Updated: Aug 20
Recently, Jeffrey Epstein, a well to do businessman/investor was in the news when he committed suicide after being indicted by federal prosecutors on sex-trafficking charges. Epstein, an investor and financial manager, socialized in elite social circles, amassed an enviable fortune, and lived a lavish lifestyle. One would think he “had it all.” However, what would lead one “who had it all” to seek inauthentic and criminal forms of sexual pleasure (if what the government alleges is true)? Surely, if Epstein found true contentment through his luxuriant lifestyle, it seems he would not have engaged in this alleged criminal activity (if the allegations are true). Does gaining wealth automatically bring contentment? Does Jesus discuss wealth and contentment? Are his words, recorded over 2000 years ago, still relevant to 21st century American culture? We’ll briefly discuss wealth and contentment, look at some scholastic articles, see what Jesus had to say on the topic, and then make some conclusions.
A BRIEF BIO
Jeffrey Epstein, by all accounts, was living the American dream. He grew up in a working class family from Brooklyn, NY, and went from obscurity to a position of prominence in the financial and investment industry. He amassed a fortune of over $500 million dollars over four decades and his real estate holdings included an upscale residence on his own private Caribbean island as well as one of the largest mansions on the island of Manhattan. In addition to his noteworthy financial assets, Epstein also hobnobbed with many of the social elites of our day to include Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and England’s Prince Andrew, to name a few.
Even though all seemed to be going well in life, Epstein was beleaguered by reports of inappropriate sexual behavior with under aged women going back to the early 2000s. He eventually pleaded guilty to “soliciting for prostitution” as he was alleged to have had sex with juvenile females. In 2008, Epstein was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for these sexual encounters. New accusations began to swirl again in 2017 when the media reported his alleged continuing sexual abuse. These rumors were eventually seconded by a federal grand jury charging Epstein formally with numerous counts of sex trafficking. Only several weeks ago, Epstein ended his life in a New York jail facility. Why weren't his successful financial ventures and his close circle of elite friends enough to give him happiness? Let’s look into some research on wealth as it relates to contentment to see if there are any enlightening answers.
BRIEF RESEARCH ON CONTENTMENT
In a recent four nation survey (China, Canada, Japan, and India), researchers asked a younger audience “What is it that brings contentment to your life?” The qualities the test subjects indicated what brought the “good life” were: 1) having close and enduring friendships 2) having a happy and healthy family 3) having had a positive impact on others 4) a state of well-being and contentment 5) having had a good, loving marriage or romantic partnership 6) a lot of wealth or assets. It is interesting that “wealth” came in sixth when the results from all four nations were tabulated together. It is easy to imagine that if you had Aladdin’s lamp and the genie appeared to grant one wish, one would think that “lots of money” would be the first thing requested. The reality is that most of us value something else greater than the amassing of wealth. When analyzed separately, notable were the Chinese (10) and the Indians (8) who viewed wealth as less important than the Canadians (4) or the Japanese (2). It is informative that the most important qualities bringing satisfaction to one’s life are centered around relationships with others instead of money and prurient or base experiences. Would deep and meaningful relationships have stopped Epstein’s path to self-destruction?
TOLSTOY AND HAPPINESS
Leo Tolstoy is a person from whom we can glean some good advice regarding contentment. When examining the life of Tolstoy, Noah Tenai shares that the literary great came from a modest family and experienced extreme hardship from a very early age due to the death of both his father and mother. Although Tolstoy became a giant in the literary world garnering both fame and fortune, he slipped into a deep depression, later in life, that robbed him from enjoying his success. In his quest to discover what truly brings meaning to life, Tolstoy ended up finding out that it is not the amassing of wealth itself that brings happiness. Rather for him, it was hard work and simple living amidst the struggles of life that brought true happiness. Tolstoy eschewed the accumulation of wealth as it would obscure the “purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the common good.” Other pursuits Tolstoy found important were his faith/religious devotion, artistic creation, revolutionary politics (to the 19th century Czarist elite), humanitarian interests, and ecological concerns. At the core of Tolstoy’s keys to overcoming his depression were relationships; to God, to family, to his fellow citizens, and to the world around him. Could Epstein have found contentment outside of his reported glamorous lifestyle? Would Epstein’s later life have been different had he tapped into Tolstoy’s emphasis on relationship?
HAPPINESS EXPERIENCED IN COMMUNITY
In similarity to Tolstoy, a related theme of rejection of the accumulation of material possessions as a pathway to contentment is also observed in the words of “the preacher” in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Jonathan Sacks observes that the word usage of “happiness” in Ecclesiastes implies that it comes as a member of a community. Sacks zeroes in on the second chapter to show the futility of the preacher who continually references himself by using the pronoun “I.” He observes that at this point in his life, “the preacher” is quite unhappy despite all of his “acquisitions and accomplishments.” They are all meaningless. Sacks then shows the context of the word “happiness’ refers to a corporate relationship. The Hebrew word for “happiness,” “simchah,” is used seventeen times by the “preacher.” Furthermore, it only has meaning in the collective or covenantal sense and is something that is always shared together. For the “preacher,” “simchah” is communal and is a quality we experience only when we leave our solitude behind and become part of a community. Could it be that Epstein was not experiencing this covenantal form of happiness?
JESUS ON REAL CONTENTMENT
After gaining insight from these writers/researchers about the importance of authentic human relationships and the rejection of wealth accumulation as a means to happiness, I am interested to see what Jesus has to say on the topic. Are his words still relevant 2,000 years later? In the prelude to telling the parable of the “rich fool,” who was merely concerned about gathering more and more “stuff” for himself, Jesus warns that good living is not all about having a lot of things (Luke 12: 15). In his telling of the parable, Jesus discusses a man who was already wealthy but seemingly was only interested in accumulating even more things. Jesus shows the futility of the man’s greed as building larger facilities to warehouse his things will not help him throughout eternity. Rather, giving of one’s wealth to the poor and needy will in reality be a way in which one can truly invest and receive eternal dividends (12:16-34).
