Our world measures importance, success and social status by various measures. Abundance of wealth or lack thereof being a prominent one indicator of who is doing well in the world and who is not. Jesus did not see it this way and we see this through his interactions with two very wealthy men. The gospel according to Luke touches on wealth and poverty quite a bit. In fact, Luke’s gospel has a strong focus on Jesus’ identification with and love for the poor Furthermore, it has much to say to those who are wealthy and how we might worship God not coin.
Luke records several interactions of Jesus during what is called his “travel narrative.” So yes, if you were wondering, Jesus did indeed have skills with teaching on the road trip and Luke’s gospel has quite the travelogue. Jesus’ journey was heading to a different sort of destination. He was traveling towards a cross awaiting him in Jerusalem and in the accounts of his journey towards that destination he interacts with two rich men. One simply known as the rich young ruler and another a little guy named Zacchaeus.
Luke 18:18-27—The Rich Young Ruler
In Luke 18 we see a young ruler1 approaching Jesus with some flattering words asking what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus simply tells him to follow the commandments of God and the man replies that he is on point with all of that. Jesus then tells him…”oh yeah, one more thing—give away all your money to the poor to have treasure in heaven and come follow me.” Now it is clear that Jesus is not telling all of his followers to never have any possessions. There are too many counter examples in the Bible for this to be the case. What he is doing though is asking the rich man to stop worshiping his money, value the Kingdom of heaven above the systems of the earth and be a true follower and worshipper of God. Well, the guy was not so happy after that. In fact, Scripture teaches us that he went away περίλυπος, a word that means “extremely sorrowful.” Luke casually reveals to us the source of his sadness; the man was extremely rich. Jesus had gone after his god and the man chose to worship and love even over his devotion to God. Jesus then tells us that it is very hard for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom. In fact, his followers seem to think that nobody is going to be able to change in such ways to follow Jesus. The response of the master was simply this “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Then just a few passages later he shows us just how true it is that God can save even the most money grubbin and corrupt rich dudes.
Luke 19:1-10—The Rich Tax Man
When one arrives to Zacchaeus in Luke’s narrative, the rich young ruler immediately comes to mind when you read Luke 19, verse 2. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. Ok, another rich guy, we know how this will go. Or do we? For some reason this tax collector wants to see Jesus, he is curious and goes out to see what the buzz was about concerning this man. What happens next was probably a bit unexpected. The late London preacher Charles Spurgeon said it this way:
Zaccheus’ motive was purely one of curiosity—he wished to see Jesus, who he was. He was curious to know what kind of a man was this who had set all Judea on a stir? Who was this that made [KING] Herod tremble, was reputed to have raised the dead, and was known to have healed all manner of diseases? Zaccheus, the rich publican, is a lover of sights, and he must see Jesus. But there is the difficulty—he is too short; he cannot look over the heads of the crowd. Yonder is a sycamore tree, and he will for once imitate the boys and climb. Mark how carefully he conceals himself among the thick branches, for he would not have his rich neighbours discover him in such a position. But Christ’s eye detected the little man, and standing beneath that tree, unasked, unsought, unexpected, Jesus said, “Zaccheus, make haste and come down, for to-day I must abide in thy house2
So whereas the rich young ruler “went away” in deep sorrow, Zacchaeus has Jesus come over to hang with him at his house. The results are staggeringly different. The ruler remained bound to his money and his little god; Zacchaeus was set free to bless others with his wealth and be changed by the living God.
These two stories tell us much about how we should view wealth in light of the teaching of Jesus and Scripture. We’ll use the second half of this essay to explore this in a very simple fashion.
The Inversion of the Kingdom
One thing we see all over the Bible is that the values and distinctions that we make in the world are radically inverted, turned upside down, by the rule and reign of God. Jesus teaches us that in the Kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16). He teaches us that those who are meek and humble will inherit the earth (Matthew 5-7). The poor who know God are in no way “worse off” than the one who loves sin, self and riches yet remains under the condemnation of a holy and just God. In Jesus’ Kingdom being a servant is actually a “higher” position than that of an oppressive King (Matthew 23:11,12). In fact, our God quite literally came to earth as our servant King. Being a Christian means to see the world as he does and realize that it is we who are upside down.
