The Difference Between You and Bill Gates
Financially speaking, the difference between you and Bill Gates is smaller than the difference between you and the average person living outside the U.S. To most people, your bank accounts look virtually the same. In fact, years ago Bill Gates traveled to India on a philanthropic visit. In a neighborhood outside a large city, he spent time conversing with an Indian woman in her hut.
Through a translator, they discussed the state of health care and other needs her people faced. After he left, a journalist asked the woman if she realized that the richest man in the world had just been in her house. Unfazed, she remarked that everybody who visits from the West is rich. In her eyes, the average American is so rich, she views them all the same.
While we are comparing, consider this. What we call “poverty” today would have been considered middle class just a few generations ago. In 2000, the average “poor” family had goods and services rivaling middle-class families of the 1970s: 60 percent had microwaves, 50 percent had air conditioners, 93 percent had color televisions, and 60 percent had video recorders. More impressive is the income mobility within our economy. Most poor families don’t stay poor. Over the sixteen-year period tracked by one study, 95 percent of the families in the lowest income quintile climbed the economic ladder to higher quintiles. Over 80 percent moved to the top three quintiles, qualifying them as middle class or better.
As Michael Cox, an economist with the Federal Reserve, noted, “The rich may have gotten a little richer, but the poor have gotten much richer.” Gallup conducted a poll to see how different socioeconomic groups defined “rich.” Not surprisingly, everybody had a different definition — and nobody thought he fit it. For each and every person, “rich” was roughly double the amount possessed by the person defining it. In other words, when they interviewed people who earned $30,000 a year, that group defined “rich” as someone who earns $60,000. When they interviewed people who earned $50,000 a year, the magic number was $100,000. Similarly, Money magazine asked its readers how much money it would take to make them feel rich.
And according to the average reader of Money magazine, a person would need $5 million in liquid assets to be considered rich. Based on the trend found in the Gallup poll, the readers of Money magazine probably averaged about $2.5 million in net worth (half their definition of “rich”). Therefore, if we asked people worth $5 million to define “rich,” they would probably say it was anyone worth $10 million. And on and on it goes. The moral of the story? “Rich” is a moving target. No matter how much money we have or make, we will probably never consider ourselves rich. The biggest challenge facing rich people is that they’ve lost their ability to recognize that they’re rich.
Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, once was at a party in the Hamptons. A guy came over to him and pointed at a young, 25 year old standing in the party who worked for a big hedge fund. Heller’s “friend” said to him, “see that guy over there? He made more money last year then you will ever make with all of your books combined.”
Joseph Heller said, “Maybe so. But I have one thing that man will never have.”
His friend was skeptical. “Oh yeah, what?”
Heller said, “Enough.”
On the importance of changing someone’s mind
Giving Away What Wasn’t His
When 67-year-old carpenter Russell Herman died in 1994, his will included a staggering set of bequests. Included in his plan for distribution was more than two billion dollars for the City of East St. Louis, another billion and a half for the State of Illinois, two and a half billion for the national forest system, and to top off the list, Herman left six trillion dollars to the government to help pay off the national debt. That sounds amazingly generous, but there was a small problem—Herman’s only asset when he died was a 1983 Oldsmobile. He made grand pronouncements, but there was no real generosity involved. His promises were meaningless because there was nothing to back them up.
That sounds amazingly generous, but there was a small problem—Herman’s only asset when he died was a 1983 Oldsmobile. He made grand pronouncements, but there was no real generosity involved. His promises were meaningless because there was nothing to back them up.”
Source: The Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1995.
Leaving It Behind
A wealthy plantation owner invited John Wesley to his home. The two rode their horses all day, seeing just a fraction of all the man owned. At the end of the day the plantation owner proudly asked, “Well, Mr. Wesley, what do you think?” After a moment’s silence, Wesley replied, “I think you’re going to have a hard time leaving all this.”
Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity: A Comprehensive Guide to What the Bible Says about Financial Stewardship, Generosity, Materialism, Retirement, Financial Planning, Gambling, Debt, and More, Tyndale Press, 2011.
A notorious miser was called on by the chairman of the community charity. “Sir,” said the fund-raiser, “our records show that despite your wealth, you’ve never once given to our drive.”
