Prosperity?

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Who among you delights in life,
longs for time to enjoy prosperity?

That question comes from Psalm 34:12 in the New Jerusalem Bible translation, and I find that I read it differently now that my wife and I are retired and pleasantly so. I have more time to delight in life, enjoying the natural world even just in our backyard, doing more physical work and sleeping well because of it, and lingering over quite simple pleasures long enough to take them in. So, I find myself among those who delight in life.

Slowing down life’s pace also gives me time to count and be aware of life’s numbers. Having just observed my 66th birthday, I am, as people say, conscious of my mortality in ways the young do not know unless they are in crisis. My mirror also reminds me of my place in life’s timeline. I am not in crisis, but I can count, and so the second line of the psalm’s parallelism speaks for me also: I do long for time to enjoy prosperity.

Prosperity! The word sounds foreign to me, wrong, alien to a life of faith. I have never regarded myself as prosperous, nor have I desired to be so. Sure, I’ve had the familiar daydream of what I might do if I won the lottery, but first I’d have to play it. In my childhood, our family knew, not poverty, but significant and disheartening financial distress, and throughout our married life, my wife and I have been thankful to be able to pay our bills, provide for our children, and have a little left over for the month. There was a period during which we were able to do the first two but not the third. Having zero spending money is not fun, but we made it through to the other side and considered ourselves well taken care of, with much for which to be thankful.

But what does prosperity have to do with a life to which faith is crucial? The Bible does not speak well of the rich, but, then, we are not rich even though many of earth’s people would say from their poverty that we are. In the psalm, there is a difference between prosperity and wealth because the latter gives its possessors power over other people and influence over the institutions of society. Hebrew poetry works with parallel lines of text, doublets and triplets. So, the issue here in the psalm is enough prosperity to enable freedom to delight in life, not sufficient wealth to give advantage over others and start expecting deference from them.

Prosperity is one of the many senses of the Hebrew word shalom, which means “wholeness” and is most commonly translated as “peace” or “well-being.” Wealth and power are not shalom but another matter which the prophets and Jesus scorn and the psalms assure us does not impress God.

But is wealth not justified and even sanctified by philanthropy? No, it is not. Philanthropy is generosity from a position of power over others and advantage in society. As wealth’s overflow, it is the magnanimity of the rich which adds to their prestige, giving them a “good name” even among their lessers. It draws (and almost inevitably comes to expect) praise, but there is a test for that. If the giver expects no gratitude and so feels no indignation when gratitude is not forthcoming, then perhaps the giving is real and not self-serving, but even then philanthropy does not answer the questions of inequality and advantage in the accumulation of the wealth that enables it. Today we read of a further development of philanthropy as entrepreneurial and manipulative, although I’m not sure anything here is truly new. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become the benefactor of so-called educational reform, but its largesse is a powerful force for corporate intrusion and privatization that uses its financial muscle to get the authorities to force compliance. Such philanthropy flows from the notion that the rich know better and can run things properly, while making more and more money for cronies (partners) through the reforms. This kind of benevolence comes with strings attached and, indeed, attaches its strings to the public sector puppets who then dance as pulled.

In coming posts, I’ll be pondering questions of the stratification of human society. Is it natural? Is it right? Is it divinely ordained? Are stratification and justice harmonious or discordant, or, to ask the same question the other way around, is equality part of justice or alien to it? Are people equal and, if so, in what sense, or is equality a notion offensive to God and nature?

For now, I return to Psalm 34 to read what it says to those who delight in life and long for time to enjoy prosperity.

Guard your tongue from evil,
your lips from any breath of deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it.

Clearly, at least to me, the psalm is not speaking to the rich and powerful who must depend upon deceit and sometimes cruelty to keep the people from revolt and, in our democracy, to inflame and delude them into voting against their own interests. “Evil” here has the sense primarily of harm done to others which is the reason “do good” is its parallel. For the Bible, human life is relational, and so “seek peace” does not mean to arrange one’s own peace of mind and well-being but to seek and pursue wholeness, harmony, and well-being throughout the human community.

As I sit on our newly enclosed back porch, enjoying the activity of the birds, squirrels, and rabbits or the happy sounds of play coming from our neighbors’ children, and as I find pleasure in the effort of cutting grass, pruning trees, digging up bushes so my wife can plant flowers, and starting to lift weights again, using muscles I had let go slack, I do long for time, not because I am afraid, but because I really do find myself delighting in life and feeling eager to explore it further.

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