Riches and Poverty
Timothy Shay Arthur
"I wouldn't give much for his chance of Heaven!" was the remark of a man, whose coarse, well-worn garments contrasted strongly with the dark, rich broadcloth of the person to whom he referred. In the tones of the individual who uttered this sentence was a clearly apparent satisfaction at the thought of his rich neighbor's doubtful chance of admission into Heaven. It was Sunday, and both had just passed forth from the sacred edifice, to which each had that morning gone up for the avowed object of worship.
"Why do you say that?" asked Mr. Lee, to whom the remark was addressed.
"You know the Scriptures," was the confident answer. "'I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven!'"
"Do you believe, then, that the mere fact of possessing riches will keep a man out of Heaven?"
"Not exactly. But, riches harden the heart, and make men unfit for Heaven."
"I doubt if riches harden the heart more than poverty," was replied.
"How can you say so?" was warmly objected. "Isn't the promise everywhere to the poor? To whom was the gospel sent?"
"The rich and poor spoken of in the word of God," said the friend, "do not, it is plain, mean simply those in the world who possess natural riches, or who are in natural poverty. Remember, that the Bible is a revelation of heavenly truth for man's eternal salvation; and that its teachings must have primary regard to what is spiritual, and refer to man's internal state rather than to his mere worldly condition. Remember, that the Lord, while on earth, said, Blessed are the poor in spirit, (not the poor in this world's goods,) for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. And we may, without violence to even the letter of the word, conclude that when He speaks of its being hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven, that only the proud in spirit, those who rested self-confident on the riches of their worldly and natural wisdom, were meant. That it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for such rich men to enter Heaven, is plain from our Lord's words when he set a child in the midst of his disciples, and told them that, unless they became as that little child, they could not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Not externally and naturally as that child, for that was impossible; but poor in spirit, teachable, and innocent as a child."
The first speaker, whose name was Maxwell, tossed his head, and slightly curled his lip as he replied —
"I believe just what the Bible says. As for your forced meanings, I never go to them. A plain matter-of-fact man, I understand what is written in a plain, matter-of-fact way. The Bible says that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And I can see how true the saying is. As for Clinton, of whom I spoke just now, I repeat that I wouldn't give much for his chance of Heaven. It is well that there is a just God in Heaven, and that there will come a day of retribution. The rich people have their good things in this life; but our turn will come afterwards. We shall not be always poor. Lazarus went, a beggar, from the rich man's door, and was received into Abraham's bosom."
"What has made you so bitter against Clinton, just now?" inquired the friend.
"I'm not bitter against him in particular — I speak of rich men as a class. They are all selfish, unfeeling, and oppressive. Look at the good Clinton might do, as a steward of God's bounty, if he chose. He might make our wilderness blossom as the rose. But settlement-day will come, before long, and then a sorry account of his stewardship will he have to render."
"How do you know that the account will not be approved in Heaven?" was asked in a quiet voice.
"Approved? How do I know?" ejaculated Maxwell, impatiently. "Any man can see that he is an unfaithful, hard-hearted, and oppressive steward."
"Has he oppressed you?"
"Ah! I was not aware of that. I didn't know that you had any claims upon him as an almoner of Heaven."
"My claims are those of common humanity. But you shall know all, and judge for yourself. I am a poor man — "
"Well — "
"With a wife and four children, whom I love as tenderly as Clinton, or any other purse-proud oppressor of the poor can possibly love his wife and children. They are dependent for daily bread upon my daily labor. With the sweat of my brow, I keep hunger from my door, and cold from entering therein."
"An independent man," said the other.
"Yes, an independent man; as independent as any in the land."
"If you are independent, why are you so concerned about the rich? Why permit yourself to be fretted because others are blessed by Providence with a greater abundance of worldly goods? There is danger, in this thing, of arraigning the wisdom of Him who sets up whom he will, and whose bounty feeds even the young ravens. So go on with your story. What is the crime that Mr. Clinton has committed against you and humanity?"
"I am a poor man, as I said."
"I know you are; a hard-working, industrious, but poor man."
"And as such, entitled to some consideration."
"Entitled to a fair return for your labor, in all cases."
"Of course I am; and to some favor, in the distribution of employment, when I present equal capacity with those who are less needy than myself."
"What do you mean by that?"
"A plain story makes all plain. Well, you are aware that Mr. Clinton is building a new dam for his mills?"
"And that he asked for proposals?"
"I tried to get the contract."
"You!" There was more surprise in this ejaculation than the friend had meant to convey.
"Certainly! Why not?" was petulantly remarked.
"Do you have a right to do so?"
"Of course I had; and of course my bid, though the lowest, was thrown out, and the bid of Jackson, who manages to monopolize everything in the village, taken. He and Clinton are leagued together, and the offer for proposals was only a sham."
"That's assuming a good deal, friend Maxwell."
"No, it isn't. It's the truth, and nothing else but the truth. He's the jackal, and Clinton's the lion."
"You speak without reflection," said the friend, mildly.
"I'm not blind. I see how things are worked."
"You say your bid was lower than Jackson's? How do you know this? I thought his bid was not publicly known."