The man replied, “Do your records show that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died?
“Do your records show that I have a disabled brother who is unable to work? Do your records show I have a widowed sister with small children who can barely make ends meet?”
“No, sir,” replied the embarrassed volunteer. “Our records don’t show those things.”
“Well, I don’t give to any of them, so why should I give anything to you?”
Landon Parvin in Leaders, Readers Digest
Money Can’t Buy Me…Happiness
Material wealth doesn’t make us happy. Listen to some of the wealthiest people of their day:
- “The care of $200 million is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it.” W. H. Vanderbilt
- “I am the most miserable man on earth.” John Jacob Astor
- “I have made many millions, but they have brought me no happiness.” John D. Rockefeller
- “Millionaires seldom smile.” Andrew Carnegie
- “I was happier when doing a mechanic’s job.” Henry Ford
Our Romantic Notions of Aristocracy
Truth be told, whether we realize it or not, we all harbor romantic notions of aristocracy. Though we claim equality as a cultural value, there is a part of us that dreams of leisure, luxury, comfort, power, and the freedom to do whatever we want.
Don’t believe me?
In 2011 Dowmton Abbey, the famous television series about an aristocratic manor and the various personalities who inhabit it, set the Guinness World Record for highest critical ratings for a television show.
In the 2015 music video for Taylor Swift’s song “Wildest Dreams,” Swift is cast as a golden-age film actress somewhere in colonial Africa (there’s not a single black person in the video). The video was criticized harshly by Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwean in an NPR segment for its disregard of the brutality of that era in African history: “They should have wondered how Africans would react. This nostalgia that privileged white people have for colonial Africa is awkwardly confusing to say the least and offensive to say the most.” They continue, “Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It was exploitative and brutal.”
…We love the character of Tom, the family chauffeur on Downton Abbey because even though he rails against the oppression of the ruling class, he is able to transcend his poverty and station and join them. And we love the nobility for welcoming him into their family and think: That’s how I would be if 1 were noble. I would be accenting and losing and gracious. The other side of that story is, of course, that while they were loving and accepting and gracious, the family continued to spend money on lavish parties, expensive clothes, and rich food while an entire household of people lived and worked as servants one floor below. But we tend not to identify with the peasants in the show (even though statistically most of us would definitely have been born peasants, not nobles).
Taken from The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma Copyright (c) 2017 by Ken Wytsma Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Many years ago, one mustard dominated the supermarket shelves: French’s…It was a yellow mustard, made from ground white mustard seed with turmeric and vinegar, which gave it a mild, slightly metallic taste…In the early seventies, Grey Poupon was no more than a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year business. Then one day the Heublein Company, which owned Grey Poupon, discovered something remarkable: if you gave people a mustard taste test, a significant number had only to try Grey Poupon once to switch from yellow mustard. In the food world that almost never happens…Grey Poupon was magic.
So Heublein put Grey Poupon in a bigger glass jar, with…enough of a whiff of Frenchness to make it seem as if it were still being made in Europe (it was made in Hartford, Connecticut, from Canadian mustard seed and white wine)…Then they hired the Manhattan ad agency Lowe Marschalk to do something, on a modest budget, for television. The agency came back with an idea: A Rolls-Royce is driving down a country road. There’s a man in the back seat in a suit with a plate of beef on a silver tray. He nods to the chauffeur, who opens the glove compartment…The chauffeur hands back a jar of Grey Poupon. Another Rolls-Royce pulls up alongside. A man leans his head out the window. “Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?”
In the cities where the ads ran, sales of Grey Poupon leaped forty to fifty per cent, and whenever Heublein bought airtime in new cities sales jumped by forty to fifty per cent again…
Malcom Gladwell, The Ketchup Conundrum, The New Yorker Magazine.
Preparing a Table
In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to “preparing a table before my enemies” in Psalm 23:
In traditional Middle Eastern culture, when you want the community to know that you have acquired wealth, you do not buy an expensive car or a large house with acres of grass around it. Rather, you host meals with three times as much food on the table as the numerous guests can eat. The modern Western way of showing off possessions assumes isolation and distance from the community. It is enough that you drive by, note my palatial house and see my expensive car parked beside it.