In addition to this parable, we also see in the conversation of Jesus with a rich man that giving to the “less fortunate” is a way to truly be wealthy (Luke 18:18-29). If this man would only heed the advice of Jesus he would gain “eternal treasure.” Further highlighting the importance of sacrificial giving as the means to true prosperity, Jesus marvels at how much a poor widow gives even though it does not appear to be much (Mk. 12:41-43). In giving her pennies out of her poverty, she is far out-giving many who are giving out of their abundance. True prosperity is not based upon how much you have in your bank account. Rather, it is based upon the status of your heart as evidenced by how willing you are to give of yourself to others. This does not seem very surprising as God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, came to serve others even though as God, he already possessed everything, Moreover, if you really think about it, giving to someone else is truly a relational event that is filled with encouragement for the giver and the receiver.
Another example of the importance of relationship rather than the accumulation of wealth, is observed in the parable of the “hidden treasure.” In this parable, Jesus recounts a story of a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field. Knowing that there is treasure hidden there, the man sells all his earthly possessions so he can be the sole possessor of the treasure. The man is overwhelmed with joy to be able to obtain it and readily jettisons all of his assets in order to become unbelievably rich. In telling this parable, Jesus reveals that relationship with God is to be valued more than any of our possessions. It is worth everything that one has to obtain this most prized of possessions. When someone comes into relationship with Jesus Christ, he must be willing to give up everything in order to receive the “kingdom of heaven” with all of its temporal and eternal benefits.
In regard to the primacy of relationships over wealth, Jesus discusses himself as the “bread of life (John 6:35)” and that his body is that bread which guarantees a believer’s eternity. Jesus further shares the closeness of the bond between him and God, the Father. Jesus does the will of the Father out of love for him, and is also the catalyst for the “eternality” of all who believe in him (6:35-40). By virtue of his bond with all of the believers, they will live forever with him. A foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus is observed in his words as he discusses the intimate nature of believers becoming one with him. They will symbolically partake of his body and blood. This reveals not only the close bond of Jesus with the Father, but also the bond between Jesus and his believers.
THE TRINITY AS THE FOUNDATION OF AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIPS
A final example of close relationship comes from the Trinity itself. Of course, the word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. However, the persons of the Godhead are observed as they relate to each other in several places within the New Testament. One great example of this is the discourse Jesus gives as he prepares his disciples for his soon coming departure. In one of the most moving of these interludes, Jesus reveals the importance and power of love; a self-sacrificial love. One that is shared between him and the Father and also between him and each of his disciples (John 15:9). But he goes further in instructing his disciples that they must love each other with the same love that Jesus has loved them. What? It seems impossible for them to love each other as powerfully as Jesus has loved them. But for emphasis, Jesus “commands” them to love each other (actually he commands them twice). One further example of the Trinity is the arrival of the Holy Spirit after Jesus dies who will indwell the believers (15:26). It seems to me that you cannot get closer in relationship than that. It is also here where we see the joy of authentic relationships. Jesus expresses his “joy” is complete in this intimate bond and that their joy will be also be complete if they remain in relationship with Jesus and also love each other with a Godly love (v. 11). Here is the secret to contentment! Authentic relationships with God but also with each other as well. You will be truly content if you allow yourself to be nurtured by God and also participate in this God inspired, selfless love to those around you.
In my concluding thoughts on contentment, it appears that Epstein and others like him, who seemingly have it all, are not really happy. This is exemplified by their self-destructive behavior that ends up hurting others. If he were truly satisfied with his lot in life, then he would not have engaged in these alleged ongoing sexual crimes that damaged so many in order to provide him some form of inauthentic pleasure that he craved. Rather, what is found by research and life experience is the key to “the good life” is meaningful and healthy relationships. I submit to you that the foundation of these healthy relationships is found In the words of Jesus. We should be willing to give up all of our stuff in order to obtain something of much greater worth than anything we can get here in our present existence. A relationship with God that nourishes us here (“bread of life”) and also extends into eternity. Moreover, the Trinity provides a foundation for intimacy in relationships as the persons of the Godhead are intertwined with a relational unity as God and serve each other constantly. Even as we read about the loving relationship between the members of the Trinity with each other, we also read about how Jesus implores, even commands us to love each other. As the creator of all human beings, he is quite familiar with the basic need of humans to receive and give an authentic and selfless love in order for them to flourish. Even in this ultimate act of selfless giving, Jesus saw the cross that he bore as a “joyful’ event because of how it would inure to our eternal benefit (Hebrews 12:2). So, if at some point you find yourself with too much stuff, just give it away and find out how satisfying it can be!
 Goodread Biography: Famous People Biography Database. Jeffrey Epstein Biography. https://www.goodreadbiography.com/jeffrey-epstein-biography/ accessed Sept. 24, 2019.
 Goodread Biography: Famous People Biography Database. Jeffrey Epstein Biography. https://www.goodreadbiography.com/jeffrey-epstein-biography/ Date of access Sept. 24, 2019.
 Tafarodi, R. et al. 2012. What makes for a good life? A four nation study. Journal for Happiness Studies. 13:783-800.
 Tenai, N. 2016. The simple living of Leo Tolstoy and the slippery slope of consumerism in a context of poverty: A pastoral guide. HTS Theological Studies (online 2072-8050):1-10
 Sacks, J. 2014. Happiness: A Jewish perspective. Journal of law and religion (29, no. 1): 30-47.