Most of us who live in affluent areas are most likely idolaters, for we’re greedily wanting more and more not being content with food and covering. This is as serious as it gets. I don’t want miss my Savior’s heart and be sent to hell as an idolator when I thought I was pleasing Him in all respects. So, I reckon my old man dead, and strive to live in the Spirit.
The sin of greed is listed right alongside sexual sin, anger, and an irreconcilable, party spirit that send us to eternal torment in the presence of the Lamb. Let us who have ears to hear, hear.
1 Tim. 6:6-9
But godliness actually is a means of GREAT GAIN when accompanied by CONTENTMENT. For we have brought NOTHING into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have FOOD AND COVERING, with these we shall be CONTENT. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider (reckon) the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and GREED, which amounts to IDOLATRY.
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, IDOLATRY, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of god.
At a crucial time in my early years of walking with Jesus, Tom Schmidt’s man’s work entered my life. His book is a barn burner, and convincingly makes the argument that a wide middle class existed in first century Palestine. Therefore, in his opinion Jesus words of dispossession would have the same dramatic effect then as it does now. Give us this day, our daily bread. Wow.
The Evils of Wealth – The Hard Sayings of Jesus – Thomas Schmidt
(reprinted by permission of Christianity Today)
(Thomas Schmidt was an associate professor of religious studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California when he wrote this piece. He has written Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels JSOT Press, 1987).
Most North American Christians try carefully to follow the teachings of Jesus, but when his words deal with the nature and use of wealth, we tend to look away from him rather than toward him for ways to explain away these passages. We look longingly to the wealthy patriarchs and kings in the Old Testament, we quote business advice from the Book of Proverbs, we scour the Gospels for rich people who do not get condemned, or we infer generously from Paul’s relative silence on the subject.
In short, we interpret the plain, disturbing teaching of Jesus in the light of everything else instead of interpreting everything else in the light of Jesus’ teaching.
Believers have always struggled with the harsh words of Jesus about wealth, but it was probably in Puritan England that the seeds of today’s prosperity theology were sown. So many earnestly pious people were prospering that it was difficult not to see wealth as a reward for righteousness. Wisely, they tempered this deduction by stressing such virtues as simplicity, charity, modesty, and personal discipline. Later, John Wesley pushed the sensible formula “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can. More recently, Christians appear to have concluded that two out of three is not bad.
But what of the teaching of Jesus on wealth? Is it only directed toward rich young rulers and perhaps toward the disciples for the period of his public ministry? Certainly not. The Gospels were written 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ public ministry not merely to inform about the past but also to instruct the readers of that and all subsequent generations. Jesus goes as far as to say that only those who obey his words will enter the kingdom (Matt. 7:21-27). Which of his words would he say were no longer relevant a generation (or two millennia) later? The principles behind those words clearly apply in the modern world. Let us consider some of the words themselves.
The command to sell all
As a familiar story repeated in three of the Gospels (Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30), the account of the rich young ruler is a good place to begin. Jesus responds to the man’s question about eternal life by telling him to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man refuses. Jesus goes on to explain how difficult it is for rich people to get into heaven. If one wonders whether Jesus meant “very difficult” or “impossible,” one need only attempt to insert a camel through the eye of a needle. Well-meaning attempts to shrink the camel (by the medieval legend that there was a small gate in the wall of ancient Jerusalem called “the needles eye”) are creative, but desperate.
The disciples react in amazement to such a rigorous demand, and Jesus responds that it is indeed impossible without God. This is clearly not a statement that the rich man will be saved anyway because God will forgive him. Such an explanation would make Jesus’ teaching up to that point meaningless. It is obvious that the disciples get the point, because they respond with a question about the adequacy of their own “leaving all.” Jesus affirms this response and adds that everyone who acts the same way will get the same reward. He does not digress into a discussion of God’s grace in spite of our disobedience: he speaks of our action, which must appropriate God’s power.
Another important passage is Luke 14:25-33, which ends with the disturbing statement, “So therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his possessions” (NASB). It is not possible to reduce the impact of this command by spiritualizing it. Jesus is not commanding followers merely to give up an ambiguous “everything” (an interpretation that, in practice, usually means “nothing”). The word for possessions here is used elsewhere in the New Testament only for material goods (e.g., Mark 6:46; Acts 18-18).
There is a tendency to spiritualize the possession of wealth by claiming that “in my heart I have given it all to God.” This may follow from the justifiable position that one’s attitudes and motives matter as much to God as one’s actions. But Jesus, in contrasting God and wealth, does not allow this option of believing one way and acting another. One or the other, God or wealth, is one’s “employer” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13), and the one that is not served is hated. (The term “hatred” is intended to stress further the separation between God and material wealth. It is used similarly in Luke 14:26,33 to show that believers must never place family or possessions on the same plane as Christ.” If his language is strong, it is because he knows “Where your treasure is, there will your hearth be also” (Matt. 6:21). One’s conduct with money reveals the state of the heart.
