Wealth and Following Jesus

By Aaron Devine Jul. 2, 2014 9:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Church Life, New Testament, Spiritual Formation, Theology

There is a well-known story in the Gospels where a rich man asks Jesus about the requirements to inherit eternal life. Luke recounts the story in this way:

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27; ESV)

A question that naturally surfaces in this reading is whether Jesus considers wealth to be compatible with a life of faithful discipleship. Some interpret this story to say that material things and following Jesus do not mix well. This interpretation is sometimes based on a plain reading of passages like this, but it can also be motivated by material excesses in Christianity that make us uncomfortable. Too much focus on material blessing as a necessary indicator of God’s approval can stifle efforts at legitimate Christian disciplines such as frugality, generosity, and financial sacrifice. As such, divesting material wealth is sometimes seen as a corrective to bad prosperity theology.

So what then is Jesus saying about material wealth? Is it better to be poor than to be rich? Does one have to give up everything in order to follow Jesus? Does wealth itself ever keep people out of the kingdom of God? These are important questions, as they have implications for one’s personal call to discipleship and also for the ability of the Church to address social issues that require financial resources.

To provide context for interpreting this passage, it is helpful that Luke has a lot to say about material wealth throughout Luke-Acts. One of Jesus’ woes is against those who are rich (Luke 6:24), and it is intentionally contrasted to the blessed poor who inherit the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). There is the story of the rich fool who stores up material wealth to the point that his life is found forfeit by God (Luke 12:13-21). There is the parable of a rich man who finds himself in Hades, while poor Lazarus looks on from comfort in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). We are told about Ananias and Sapphira who die because they lie to the Apostles about the status of their possessions (Acts 5:1-11). Our things, it seems, can certainly get in the way of the right kind of life in the kingdom of God.

However, it is also clear that Luke does not condemn material things outright. We are told that while Jesus’ lifestyle was sparse (Luke 9:58), there were women who contributed to the needs of his ministry through financial means (Luke 8:1-3). Joseph of Arimathea had significant social prominence and was able to afford a private tomb for Jesus at his death. He was considered  “good and upright … himself waiting for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:50-53). There were also those in the early church who used significant financial resources to support the advances of the gospel. Lydia of Thyatira, for example, was an early convert of the Apostle Paul and was a “dealer of purple,” a lucrative enterprise that made her wealthy. As such, she was able to provide a location for the first house church in Europe from her resources. This community became the church in Philippi that Paul wrote to in one of his New Testament letters with much affection (cf. Acts 16:13-15, 40). As such, it is clear that material resources were used in the early church to benefit the gospel, without requiring every individual to divest themselves of all possessions in order to be in right standing before God.

How then might we reconcile these various perspectives in Luke? It is a question that scholars of Luke have considered for awhile. A helpful model for framing Luke’s teaching on wealth is one that Christopher M. Hays promotes in his study Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character. It is a technical work and a comprehensive research project that seeks to reconcile passages on money and possessions that sometimes seem to be in tension throughout Luke-Acts. For example, does Luke’s understanding of wealth require us to give up all things, or is there a legitimate place for having some (or even significant) material resources? Why did the early church pool its resources communally in Acts, and to what extent is that model required of others? Why do we see some people condemned in the handling and keeping of their possessions, while other wealthy people are commended as being righteous? We will not answer all of these questions here, but part of the solution, Hays says, is to see the moral directive as not one that necessarily requires individuals to divest themselves of all possessions, but rather one that renounces everything in service to God’s purposes. Depending on vocation and social location, this can have various means of expression that are specific to individuals, vocations, or communities.

Coming back to the story of the rich ruler, there are two things to notice. First, Jesus does not say that it is not possible to enter the kingdom of heaven and have riches, but rather that riches can provide a significant kind of difficulty in doing so. Additionally, when Jesus addresses the issue of wealth with the rich ruler, he switches from God’s universal expectations in the law to something more personally directed: “You still lack one thing.” Apparently for the rich ruler, wealth encouraged a specific type of vice that, while not a guaranteed pitfall for all who have much money, was not uncommon, either.

