The Virtue of Wealth
We came to our community over 30 years ago. Not long after we arrived, I had the privilege to meet and get to know men and women who had carried public and charitable responsibility in this community for generations – and did so until they died. Sometimes their children took their place and sometimes not. I don’t know if all of these men and women would have described it this way, but to me there was a clear sense of having a call to this place. They were not simply living here but had made a life here. They had wealth and an ingrained sense of caring for others. In allowing this community to have a claim on their lives they were tethered to it.
These men and women had long ago sorted out what New York Times writer David Brooks has called the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
Allowing others to have a claim on your life is what money is supposed to free us from, isn’t it? It gives us options and freedom to choose our own life independent of others. And for some, it does. They live unconnected lives of constant travel, enjoyment of rare experiences, and the knowledge they are free from being tied down to any particular place with all its limitations and complications. But that is not wealth. That is the deceit of being merely rich.
Writer Wendell Berry, in his fine book “Jayber Crow,” puts it this way: “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”
That is what these men and women who had become a part of the fabric of this place had learned about wealth. It joins you to a community with an invisible web. On the other hand, riches too often separate. Again, David Brooks says it well: “But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”
Scripture often talks about “wealth and honor” in the same phrase. They go together. God-given wealth and God-given honor are inseparable. But honor is not merely recognition for being rich. It’s far more than that. The Hebrew word is “kabod” – which means weight or substance. It means when God gives wealth He also gives weight and substance to a person’s life and a sense of responsibility for their community. He gives an internal structure that we often call character.
The résumé virtues may make you rich, but it is the eulogy virtues that will make you wealthy. You can be rich and irresponsible. You can be rich and weightless, but wealth means you have accepted the responsibility that goes with it. Merely rich is about counting money. Wealth is concerned with what counts in a life well-lived. You can be independently rich, but you cannot be independently wealthy because your community and others have a rightful claim on your life.
I don’t believe I have ever met a merely rich person at The Gathering. I am sure there are some scattered through the years, but mostly as I have looked around the room over three decades I have seen an abundance of wealth and substance. Wealth and kabod. Wealth and character. I have seen not separation but connection and commitment. Yes, it’s natural to desire riches but far better to desire wealth. Wealth is a choice and a discipline. All of us can aspire to be merely rich or accept the calling and unavoidable claim of being wealthy.