There's a great scene in "Lawrence of Arabia," one of the greatest films ever made. T. E. Lawrence, a British soldier (Peter O'Toole), is trying to get Auda Abu Tayeh, an Arab chieftain, to come over to the British side in their fight against the Turks.
Anthony Quinn plays Auda Abu Tayeh as a larger than life figure.
Over a torchlit dinner one night in a tent, Lawrence tempts Auda, but Auda hesitates. Why should he trust this British imperialist? Why not stick with his fellow Muslims, the Turks?
Lawrence plays on Auda's pride. He implies that Auda won't fight the Turks because he is receiving bribes from them to keep him loyal.
This implication is too much for Auda. He rises in his nomad tent and gives an unforgettable speech to his assembled Howeitat warriors, who have been watching the proceedings with interest, while compulsively tapping their camel whips on the sandy earth – perhaps this is their form of applause.
Auda glares in Lawrence's eye as he speaks. His deep, gravelly voice rises in volume. His arm sweeps across the assembled tribesmen's heads. "I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies' tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I am a river to my people!"
The tribesmen rise up shouting.
Auda Abu Tayeh was a real man. He played a key role in the British war effort. Lawrence wrote that Auda was "the greatest fighting man in northern Arabia" who "saw life as a saga, all the events in it were significant: all personages in contact with him heroic, his mind was stored with poems of old raids and epic tales of fights."
Auda was a raider. He stole other people's stuff. That's how he got rich. And yet he was, as he claims in the above speech, poor. Because he used his wealth to elevate his tribe.
Lawrence wrote, "Auda was very simply dressed, northern fashion, in white cotton with a red Mosul head-cloth. He might be over fifty, and his black hair was streaked with white; but he was still strong and straight, loosely built, spare, and as active as a much younger man. His face was magnificent in its lines and hollows. He had large eloquent eyes, like black velvet in richness … His hospitality was sweeping, inconvenient except to very hungry souls. His generosity kept him always poor, despite the profits of a hundred raids."
Today's randomly drawn tarot card is the king of coins. The king of coins is a rich, healthy, earthy man. We might even call him a billionaire.
Some think that Christianity is hostile to all wealth and all rich people.
Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. In the rich man and Lazarus story, a rich man dies and goes to hell and is told he is there because he was so greedy. A rich man asks Jesus how to be perfect; Jesus tells him to sell what he has and give it to the poor. The rich man goes away sad.
On the other hand, there are positive references to rich people, to capitalism, and to wealth in the New Testament.
The rich people Jesus praises are people who, like Auda Abu Tayeh, distribute their wealth in order to advance their communities.
And Jesus never says it is impossible for a rich man to get into heaven. He only says it is difficult, and that God can get around that difficulty. After Jesus pronounces the "eye of the needle" comment, the crowd asks him, "Who can be saved?" Jesus responds, "The things that are impossible with people are possible with God."
The Parable of the Ten Talents praises those who invest – but, metaphorically, they are using their investments to advance God's kingdom.
The Good Samaritan has disposable income. He uses it to help a man who has been robbed.
In one of those "Is the Bible true?" debates, scoffers point out that the crucified were rarely buried. Having their corpses root on the cross and be eaten by scavengers like vultures and jackals was part of their punishment. And yet Jesus was buried in a fine tomb. So the Bible can't be true!
Oh, come on. Clearly someone bribed Pontius Pilate to obtain Jesus' crucified corpse. The most likely person is Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a rich man. Matthew's Gospel reports, "When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him." Clearly some money changed hands. Pilate was not merely being a nice guy.
Joseph of Arimathea, this rich man, provided Jesus with a rich man's burial. The Shroud of Turin, which evidence suggests is the actual burial cloth of Jesus, was an expensive piece of cloth. Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin – a leader of the community – purchases the ingredients necessary to embalm the corpse. Nicodemus buys a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. This would have been expensive and extravagant. Pope Benedict writes, "The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial."
Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, as the ignorant and the misogynist claim. Rather, she was a woman economically comfortable enough that she could and did support Jesus through her own money. Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross after Jesus' other companions, including Peter, had fled in fear. Mary Magdalene, John writes, was the first to whom Jesus appeared. She became the Apostle to the Apostles, who brought the Good News to Jesus' cowering followers. (Tell me again why we can't have women priests?)
So, yes, at Jesus' worst moment, during his passion and crucifixion, it was three rich people who stood by him and cared for his battered corpse.
No. Jesus didn't hate rich people and neither does the New Testament.
Here's the thing, though. Jesus commends rich people for being, as was Auda Abu Tayeh, "a river to their people."
Jesus condemns locking wealth away "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal."
Jesus said, " "There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, 'What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?'
And he said, 'This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, "Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!"
But God said to him, 'You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?' Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God."