It is not a coincidence that Luke immediately precedes this story with another one that talks about entrance to the kingdom of God. Here is the story:

 

People were even bringing babies to Jesus for him to touch them. When the disciples saw this, they spoke harshly to the people. But Jesus called the little ones to himself and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. I tell you the truth, anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will in no way enter into it.” (Luke 18:15-17; translation mine)

 

There have been various opinions regarding what it is about little children that models the trait that allows entrance to God’s kingdom. Humility is perhaps the most common suggestion, and as such, it is often recommended that we should humble ourselves before God, as do children.

Although humility is commendable, in this case the children who were initially brought to Jesus were quite small, literally “babies” (Greek brephos). It is the same word used by Luke to describe children yet unborn (cf. Luke 1:41, 44) and also Jesus in his swaddled state (cf. Luke  2:12, 16). As such, they were probably not yet overtly exemplifying commendable models of biblical virtue. What is it that we might discern about very young children, then, that could possibly be held up as a model for adults? If we imagine little bundled children being brought to Jesus, there is perhaps one thing that we do know for certain that all children naturally affirm, not as a virtue but as a brute fact of reality: they are utterly dependent on resources outside of themselves for their well being. As an adult, this trait is not generally considered commendable, perhaps even less so to those who have acquired significant material resources. However, if we are honest, it is often an inflated sense of self-sufficiency that prevents us from responding in trust to God regarding our deepest spiritual needs.

Jesus called the rich ruler to recognize an utter lack of self-sufficiency in himself before God, just as very young children naturally recognize their dependence on others. To enter the kingdom of God, the man needed to put his trust in God to do something that he could not do for himself, namely be spiritually well before God. Spiritual realities can seem a step removed from our material possessions. However, significant financial resources can isolate many from the existential concerns of a fallen world that mirror our spiritual lostness and can thus discourage a trust in God that is spiritually transformative. As such, Jesus asked the rich man to renounce his wealth in a very specific way (i.e., full divestiture) that was specific to his need, such that he redirect his trust to God instead. In this case, it was a radical antidote to the most pressing spiritual need of the man. That the rich ruler insisted that he had done perfectly well on all of the other legal requirements suggests that self-sufficiency was at the heart of his specific need, and about which his significant financial resources served to obfuscate.

We can learn something from this episode and from Luke-Acts more broadly about the relationship between our possessions and the kingdom of God. For one thing, it may be a good thing that more of us are not significantly wealthy, as it can encourage a common problem in the spiritual life that Jesus describes. However, we should also be grateful that there are those with spiritual sensitivity who have been blessed by God with material resources, as it can serve the Church in significant ways, as it did the early church.

God is ultimately concerned with the condition of the heart in relation to our possessions, as we have simply been given temporary stewardship over material things that can be used in his service. God is also concerned that our things do not create barriers to the kind of transformative work that he wants to do in our lives, either for entrance into the kingdom of God or in service within it. The kind of trust that provides an initial entry into God’s kingdom is the same kind of trust that sustains us within it as well.

It leads us to pointed questions about our own possessions and God’s kingdom, just as it required of the rich ruler. Do I trust significantly in my own ability to take care of myself, or do I trust in God for my ultimate wellbeing? As such, in what ways does God ask me to loosen my grip on my possessions for the kingdom of God? Does this require full divestiture of certain things, or reappropriation of them towards other ends? The questions of wealth that pressed those in Jesus’ day are the same ones that press us now, not only as we seek to be faithful with the things we have been given, but as we develop hearts of trust that are sensitive to the work of God in the world.

Comments

  • Ken Berding Jul. 2, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    Thanks for this post, Aaron. It is dripping with wise and balanced comments about a challenging but very important issue.

    One question I have often struggled to answer is the question of whether a Christ-follower who (as you put it in dependence on Hays) "renounces everything in service to God’s purposes" can at the same time pursue an upwardly mobile lifestyle. I have no problem with someone purchasing a particular item that might appear extravagant if the motivation for the purchase was to serve the Lord and further his kingdom work, but...an upwardly mobile lifestyle in general? Is that OK? Wouldn't it be better for a person who comes into significant means or has a large income to pursue a moderate lifestyle and use whatever funds God has given him to steward to further God's kingdom purposes?

    Thanks again for your excellent article.

