In the east, the sun rises from its slumber. As it slowly climbs into the sky, it begins to splash vibrant color on the thousands of hardwoods that clothe the mountainside. The landscape becomes a canvas. The vista is flooded with radiant yellows, majestic violets, and fiery reds and oranges, combining to form imagery the artist dreams to mimic. The cool autumn air blows softly, caressing each branch of every tree, adding movement to this natural wonderland. Above, Canadian geese form a giant black V in the sky, honking as they pass by, performing their annual migration like so many generations before. In the background, a mountain stream burbles as it meanders toward the great Atlantic. Here, the air is crisp and clean.
They call this place “the land of the sky.” Nestled on this fertile plateau between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, you find the thriving town of Asheville, North Carolina. For generations, the rich and powerful have come here to make their homes. Today, people travel from all over the world to see how they lived.
A few miles from downtown is the most famous of those homes, the Biltmore Estate, home of the mega-wealthy George Washington Vanderbilt II. There you can see Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set, the personal guest room of the King of England, a private bowling alley, the remaining 8,000 of the once 125,000 acres of private gardens, farms, vineyards, and forest with equestrian trails, complete with its own railroad. The chateau-like mansion boasts four acres of interior floor space, 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, with an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium in the basement. Decorated with opulent antiques and artistic treasures from the most distant times and exotic places on planet Earth, it remains to this day the largest home in North America, and the number one tourist attraction in North Carolina, hosting some 900,000 visitors annually.
On this luxurious estate you will find almost anything your heart could desire. The one thing you will not find, however, is the charming Mr. Vanderbilt. He is dead.
People’s infatuation with the wealthy is nothing new. From the royalty of England to the Hollywood stars of America, people love to see how the rich live, and they dream of someday enjoying the same luxuries as these powerful elite, though most never will. In their hearts they imagine that if only they had enough money, surely they would be satisfied.
A couple of weeks ago, the headlines on Reuters read, “Death of Samsung heiress put down to suicide.” Lee Yoon-hyung, the youngest daughter of one of the wealthiest families in South Korea, had been discovered dangling lifeless from an electrical-cord noose in her Manhattan apartment. She was 26. At the time of her death, Miss Lee was worth some 174 million dollars. She had more financial security in her youth than most people could dream of having in a lifetime. She didn’t, however, have enough hope to live one more day.
Most people, upon hearing things like this, can’t image how someone with such great wealth could end it all. But this happens all the time. While some are clawing their way to the top, others are trapped in a self-inflicted prison of loneliness due to their great wealth.
Make no mistake about it, we Americans live in the richest society in the history of the world. Even people who wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy are better off than almost everyone else in the world. Although some 7.5 million households in America have a net worth of at least one million dollars, the desire for more is still the most powerful force driving our modern culture. It has produced an ethnography1 of excess. Americans spend more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on everything — that is, our waste costs more than all the goods consumed by nearly one half the world’s nations.2
From a very early age, our public and private schools foster a desire in us to be somebody. From there, television, the printed media, and the Internet pick up the mantra and capitalize on our ever-increasing desire to be rich. From Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to The Apprentice, the message is the same: “Make the most amount of money with the least amount of physical labor, and above all, enjoy yourself.”
There is something deep in most of us, an inner drive to make it, but if we do, at what cost will it come? At the end of Mr. Vanderbilt’s life, what good was his wealth? Had he given it all, it couldn’t have bought him another breath. All he was left with were the choices he had made. Had he been honest? Had he been fair? Had he helped others in need while he had an abundance? These are eternal questions, asked by each person’s conscience, if his personal wealth hasn’t silenced its still, small voice.
Being rich isn’t the root of the problem, however. It is the desire to be rich. Many people are motivated to get rich, but never will be. However, their desire drives them to make choices that hurt other people in their ruthless quest to get ahead. In their battle to reach the top, they don’t care what they have to do to get there, and have little regard for who gets in their way.