"I knew it; and, in fact, knew what it was to be before I sent in my proposals, and was, therefore, able to go below it. The truth is, I managed, between you and I, to find out just what every man was going to bid, and then struck a mark below them all, to make sure of the job. I wanted a chance, and was determined to have it at all hazards."
"I hardly think your mode of procedure was fair," said the friend; "but waiving that, could you have made anything by the job, at your bidding?"
"Oh, yes, I'd have made something — more, a good deal, than I can make by day's work. The fact is, I set my heart on that job as a stepping stone to contract work; and am bitterly disappointed at its loss. Much good may it do both Jackson and Clinton. I wouldn't be much sorry to see the new dam swept away by the next storm."
"Why, Maxwell! This is not the spirit of a Christian man. Envy, malice — these are what the Bible condemns in the plainest terms; and for these sins, the poor have quite as much to answer for as the rich — and perhaps more. If you go from church with no better thoughts than these, I fear you are quite as far from the Kingdom of Heaven as you have supposed Mr. Clinton to be."
"Goodbye," said Maxwell, turning off abruptly from his friend, and taking a path that led by a nearer course than the one in which they were walking, to his home.
A few weeks later, Mr. Lee had occasion to transact some business with Mr. Clinton. He had rendered him a bill for work done, and called to receive payment.
"You've made a mistake in your bill, Mr. Lee," said Clinton.
"Ah? Are you certain?"
"You can examine for yourself. I find an error of twenty dollars in the additions."
"Then you only owe me sixty dollars?" said Lee, with a disappointment in his tones that he could not conceal.
"Rather say that I owe you a hundred, for the mistake is in your favor. The first column in the bill adds up fifty, instead of thirty dollars."
"Let me examine it." Lee took the bill, and added up the column three times before he felt entirely satisfied. Then he said,
"So it does! Well, I would never have been the wiser if you had only paid me the eighty dollars called for by the bill. You might have retained your advantage with perfect safety."
Lee said this on the impulse of the moment. He instantly saw a change in Mr. Clinton's countenance, as if he were slightly offended.
"Oh, no; not with safety," was gravely replied.
"I never would have found it out."
"But there is coming a day, with every man, when the secrets of his heart will stand revealed. If not now, it would then appear that I had wronged you out of twenty dollars."
"True! true! But all men don't think of this."
"No one is more fully aware of that than I am. It is for me, however, to live in the present so as not to burden my future with shame and repentance. Knowingly, Mr. Lee, I would not wrong any man out of a single dollar. I may err, and do err, like other men; for, to err is human."
After the expression of such sentiments, Lee felt curious to know what Mr. Clinton thought of, and how he felt towards Maxwell. So he said, after referring to the new mill-dam in the process of erection —
"You didn't take the lowest bid for its construction."
"I took the lowest competent bid."
"Then you do not think Maxwell competent to do the work?"
"I do not think him a man to be trusted, and, therefore, would not have given him the contract for such a piece of work at any price. You are aware that the giving way of that dam would almost inevitably involve a serious loss of life and property among the poor people who live along the course of the stream below. I must regard their safety before any financial advantage to myself; and have given Mr. Jackson, who has the contract, strict instructions to exceed his estimates, if necessary, in order to put the question of safety beyond a doubt. I know him to be a man whom I can trust. But I have no confidence in Maxwell."
"A good reason why you declined giving him the job."
"I think so."
"Maxwell was greatly disappointed."
"I know he has spoken very hard against me. But that avails nothing. My principle of action is to do right, and let others think and say what they please. No man is my judge. Maxwell is not, probably, aware that I know him thoroughly, and that I have thrown as much work in his way as I could safely do. He is not, of course, aware, that one of my sons overheard him, in reference to this very mill-dam, say — 'I'm bound to have that contract whether or not. I have learned the lowest bid, and have put in a bid still lower.' 'How did you learn this?' was asked of him. 'It doesn't matter,' he answered, 'I have learned it.' 'You can't go lower and build the dam safely,' was said. To which he replied — 'I can build the dam, and make a good profit. As to the safety, I'll leave that in the hands of Providence. He'll take care of the poor people below.' Mr. Lee! I felt an inward shudder when this was repeated to me. I could not have believed the man so void of common honesty and common humanity. Was I not right to withhold from him such a contract?"
"You would have been no better than Maxwell, if you had given it to him," was answered. "And yet, this same man speaks against the rich, and thinks their chance of Heaven a poor one."
"Simply because they are rich."
"Or, it might with more truth be said, because they will not yield to his covetous and envious spirit. He is not content with the equivalent society renders back to him for the benefit he confers, but wants to share what of right belongs to others."
"That spirit I have often seen him manifest," was replied. "Well, if simple riches are a bar to man's entrance into Heaven, how much more so are discontent, envy, malice, hatred, and a selfish disregard for the rights and well-being of others. The rich have their temptations, and so have the poor, and neither will enter Heaven, unless they overcome their temptations, and receive a purified love of their neighbor. This at least is my doctrine."
"Of the two, I would rather take Clinton's chance of Heaven," said Lee to himself, as he went musing away, "even if he is a rich man."