There are numerous other troubling passages. Jesus concludes the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:21 with the warning against placing wealth above being “rich toward God.” Later in the same chapter he commands his disciples to apply this by selling possessions and giving to the poor (12:33). Luke 16:9 is a rather obscure command that believers should “make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” The command could be paraphrased “give away possessions so that when you die God will give you eternal reward.”
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man is guilty for neglecting the poor man at his gate, and it seems that his comfortable life “clothed in purple and fine linen may have contributed to his punishment. When Jesus explains the parable of the sower (Mark 4:14-20), he describes people whose initial response to the truth is destroyed by “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.” The second phrase is particularly strong because it describes wealth as deceitful. Is this too harsh? Jesus is even more harsh on at least one occasion. When the money-loving Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ teaching about choosing between God and wealth (Luke 16:10-14), Jesus responds that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Jesus is not attacking pride here—no one exalts pride—but rather the cause of pride: the possession of money. The word abomination could not be stronger: it is used elsewhere of idolatry (e.g., see Ezra 9:11; Rom. 2:22).
In all of these passages, Jesus clearly condemns the possessions of wealth.
Exceptions in the Gospels?
Since the composite effect of these passages can be devastating, we try to lessen their impact. There are several ways to do this. One is to point to examples of rich believers in the Gospels who are not condemned. Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is cited most often. Jesus announces the salvation of this man after he pledges, “Half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” It is a mistake to read this as a justification for retaining half of one’s wealth (but how many do even that much?). Zacchaeus retains half his wealth not in order to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, but in order to channel his giving to the appropriate sources. His former victims would hardly be impressed by the news that he had given their money to the poor. His fourfold restitution would quickly deplete his resources. Zacchaeus, then, is not an example of acceptable wealth but a contrast to the rich man in the previous chapter who would not give away his wealth.
Some have pointed to Luke 22:35-36—where Jesus tells his disciples they should now carry purses, bags, and swords—to counter his previous teaching about wealth. If so, it is strange to find such a great quantity of teaching earlier in the Gospel, and addressed specifically to disciples at that. What is far more likely is that this passage describes the specific urgent situation in the garden where Jesus is “reckoned with transgressors” (22:27). The passage is difficult to understand, but there is not ample reason to consider it an exception to the teaching about possessions elsewhere in the Gospels.
The disturbing truth is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a consistently negative picture of wealth. There simply are no significant exceptions, and whatever straws one attempts to grasp are overwhelmed by the repeated and clear statements directed by Jesus to people who would follow him. The possession of wealth creates a false sense of security, the opposite of that complete dependence on God without which no one will be saved. The texts do not give a precise definition of wealth other than to suggest that any material possession has the potential to become valued more highly than God (Matt. 6:19-20; Mark 12:44). But even with a less radical definition of wealth, almost every North American Christian will feel the sting of these harsh words.
What to do?
Every time Jesus offers an opinion about riches, it is NEGATIVE. Every time he teaches about the use of wealth, he counsels disciples to GIVE IT AWAY. For people who take the Bible seriously, and who take Jesus most seriously of all, how seriously should we respond to these teachings about wealth? It may be time for more believers to consider the most obvious and least comfortable option: to obey him—to conform our lives to the commands of our Lord rather than the other way around.
What would it mean if we at least moved in the direction of Jesus’ words? For one thing, it would put us in closer contact with Christians through the ages who have made a significant impact on the world around them. Unlike the Puritans, for example, modern believers appear to be immune to a sense of shame. Not only the more dramatic demands of discipleship, but even most of the little taboos that once marked us off from non-believers are now optional. The result is a moral vacuum, an absence of pressure to “witness” by our behavior in specific areas. The proper use of wealth could be an enormously influential area of witness for believers, such that the world might begin to see this Christianity responding rather than contributing to the sin of materialism.
Of course, such a commitment involves a risk. What will God do with us when we fall short of perfect obedience, as most of use will in this and other areas? If we refuse to water down the demand but then fail to do the good thing that we could do, are we making a mockery of God’s mercy? These are key questions that may suggest why we are tempted to water down the commands in the first place. Why bother to heed these teachings on wealth if in the end we fail to live up to them?
The answer lies in maintaining a continual tension, treading a razor-edge line between obedience and mercy. The demands of Jesus are there to be met. The forgiveness of Jesus is there to meet our failure. The Cross covers precisely the distance, for each of us, between what we attain and what God demands—between our striving and our arriving.
But if we refuse to move we deny the need for forgiveness, and that destroys the tension. We must hold on just as tenaciously to the words of Jesus about obedience as we do to the words of Paul about grace.
Obedience will inevitably seem to be much further away than grace, but to stand will because the goal is distant is to miss the point that discipleship is a journey. We begin at different points and we move at different rates, and that should prevent us from measuring one another’s progress.
But the biblical message is clear enough about the destination.
How much of our wealth should we give away?
Saints, we’re one day closer to Home, and Him! Love Him wholeheartedly!
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