Hear this, all peoples!
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high, rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.
Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever and never see the pit.
For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations,
though they called lands by their own names.
Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.
This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
yet after them people approve of their boasts.
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him.
For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light.
Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Reflection – Well, this is a psalm for our times, truly. I have become convinced over the years that as much as our society is obsessed with sex and eroticism, it is equally obsessed with wealth and the privileges that come with that. There is an almost creepy obsequiousness given to the wealthy elites of our world, while to be poor is to be a ‘loser’, a ‘nobody’.
This is at least part of the explanation for the bizarre appeal of Donald Trump right now – he is just so very, very rich—so hey, he must be qualified to be president, right? And this same worship of money, wealth, power so easily slips into Christianity—the prosperity Gospel is a perversion of faith, in which faith in Jesus manifests itself in becoming successful in worldly terms.
That is a heresy, of course, in the strict sense of the terms, a selective reading of the faith. Prosperity Gospel Christians select the Scripture verses that suggest that point of view, while ignoring the vast number of verses, like Psalm 49, that contradict it.
The truth of Psalm 49 and so many other key passages (the camel through the eye of the needle, the first beatitude, ‘foxes have holes’, and so forth) is that earthly riches have nothing whatsoever to do with virtue, with God’s favour, with anything at all really, that is worth running after and bothering about.
It is not that money is evil, but rather that it is not especially good. It is neither wealth nor poverty that wins us a share in the kingdom of heaven, but faith, hope, and love, and our whole energy as Christian men and women should be ordered towards those and not the size of our bank account, car, house.
I say this fully aware (having lived in North American society all my life) that there is a genuine idolatry of money in our world, an obsessive valuing of it that is fierce and beyond reason. There is real need in our day for young men and women to embrace voluntary poverty in the venerable path of consecrated life, and a real need for all Christians in whatever state of life to shake off the pernicious nonsense of money-worship, ‘the Lord is my financier’ approach to religion.
Jesus does promise to make us rich beyond our imagining—rich in love, rich in grace, rich in joy and peace and beauty. And yes, the kingdom of heaven is such that all have all they need and all rejoice in receiving and giving all from all for all to all. But the path to that kingdom of plenty and wealth is the path of total love and generosity and careless detachment in this life from anything that would distract us from the real business of life which is loving.
Psalm 49 is one among many scriptures that help us in this regard, so let us pray it, and the others as well, especially we poor greedy North Americans who honestly believe that money can make us happy and that being rich really counts for something in this world. May we repent of that foolishness, and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, amen.