As Christians, many of us have an awkward relationship with our money. We don’t like to talk about it, but deep down we worry that we’re supposed to give more of it away. Or, maybe we’ve been taught something else — maybe we’re convinced that God only ever desires for our personal wealth to increase, being the loving father that he is. He’d never hold back more blessing from his treasured children, right? If we just follow him more faithfully, things will only get better for us?
I won’t address the latter view except to say that it’s a modern work of fiction and an abomination. If you’ve been taught this, I encourage you to focus all your Bible readings on the gospels for a while (especially Matthew and Luke) and see how this story holds up when the only voice ringing in your ears is Jesus. That our faith could become a club for the rich — where the wealthy are seen to be closer to God or more ‘blessed’ — is no less than a tragic perversion of Jesus’ teachings. The sooner it’s abolished from our churches and hearts, the better.
Now, let’s talk about the opposite struggle; the struggle with our wealth rather than for it. On this, the Gospels have much to say.
Giving It All
What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? — Matt 16:26
He spoke about money a lot, but much of it was about our greed and what our financial choices reveal about our hearts (especially in Luke’s gospel). Many have sighed and sorrowed at the high bar that he continually sets.
The best-known example is the ‘rich young ruler’ we encounter in Luke 18:18, who comes to Jesus asking for the secret to eternal life. Notice that his first concern is a self-centred one. In the presence of God himself, his gut reaction is to ask about his own wellbeing in the afterlife.
As the story continues, Jesus ignores the man’s apparently-spotless moral record (v21), focusing instead on his crutch: material comforts. He demands something of the ruler which he ultimately can’t fulfil:
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” — Luke 18:22
The man leaves defeated. As modern readers, it’s natural (and healthy!) to wonder whether Jesus might expect the very same thing from us. As we keep reading, the plot only thickens…
Where Your Treasure Is
In Luke 19:8–9 (the very next chapter!) Jesus praises another man called Zacchaeus for pledging to give away half of his riches. He shows other signs of a generous heart, despite being very wealthy:
If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. — Lk 19:8.
There’s an air of celebration in Jesus’ responses to Zacchaeus;
Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today… Today salvation has come to this house — Luke 19:5, 9–10
Jesus’ words suggest a happy relief with a silent subtext; ‘This guy gets it! Finally, a generous heart that pursues God first!’
From these two contrasting stories it’s clear that Jesus doesn’t demand the same response of everyone. Zacchaeus promised to give half of his wealth, not all of it. As with many of God’s concerns for us, this is a matter of the heart.
The first problem with matters of the heart, though, is that we’re very good at kidding ourselves. In this story, we quickly see an opportunity to carry on living as we please, believing that ‘God knows my heart’. And the second problem is — he really does.
Zacchaeus’ response was no token gift offered out of obligation. Before their conversation started, he defied his small stature by climbing a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus passing by. Jesus noticed his passion and spiritual hunger, and chose not to judge him in his state of abundance (or challenge him to give the other half of his riches.) His was a spontaneous act of praise from someone who was deeply and personally moved by Jesus’ presence. That’s interesting to me; Jesus’ presence provoked wild material generosity in a receptive heart.
I personally believe that Zaccheaus would have given all his wealth away if Jesus requested it. But his heart was Jesus’ prize, and it was already won.
Don’t be too quick to assume that out of these two stories of ‘rich men’, this is the one that applies to you. You may not be ‘a Zaccheaus’. You may be another ‘rich young ruler’. Or maybe, like me, you’re not sure either way, but you want to get your heart right.
Rich Outside, Poor Inside
In Luke 12, Jesus tells the parable of a ‘rich fool’, who lays up treasure for himself but is not rich before God (v21)
It’s easy to simplify this verse by assuming that having any material wealth is bad. I don’t think that jives with what we just read (remember – Jesus rejoiced at Zacchaeus’ generous outpouring, while saying nothing of the half he kept). This is not such a clear dichotomy, but a tension we must wrestle with. First, notice that the rich fool stored up treasure ‘for himself’ rather than for others or for God’s work. His ‘storing up’ is not explicitly condemned, but his storing up for himself surely is.
I personally don’t believe that this can be validly extended to condemn all forms of saving and investing. These also become matters of the heart – what are you storing up your riches for? And, more importantly, where is your hope? A future hope placed in a pot of gold is a hope born of fear, if not greed.
I believe it can be wise to multiply what we have for Godly purposes. This doesn’t mean we can’t save or invest money for our personal or family future – it means we must only do so carefully, with a very humble heart before God, staying suspicious of our true motives. We must seek his guidance and accept any other plan he might have for our surplus. These are sticky issues, and they require brutal self-honesty before God.
Second, notice that the rich fool ‘is not rich before God’. This doesn’t say that he ‘cannot be rich before God because of his wealth’. In Luke 18:25–27 we find that being rich while being fully under God’s inward rule is very hard, but not impossible (see the hope of v27). That’s the tension. It’s a wrestle. And if we’re not wrestling with our wealth, we’re probably not fully aware of the great responsibility that it represents in a world where people still die because they don’t have access to clean water. Call me idealistic, but I think that should matter to us daily. Not only because it’s tragic and avoidable, but because it’s a top priority in God’s kingdom – he even sorts the holy ‘sheep’ from the unholy ‘goats’ based on their response to the poor and oppressed (Matt 25:31–46).