A Biblical View of Money
The view of Scripture clearly states that God is owner of all things (Psalm 24:1; Psalm 50:10,11) and we are stewards and co-rulers with him (Genesis 1-2). He grants to us what we have and we are to use our resources—be it time, talent or treasure for his Kingdom and purposes. It is also true that in this world some have little, some have much. In fact the one of Jesus’ stories teaches us that this will be the case (see parable of the talents in Matthew 25). However, we cannot make judgments upon people purely on the size of one’s bank account or the roll in his pocket. Jesus taught us that our treasure is a heart matter; a matter of worship. Where you place your treasure and where you find value indicates our heart’s disposition towards God. Frightening if you think about this for a moment.
Let me also be clear. Poverty and not having one’s basic needs met is not presented as a blessing in and of itself in Scripture. Yet someone who is poor can be deeply blessed and dependent upon God despite circumstances. The poor, the meek and the oppressed who trust in Jesus will receive a great reward in the Kingdom (Luke 6:2—23) but starving is not a good thing. Second, material prosperity is not always a bad thing either, yet if riches become our God it is the worst of traps that lead us in all manner of sin. 1 Timothy 6 teaches us this clearly:
9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Rich and Poor — Withhold simplistic Judgments
Most of us are taught to see the world in terms of haves and have nots. We are taught to see rich and poor as on two competing teams that must be at enmity with one another. If you swing from the left the poor are the good guys and the rich sit next to the devil along with people who run corporations. If you swing from the right the rich can be seen as the only people of merit, hard working and responsible. The poor—well, not so much. Scripture does not pit these teams against one another and God will not be the pawn of either left or right wing political spin. You see, Jesus cares much more about the heart of the matter than simply the amount of gold, or lack thereof, stuffed under your mattress.
Rather than a simple class war of the worlds, the Scripture teaches us that there are ways that both poor and rich can honor or dishonor God. Furthermore, there are rich and poor that can both be blessed of God (See Matthew 6, Luke 6, Proverbs 11, 1 Timothy 6). The following represent four different realities.
- You can be poor in wealth and rich in the Kingdom—honest, working, doing things right but just not pulling in much money.
- You can be poor in wealth and poor in the Kingdom—lazy, dishonest, scheming and broke on top of it.
- You can be rich in wealth and poor in the Kingdom—wealthy, hoarding, not generous, oppressive, dishonest and ripping people off.
- You can be rich in wealth and rich in the Kingdom—wealthy and extremely generous.
How we see money is of utmost importance. Some will see their money as theirs and will help others only if and when they feel like. Others will realize that God owns everything and seek to use their money for Kingdom purposes and to help others. Jesus taught us to seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness and he will take care of our needs (See Matthew 6). This should free us to live in generosity.
Joy and Generosity in Mission
One of our core identities at Jacob’s Well is finding joy in generosity and mission. We want to be a people that lives life with open hands giving our time, talents and treasure to the mission of God with people. In fact, the solution to the worship of money in Scripture is what Paul, an early Christian leader, called the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). In being generous we declare that money is not our God, life is more than the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15) and we are free to give. Jesus was very clear with us—it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Most of the time we simply don’t believe him as Christians today give away very little of their incomes to their local churches and charitable causes.3
Christians are certainly called to provide for the needs of their families (1 Timothy 6: and 1 Timothy 5:8) but we are not called to simply hoard up stuff for ourselves. In fact, Scripture clearly exhorts those who are wealthy “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19)
There is no “rule” I can give you about your lifestyle and your generosity, but we must not miss the joy of responding to God in worship with generosity. He has lavishly given life and grace to us and our gratitude is expressed as we give back to his work. You must decide how you will steward what God has placed into your hands whether it is a lot or a little. You must decide what sort of material provision is appropriate for you and your family. Yet the stories of the rich ruler and Zacchaeus should be fully in view as you decide how to live and invest God’s resources.
Will we be ones who make little or no sacrifice for others and continue to worship things and treasures on earth? Or will we worship our God together in generosity?
- We cannot be sure of what this man was ruler of. Matthew’s description of him as being “young” seems to rule out his rule in the Jewish synagogue. See Henry Morris, Luke—Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 283-284.
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 1872 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 24. Note, Spurgeon uses British spellings for several words. He has that right I suppose, he was an Englishman
- For instance, 20 percent of US Christians give ZERO money to anything, the mean average Christian gives 2.9 percent of their incomes. When the median giver is considered it iis a paltry 0.62 percent. See Smith, Emerson and Snell Passing the Plate—Why American Christians Don’t’ Give Away More Money (Oxford,2008) 29-56.