I had not planned to write anything about the flame-out of Eliot Spitzer, largely because Schadenfreude is one of those things that tastes so good you know it must be bad for you. But as we move through the wave of “why would he do this?” articles, like this one in yesterday’s Washington Post, I wonder if we are overlooking one important factor, an explanation we might draw from the Gospel of Matthew, as unlikely as that seems. The answer is:
Because he could.
Some readers will recognize that as the punch line to a joke about dogs, but may draw a blank on the alleged connection to the Gospel of Matthew. I have in mind Matthew 19, in which Jesus is approached by the guy we’ve come to know as “the rich young man.” As most of us remember, Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow him. We learn the rich young man’s reaction in what has to be one of the most theologically compact statements in all of scripture: “he went away sad.”
No, that’s not the Eliot Spitzer part, though presumably he is also going away sad. The Eliot Spitzer part is what Jesus says next:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished . . . .”
Mt 19:23-25 (emphasis added). (The same story, complete with camel, first appeared in Mark 10, but if I had called this piece “Eliot Spitzer and the Gospel of Mark,” some readers might have suspected a vaguely irreverent pun.)
Why were the disciples greatly astonished? Probably because quite a lot of superficial righteousness is much, much easier for the rich. Tithing, for example. (And yet how many of us think that’s too hard!) But incredible wealth also has this effect: It makes a vast number of terrible ideas possible. You have to be really, really rich to spend $80,000 on call girls.
Granted, there are lots of rich people who could afford to spend $80,000 on call girls but don’t. I’m not saying wealth causes depravity (any more than Jesus was). Spitzer’s wealth was not sufficient to cause his downfall, but it was necessary, and that’s worth noting in a culture like ours. “How much is enough?” they asked John D. Rockefeller; and he answered “Just a little bit more.”
How many of us spend too many hours making too much money so we can buy too much stuff, only to find in the end that it isn’t good for us? If you know five people you think are rich, I’ll bet you know four who spoil their kids. You may even have caught yourself thinking, “You know, those kids would be so much better off if they didn’t have so much money.” It reminds me of some marvelous lines in a great poem by Samuel Hazo, “The Necessary Brevity of Pleasures“:
The haves have not
what all the have-nots have
And however improbably, there’s a dog angle to Hazo’s poem as well:
Even my dog
knows that – and more than that.
He slumbers in a moon of sunlight,
scratches his twitches and itches
in measure, savors every bite
of grub with equal gratitude
and stays determinedly in place
unless what’s suddenly exciting
Viewing mere change
as threatening, he relishes a few
undoubtable and proven pleasures
to enjoy each day in sequence
and with canine moderation.
They’re there for him in waiting,
and he never wears them out.
I don’t know Eliot Spitzer; I don’t know what he was thinking, and I don’t want to know what he was thinking. But I think I know this: a poor young man wouldn’t be leaving the governorship of New York in quite the same way.