We must think hard and often about how our resources can be used more faithfully in loving service of God and others. Money is not an afterthought for the spiritual man or woman. It is of vital importance, because our handling of it can reveal our true priorities and values. The required mindset shift for many of us is to adopt this simple philosophy:
How I manage my money is part of my worship.
I want to worship like Zacchaeus. Authentically and generously. If we don’t make our relationship with money a conscious one, over which God truly presides, the paradox of ‘rich outside, poor inside’ will be our natural state.
So maybe I’ve lost you, because this doesn’t apply to you. Maybe you don’t feel rich. Maybe you live life one paycheque at a time. First, I’ll remind you of something I’m guilty of forgetting on a regular basis: all of us in the west are truly wealthy. If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you’re rich. If you’re reading it on your laptop or desktop… same story. We are way above subsistence, and as such, we fit into the biblical definition of ‘rich’ (more on this to follow). You’d best accept it and decide what to do with your abundance.
You’re doing something with your abundance already; all it takes to discover that something is a slow and honest look at your spending history. Numbers don’t lie, and whatever you spend money on which isn’t required for survival tells you something about your values. I’m not condemning all non-essential purchases; I’m just calling them very good teachers. I’ve been through this exercise several times, and found it deeply confronting.
Dig deeper if you dare. You may not be spending yourself poor through reckless purchases like I did in my 20s. Instead, maybe it’s the ongoing financial drain of those things that ‘matter’ – the house you live in or the car in your driveway. Sometimes we can easily justify our greed by over-investing in things which seem like ‘needs’. Their drain, however, can cripple our generosity and freedom; if we’ve diminished core values like these for a bigger house or a newer car, maybe it’s time to un-make some bad choices.
Not easy, to be sure.
Five years ago, I had to accept the inconvenient truth that my material struggles were my own fault, and that rather than complaining, I should man up and do something. Did I want to live a more free and generous life? As a result, I’ve downsized dramatically in most areas of my life. I can say from experience that any pain is quickly overshadowed by relief.
It’s not only by modern standards that we’re rich; it’s also by Biblical standards. In fact, we must accept that we are all the rich young ruler – if not in our hearts, then our resources. When the Gospel authors used the word ‘rich’, it was, of course, a relative term within a different cultural context. That’s what wealth is – it’s a relative state of high wellbeing and privilege. In Jesus’ time, however, the bar of wealth was very different. About 70% of the Jewish population were subsistence workers (earning only enough to survive), with roughly 20% falling into a middle-class band and the remaining 10% filling the band of the elite.
Our western living standards and resources put us all well beyond even the top tier of the ancient Jew. We are all ‘rich’ by these standards, simply because we have much more money than we need to survive. We have a skewed picture of survival, imagining that if we can’t afford the comforts we’re used to, we are ‘struggling’. We have a significant overflow with which we buy non-essential things and experiences. Again, I’m not condemning these, but we can’t pick and choose which of Jesus’ more challenging sayings on money apply to us — they all do.
Wealth without the constant and worshipful act of giving is bad for our souls. It desensitises us to injustice and poverty, hardening our hearts and making us less like Jesus. This may sound like extremism or asceticism… but please raise your complaints with the author of any one of the New Testament gospels. These aren’t my own radical ideas!
So, back to the question we started with — does Jesus demand my poverty? By this question, I don’t mean ‘does Jesus want me to be homeless and helpless?’ but rather, ‘does he want me to give away all of my possessions or financial surplus, keeping only what I really need?’
The hard truth is, he might; maybe for a season, or maybe even indefinitely. It’s important to make peace with the possibility, if nothing else. We’re not all generous deep down, like Zacchaeus, and maybe Jesus has some deep work to do within you (like me) to break down your attachment to possessions and material security. That’s a hard sell in today’s world, but to soften the blow is to water down Jesus’ teachings.
This can take many forms. It doesn’t have to mean earning little money. Maybe he’s even calling you to run a wildly successful business and use that overflow to fund a generous work of compassion or a church. I can’t tell you, because the answer is different for everyone, and is settled individually before God. But settle it we must. It’s a critical matter of the heart for the western Christian. We’ve barely scratched the surface of Jesus’ teachings in this post, but the deeper you dig, the clearer the message becomes: he demands wild generosity of his followers at minimum.
The obvious first step forward is to ask yourself the confronting question, ‘if Jesus did ask me to give everything away, could I do it?’ We’re all prone to self-deception, so no matter what you believe your answer is, it’s a good idea to humbly run it by a few people you trust. What do they think you’d do? Then, bring your discovered state before God in prayer and seek his guidance for the road ahead.
When I challenged myself honestly with this question, my answer was unsatisfactory. I learnt that I’ve held on too tightly to possessions. My next step was to plan Three Years Without Stuff. Yours may be different. Whatever the case, let’s commit to letting Jesus call the shots. If he’s not king over our hearts and hopes, then something else is.