In New York City there are some 36,000 millionaires. Ironically, in the very same city, there are around 36,000 homeless poor. Regardless of why or how those people became poor or rich, it is striking that so many live in extreme luxury while the same number scavenge the streets in poverty.
Being rich simply means having more than one needs. If someone has more than he needs to live, then he ought to share, not hoard it. For some to live extravagantly while others scratch for survival, walls must be built. Outwardly, they take the form of gated communities and high-rise luxury condos towering above guarded lobbies. Inwardly, a hardening takes place in the heart of someone who chooses to indulge himself regardless of another’s plight. He has to silence his nagging conscience. It is uncomfortable to see poverty, to see those with little or nothing, or to see the frightened, anxious stare on the faces of children who have no security. Perhaps tonight their mother’s boyfriend will beat them again. Perhaps tomorrow they won’t eat. Who cares? It’s not your problem.
Even moderate wealth in today’s society can buy great comfort. Kings and Pharaohs didn’t live as well as most middle-class Americans. Mr. Vanderbilt had the ability to indulge in every desire that time would allow him. While he lived, he received his comfort — more than most could imagine. So what about the comfort that comes after this life? Will he have any? Did Miss Lee’s suicide give her the relief she so desperately desired?
Although money can buy you almost anything you want while you are alive, no one has ever taken a dime into the grave. Though it would be comforting to think that all will be fine and dandy when we die, deep within each person the voice of his conscience whispers, “Not so.” The torment or comfort one receives in death is according to the choices he made over the course of his life. Every person makes choices. The choices we make, whether right or wrong, determine our eternal destiny. Each person’s conscience fully awakens in the place called death3 to either accuse or give comfort to his soul.4 There are no rich or poor in death, no privileges of class or rank.
Much of our life is spent trying to escape the fact that one day our life will be required of us. From Bill Gates to the struggling farmer, death will knock on each person’s door. Many have tried in vain to ignore the knock, or deadbolt the door shut, but eventually the dark specter of death enters into the house of your life and pulls your soul down into another realm.
The grave is never satisfied.5 It has an insatiable appetite for the souls of mankind. Yet, those who are wealthy build a walled city of false security around their lives. They think it unassailable by the forces of death.6 Even Walt Disney is said to have frozen his body in suspended animation in hopes that one day technology will resurrect him from the dead. Our bodies are mortal, but our souls are eternal. That part of us that peers out from behind our eyeballs — that feeling, thinking aspect of us, which is who we really are — never ceases to exist. Though our bodies rot in the ground, our souls go on to spend eternity somewhere, fully conscious of every moment.
So with wealth comes accountability. Though religions like Christianity coax the rich, soothing their gnawing consciences, accommodating their extravagant lifestyles, they can only offer a false comfort. The words of Yahshua echo with crystal clarity:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort in full. (Luke 6:24)
The Man that one third of the world claims to follow knew no riches. In fact, He described Himself as someone who had no place to rest His head.7 He commanded the rich of His day to leave their riches, give to the poor, and follow Him. Then He told them that if they did this, they would have riches in heaven. If they wanted to be disciples of His, they would have to walk away from their life of comfort and ease, and obey His commandments.8 Living a comfortable life of self-fulfillment in the world and being a disciple of His were incompatible goals. Today, it is no different.
The desire to be rich is a relentless urging on, regardless of how it hurts others. It is a diseased condition of the soul from which unimaginable lusts and desires spew forth. It is a torrent that plunges people into ruin and destruction. It is a pandemic that is overtaking the world, leaving few survivors.
But to those drowning in loneliness, to those who have plunged themselves into ruin due to their dark desires, to those who are trapped in a self-made prison, awaiting death — there is hope. If you hate your life in this world, there is a way out, but it will cost you everything.
If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
There is a people who have all given up everything to follow the one true Savior and Messiah, Yahshua. Through His forgiveness, they have left their self-centered lives behind, and now have a life together — a life worth living. They are no longer lonely, but are surrounded by brothers and sisters who love them for who they really are. Sound impossible? Please, come and see for yourself.