It has become a truism to say that the American consumer ethos conflicts with the Gospel warning that one cannot serve both God and mammon (Luke 16:13), that materialism stands in sharp contradiction to the Gospel ideals of stewardship and preferential concern for the poor and disadvantaged. At the same time, the practical implication of the Gospel ideal remains elusive for the average middle – class American Christian. Short of the total renunciation of all possessions, we seem able to recommend little more than spiritual detachment from one’s material possessions and generous personal giving to worthy causes. In some cases, tithing has again become fashionable as a useful practical guide for what is generous, or as the only biblical guideline available. The normative experience of conversion, which I have tried to describe would want to say at least five things about this problem.

First, the accumulation and use of material possessions is not a matter of moral indifference in the Christian way of life. We are not the owners but the stewards of our possessions and so we need to recognize that we can, do, and have sinned in this regard. An essential correlative to this acknowledgment moreover is the demand to listen meaningfully to the cries of the poor, the hungry, the naked who are the mediators of God’s presence among us (Matt. 25:31 – 46). While I think such meaningful listening is the intelligible intent of contemporary liberation theologians in demanding solidarity with the oppressed, I find this way of putting the matter both less ideological and also more realistic.

Second, the spiritual detachment from material possessions counseled in the Christian tradition must have as part of its external embodiment a responsible support of the Christian community’s concrete mission in the world. What constitutes responsible support is having shared reasons for giving and using one’s wealth, in company with the Christian story, so that almsgiving or charity or giving from one’s surplus to the needy is not a work of supererogation but a Christian duty.

This leads to the third thing to be said, namely, that spiritual detachment from material possessions also needs to be fostered in repeated confrontation with the Christian story and the biblical texts that challenge our greed and our supposed right to a given standard of living.

These three points largely shape an attitude toward material possessions and wealth, but they are not without practical import. At least one student of mine was profoundly shocked to discover that the Christian Gospel challenged his desire and ambition to make as much money as he could and so undermined his fundamental reason for being in school at all. Other students have been equally shocked to learn that material aid to the poor and disadvantaged is biblically not a matter of sentimental and paternalistic good will but of strict duty and justice. Doubtless many other examples will come readily to mind.

The last two things to be said about the issue of wealth also ask for recognition rather than providing answers. In submitting to the authority of personal conscience, we open ourselves to the real possibility that God may well be calling us- or even our families – to live and work in ways that will demand sacrifices and afford a standard of living considerably different and lower than what is considered to be average or normal. This is a situation man), of us who teach or work in church – related institutions already experience, though not always with the sense of mission and the absence of resentment and complaint faith would seem to call for. Before the call of God, there is no such thing as a right to a certain standard of living.
-James P. Hanigan-