  • Tim Jul. 8, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    One other reality in the traditionally assumed systemic life of the American believer that I would like to point to that is deserving of examination and rejection is the assumption that when American believers "give" to "the work of God", usually their local church, that they will in fact consume 86% of their own "giving" to buy things that benefit mostly themselves - hired staff and special buildings for crowd oriented meetings. 86% comes from Leadership Journal's article in 2001 on normal church budgeting. I have found in scripture a wealth of very clear and strategic teaching from Paul on "refusing the right" to pay in ministry and ministry "free of charge" and ministry that is not a "burden"on God's people. Traditional Bible experts blow all these passages away with a simple "Paul only meant that for himself". This is horrible exegesis combined with a complete reversal of what it means to give - beyond ourselves. This severe contradiction of the truth flows from the wealthiest nation in the history of man kind and a nation with the most highly degreed Bible experts in all of time. I am amazed that God's people defend their need to hear a professionally prepared Bible lecture every week of their life is 5 times more important than for those who have never heard and have no one to tell them might hear the gospel even once.

    Why would the Holy Spirit convict American believers to give more than 2.3% of your income (average American tithing) to the work of God if they are going to consume 86% of that on themselves?

    Do the math. When American believers give 2.3% of their income and consume 86% of that on their own spiritual "needs", what percentage of an Americans income is given beyond themselves?

    There is a very Biblical way for believers to devote 100% of their giving beyond themselves. Yes, we can follow Jesus with our wealth but not with our current systemic redirection of the majority of our meager giving to benefit mostly ourselves.

  • charles packwood Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:01 PM

    "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." Matthew 6:24
    A few observations from this scripture:
    1. He did not say, "should not serve two masters." Cannot deals with possibility. Evidently the heart seeks divided interests, even if it has only one rightful throne.
    2. Is it possible to rephrase this in this way?
    "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate money and love God, or he will be devoted to money and despise God. You cannot serve God and money."

    Because this rephrase makes complete sense with me, I will continue with this perspective.

    Everyone is called to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself", Luke 10:27.

    So what would be the meaning of hate and despise in the previous verse mentioned. How are we to hate and despise money?

    Possibility?
    Luke 14:26,27,33 - "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.... so therefore, if any one of you who does not renounce All That He Has cannot be My disciple."

    There's that word again, "cannot". If memory serves, this word comes from the word, dunamis, and seems to suggest "empowerment". It seems that people who initially come to Jesus without forsaking all that they have will not be empowered to follow consistently. A divided heart precludes empowerment to follow.
    Consistency is a good thing and is found in absolute truth.
    When you look at these scriptures and then look at the incident with the rich, young ruler you can no longer see the rich, young ruler as some sort of exception to the rule. He is being treated without partiality, which is exactly how God's wisdom works and how His judgments are.

    If you obeyed the commandments to continually seek those things above (Is there money in heaven?) and not those things below or to set your heart and affections upon the things above ... fixing your eyes upon Christ... what would be the possibility of someone accumulating wealth? I think it would pretty much require a miracle.

  • charles packwood Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:04 PM

    A Picture of God's Disciples?
    "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God." I Corinthians 1:27-29

    1. "foolish" (greek, mora, 3704, meaning dull or senseless); someone who is dull or senseless in the world's eyes.
    2. "weak" (greek, asthenay, 822, meaning without strength, infirmed, helpless, feeble, mentally or spiritually handicapped, hesitating, afflicted, distressed, oppressed with calamities); people who are esteemed feeble mentally or spiritually; people who are afflicted and distressed and/or oppressed with calamities.
    3. "base" (greek, agenay, 38, literally meaning without kin or family; figuratively, low and insignificant); people without family in the world or people the world esteems as lowly or insignificant.
    4. "despised" (greek, exouthenemena, 2024, made light of, set at naught, despised, treated with contempt and scorn); as a participle it is saying, "the ones who are made light of by the world, those who are set at naught and despised by the world and treated with contempt and scorn by the world."

    Does it seem probable for a disciple to be rich and fit with the above range of adjectives?

    Note: When God uses the word the things that "are not", He is using the Greek present active. Therefore He is saying He uses people who currently "are not" in the world's eyes and who will continually "be not" in the world's eyes.

    And what about the concept of bringing things that are to naught or nothing? Could it be similar to I Corinthians 13:2 which equates being

  • charles packwood Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:08 PM

    And what about the concept of bringing things that are to naught or nothing? Could it be similar to I Corinthians 13:2 which equates being without love to being nothing or brought to nothing?