The psalmist’s imagery(Psalm 23) has to do with community life that is strengthened and solidified by shared meals. But there is more. To “prepare a table” means to “prepare a meal” (Ps 78:19; Prov 9:2; Is 21:5; 65:11; Ezek 23:41). This phrase cannot mean “set the table,” because in traditional Middle Eastern society people eat without using individual plates or eating utensils.
Eating is carried out by tearing off a small piece of flat bread and using it to lift food from the common dish to the mouth. Each bite starts with a fresh piece of bread. There is nothing to do to “set the table” except perhaps “spread the rugs” (Is 21:5). As regards the food, servants and women prepare it. The master of the house provides the food, he does not prepare it.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.50, 54-55 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Seminary Faculty Guest
There’s a story out there about an angel that showed up at a seminary faculty meeting. In order to honor the dean, who had been a man of unselfish and exemplary behavior, the angel said God had decided to reward him with his choice of limitless wealth, infinite wisdom or unmatched beauty. Since the entire staff was on hand, the dean asked for advice. To a man, they quickly agreed that infinite wisdom was the best choice. And so, the dean chose to become the wisest man on earth.
“Done!” says the angel, disappearing immediately in a cloud of smoke.
Every head in the room turned to the dean. He sat perfectly still, surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, “Say something.” They were all anxious to hear what the wisest man in the world would say first. What wisdom had he been given?
Very slowly, carefully, and certainly, he said, “I should have taken the money.”
With all that new-found wisdom, he only knew that he’d had some bad advice!
The Rich: The Most Uncomfortable Talking About Wealth
The people who most hate talking about money are the rich. This is one reason I’ve come to appreciate the work of Rachel Sherman, a sociologist who studied the very wealthy in New York City. She describes the lack of research on the wealthy—study after study talks about how poverty influences people but not affluence. One of the reasons for this is that wealthy people abhor talking about money.
It is incredibly difficult to do research on this topic. But Sherman found more than fifty wealthy couples in New York City, the most unequal city in the world, to research, and the results are fascinating. Several of the most important takeaways from Sherman’s research are that wealthy people love to downplay their own privilege. This happened almost exclusively with people Sherman describes as “upwardly oriented.” Their $1.5 million beach house is the smallest on the block; they struggle to keep up with the other families at their children’s expensive private school. Someone always has a better penthouse.
Nearly everyone, Sherman found, had a hard time articulating the reality that they were some of the richest people in the world. Sherman also found that many of the wealthy people she talked to downplayed their wealth as a way of dealing with being on the top of an unequal system—one where the top 1 percent has more than the rest combined.
But another way they coped is by believing that inequality and unjust social systems always had and always would exist. Therefore, they reasoned, they should strive to be good people and use their money wisely, rather than trying to change the system. In interviews many people brought up how they had earned their money. People who had inherited their wealth struggled the most with guilt; those who accrued wealth through their jobs as lawyers or bankers had no problem saying they had earned their money by working hard and thus had a moral right to it.
Talking about affluence and privilege is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. I am continually grateful for the perspectives of people outside my own fold. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, for instance, who turned the discussion of consumerism and affluence upside down. Dr. King didn’t talk about guilt, instead he loved to talk about how before we even get to work in the morning we have already lived a globalized life—our coffee grown in Latin America, our soap made in France, our bread grown by farmers in the Midwest.
I think about Dr. King, his head and heart full of the troubles of his country in the 1960s, himself and his family under the constant threat of assassination due to his work trying to get America to provide equal rights to all citizens, especially Black folk. And he took the time to consider the small aspects of his life—the coffee, the soap, the toast—and asked us to do the same.
This is the language he used—behold, dependent, interconnected. Right after talking about coffee and soap, Dr. King said, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought until you are what you ought to be.”
Signs of Wealth in America
During much of the twentieth century, the aspiration of most middle-class Americans was to own a home and a car. Now more than two out of three Americans own the homes in which they live. (In fact, some 13 percent of homes purchased today are second homes. As for autos, today the United States has more cars than licensed drivers—which means that, on average, everybody who can drive has a car of his own. Self-storage—a business devoted to providing people a place to house their extra stuff—has become a $17 billion annual industry in the United States, larger than the motion picture business.
