traditionally understood.
Why do Christians have a preferential option specifically for the poor? At least one reason is the fact that sin–social and otherwise–often conspires in a particularly powerful way against the poor such that they cannot flourish and participate in society, and even such that they cannot get their basic needs (like food, education, health care, etc.) met. We must therefore follow the example of Jesus, who gave special attention to the plight of the poor, in an attempt to push back against the forces which conspire against their flourishing.
But it doing so we should not fail to consider another group to which Jesus paid special attention: the rich. Indeed, his concern for the poor was often connected to a concern for the rich–though his words for the latter certainly had a different tone when compared to those directed at the former. Indeed, though Jesus rarely speaks of Hell, when he does so it is often connected to a rich person’s failure of one’s duties to the poor. In recounting a rich man’s refusal to help a poor beggar, for instance, Jesus explains that the rich man ends up in torment in Hell (Luke 16: 19-31). He famously said that a rich person will struggle to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). And in one of the most important stories of the Christian tradition, Jesus famously divides the Heaven-bound from the Hell-bound based on whether or not they fulfilled their duties to ‘the least ones’ in their communities (Matt. 25: 31-46). The early Christian community took this message very seriously, and as a result one could argue that the Church had skepticism even with regard to money-making itself. Pope St. Gregory the Great claimed that it stained one’s soul and Pope St. Leo the Great claimed that it was difficult to avoid sin when buying and selling. The usurious lending of money at interest was even punishable by excommunication and denial of a Christian burial.
This is not about politics: Jesus and the Church didn’t make a distinction between those who are “rich like George Clooney” and those who are “rich like Mitt Romney.” All the rich, especially insofar as their being rich indicates a failure to use one’s wealth to aid the poor, find their salvation seriously imperiled.
Why don’t we take the vulnerable position of the rich more seriously? In short, why don’t we have a preferential option for the rich? We should, of course, be concerned with the flourishing of the poor. But flourishing in this life is only of proximate value, isn’t it? Our ultimate goal is salvation and ultimate union with God. And many of the rich among us–and many of us (who are surely rich by any reasonable standard), period–have put our salvation in serious danger. We abandon the poor in buying luxuries we don’t need. We abandon them in supporting usurious policies. We haplessly attempt to serve two masters…despite our true Master telling us that this is impossible.
It is important, even essential, to have a preferential option for the poor. But isn’t this often connected with having a preferential option for the rich–many of whom, if we take Jesus seriously, imperil their own salvation?