    "By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods (Note: it does not say God's goods) and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?", I John 3:16,17. <- Brought to nothing and zero, because of lacking love? How? Because of the presence in their midst of those who lack?

    The Church in Laodicea, Rev. 3:17,18
    "...you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich..."

    The Church in Smyrna, Rev. 2:9
    "I know your tribulation and your poverty, but you are rich..."

    Consistency is a good thing and is found in absolute truth.

    "Jesus answered, '...the poor have good news preached to them.'" Matt 11:5
    "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Luke 6:20

    Jesus said... "How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God", Luke 18:25. Now do I believe that the "eye of the needle" was a small entrance in the city gate"? No, because this was very possible with people and did not require God at all. It is absolutely impossible for man to make a camel to go through an eye of a sewing needle, but totally possible with God.

    Ok, back to the despise and hating money thing. Two verses later, Jesus states: "what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." Question, is money exalted or highly esteemed among men? If so, is it an abomination in the sight of God?

    Now if we pursue the heart of God, will we obtain the heart of God on money? Will it become an abomination in the sight of a man of God who has the heart of God?

    An Issue of Proximity?
    If the love of money is a root of all evil and I have connected the dots properly, maybe we see how close God wants us to be to the love of money. Despising and hating money as an abomination would be the total, absolute OPPOSITE to a love of it. Doesn't that position seem consistent with God?

  • charles packwood Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:11 PM

    The passage referring to the love of money has the following: "But as for you, O man of God, flee these things..." What things? It is referencing the harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction: one of which is the desire to be rich. Flee? In what way do we flee the love of money? Flee is pheuge: to take flight, to shrink away from, to stand fearfully aloof, as though making an escape, to shun. It gives the sense of something abominable, doesn't it?

    Mary's Magnificat is interesting: "He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away." Luke 1:51-53

    What is esteemed or exalted among men is despised and an abomination in the sight of God? James says: "Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation (exalted from where?), and the rich in his humiliation (humiliated from where?) because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises and it scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (whose pursuits?) - James 1:9-11

    In the same way, now look at a passage in Isaiah: "A voice says, "Cry!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." - Isaiah 40:6-8. In this passage the beauty of all flesh is "the flower that fades" and falls. From James we know that the beauty of all flesh is the rich man in his pursuits, He is the one who is "humiliated by heaven" and falls in his pursuits, possibly when every valley (lowly thing?) is "lifted up" and every mountain and hill (high, exalted thing?) is "brought low or falls down", when the glory of the Lord is revealed, 40:4,5. There is quite a thread here with what John the Baptist preached. In this very context, John also spoke of chaff being blown away. Isaiah spoke of it being blown upon by the breath of the Lord.

  • charles packwood Mar. 4, 2016 at 12:13 PM

    Mountains brought low? The devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (what would be the glory of these kingdoms?). "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.' Does Jesus equate worship of God to exclusively serving Him?

    Mountains brought low? Chaff blown away? What kingdoms would these be? In Daniel 2:31ff we see all the kingdoms built by man taking the form of a man, which in a moment is toppled by a "stone not cut out by human hand". It appears that all of man's kingdoms are gradually and eventually given over to the Antichrist and his spirit, Daniel 7:23-27, until they are overthrown by God "and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found", Dan. 2:35. When these kingdoms actually are turned over to the antichrist, it is interesting what happens: "no one can BUY or SELL unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast", Rev 13:17. How do we buy or sell? What do all the kingdoms of this world use to buy and sell today? How does the antichrist have such authority over what is used to buy and sell, if it is not somehow involved with his kingdom?

    There is an interesting passage in the book of Revelation. In speaking of the city Babylon and the spirit behind it, God says: "the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living", Rev. 18:3. The implication here is that ALL of the merchants of the earth grew rich because of the spirit of Babylon. It doesn't even remotely suggest that it was some of the earth's merchants.

    The whole world lies in the power of the evil one. He is the prince of this world. Does money more likely make the world go round, than the kingdom of God?

    "They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world (out of the world's perspective and values?), and the world listens to them...by this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error", I John 4:6.

    I have to say that I use to adopt your perspective, but I always felt like there was not a real "fit" with so many other scriptures in the Word. Somethings just didn't come together. I really believe that the biblical view that I have now fits better with the entirety of the Word of God. Something to think about.






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