What’s more, the industry is growing at an even faster rate in other countries. When we can’t store our many things, we just throw them away. As business writer Polly LaBarre notes, “The United States spends more on trash bags than ninety other countries spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.
Thomas Aquinas on Peter’s Wealth
An old joke can sum up the failure nicely: It’s said that Thomas Aquinas was once brought into a great city where he was to meet the pope. He saw huge churches, clerics in ornate garb, and great armies lined up to defend the church’s rule. And as he took all this in, the pope looked at him and said, “No more can St. Peter say ‘silver and gold have I none,’” referencing the story in Acts 3 where Peter says those words to a lame man begging to be healed.
“Indeed,” responds Thomas, “but neither can he say, ‘rise, take up your bed and walk.’” In the years since World War II the American church has consistently chosen to chase power, prestige, and mainstream status. We have gained all of those things. The tragedy, of course, is that those are the very things that Jesus warns us about so frequently in the Gospels.
A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up. Modern American Christianity was never intended to produce morally upright people given to sacrificial love of neighbor. If it were intended to do that, we would not continue to restore discredited, unrepentant leaders to roles of authority within the movement.
Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Three Orientations Towards Work
In his landmark work, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah describes thee distinct orientations people take with respect to their work. The first orientation is to see your work as a job, a paycheck that takes care of the bills. The second orientation is to see your work as a career. Here, climbing the proverbial ladder in search of status and wealth are central. In the second orientation, the way you feel towards your work is primarily based on how successful you are in it.
If your career is waning, it may feel as though your entire self-worth is on the chopping block. The third orientation is seeing work as a calling. This sense of calling is firmly established in the life of faith. If you have received a call-then someone must have made the call in the first place. That person is God, and because God is sovereign, our work isn’t simply what we want to do.
A call is made and we are there to answer it. The worth of your work therefore, is not dependent on your success, but rather your faithfulness to the call that God has made. Sometimes, that even means that a failure in the world’s eyes can be the greatest success in God’s.
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart.
Uneven Wealth and God’s Purposes
Why does God give some of His children more than they need and others less than they need? So that He may use His children to help one another. He doesn’t want us to have too little or too much (Proverbs 30:8-9). When those with too much give to those with too little, two problems are solved. When they don’t, two problems are perpetuated.
God distributes wealth unevenly not because He loves some of His children more than others, but so His children can distribute it to their brothers and sisters on His behalf.
Weighed Down By Gold
After striking a large deposit of gold, two miners in the Klondike gold rush were so excited about unearthing more and more gold each day that they neglected to store up provisions for the winter. Then came the first blizzard. Nearly frozen, one of the miners scribbled a note explaining their foolishness. Then he lay down to die, having come to his senses too late. Months later, a prospecting party discovered the note and the miners’ frozen bodies lying on top of a huge pile of gold.
Obsessed with their treasure, these men hadn’t taken into account that the fair weather wouldn’t last and winter was coming. Hypnotized by their wealth, they failed to prepare for the imminent future. The gold that seemed such a blessing proved to be a deadly curse. Dazzled by riches and the prospect of having more, materialists live out their life on earth as if this were all there is. They fail to prepare for the long life ahead. One day, sooner than expected, materialists will find out they were wrong. They will discover the truth that all the wealth in the world can do nothing for them. If they don’t make that discovery until they die, it will be too late to go back and change the way they lived.
Money, Possessions, and Eternity: A Comprehensive Guide to What the Bible Says about Financial Stewardship, Generosity, Materialism, Retirement, Financial Planning, Gambling, Debt, and More, Tyndale Press, 2011.
A World That Cannot Satisfy
Gregg Easterbrook wrote about this in a 2003 book called The Progress Paradox. Easterbrook’s subtitle was How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He describes how affluent we have become—better food, better healthcare, better education, better communication, better climate control, better entertainment, better transportation—all of that.
Yet, when sociologists do their surveys, and people in America indicate where they fall on the satisfaction scale, they are only “slightly satisfied.” Easterbrook has many explanations for this paradox—a condition some have termed affluenza—but the fundamental problem is that this fallen world cannot satisfy anyone. What we really need, and what we are really looking for, whether we know it or not, is a relationship with the living God. David expressed it well when he said, My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)
Taken from Phillip Graham Ryken in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, p.131. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
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