By David Hagni. Presented to Regent
University and Dr. Lyle Story for Life and Teachings of Christ,
BNTB 510 Spring 2000
“I do not undervalue for a moment our material
prosperity . . . but we must keep steadily in mind that no people
were ever benefited by riches if their prosperity corrupted their
virtue.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
* * *
We live in
a culture that has recently
experienced unparalleled growth in its national economy. We also
live in a church culture that is being forced – both by
theological argument and by need of the poor – to sort
Biblical truth from error concerning issues of material wealth
and poverty. On one side we hear the proponents of faith
teachings and on the other side we hear
counter complaints of those who are against the insidious
diseaseof the gospel of prosperity.
What are we to do if we want to have a bedrock of understanding
that will guide our ethics and beliefs, our daily financial
decisions, and our long-term lifestyle commitments? It is
probably not wise to base values and judgments on a roaring
economy that may crash next year. And, it is also difficult to
discern what is right when so many “anointed”
teachers are giving messages that do not agree. An examination of
the context and content of Jesus’ teaching reveal that
Christ initiated a reversal of fortune between the wicked rich
and the righteous poor. Jesus calls his followers to reorder
their lives according to kingdom principles governing the
righteous acquisition and distribution of material wealth.
texts containing Jesus’ teaching on wealth, it is important
to gain an understanding of the Old Testament background and
Jewish mindset toward wealth. Jewish culture is the context in
which Jesus thought and taught. The Interpreter’s
Dictionary of the Bible defines “poor” as one who
is destitute of wealth and of material goods, lacking in even the
necessities of life. Also, metaphorically, it means the humble
and the meek. There are many Hebrew words that describe the
condition of being poor, but this is a good general definition to
work with. Accordingly, the definition for “wealth”
in the Old Testament designates the abundance of property. Two
Hebrew words for wealth portray the meaning of
“faculty,” “ability,” and
“power” in relation to acquiring goods and
Testament has a long-standing tradition of seeing wealth as a
positive affirmation of God’s blessing. In Genesis 13, for
example, Abram is said to have been very wealthy in property and
precious metals (vs. 2). In chapter 14, it is apparent that God
was the One Who blessed Abram and made him prosper (vs. 19-23).
The tradition is continued with Abraham’s son Isaac
(26:13), Isaac’s son Jacob (30:43), and Jacob’s son
Joseph (41:40), all who became very wealthy by the favor of the
Lord. Job also finds that he is twice as prosperous than before
his calamities struck due to the blessing of God (Job 41:10).
On the other
hand, the Old Testament does not give wholesale credence
to prosperity without qualifications and perameters. Deuteronomy
28 states that the voice of the Lord is to be carefully obeyed or
poverty will follow as a punishment for disobedience (vs. 1-2,
11, and 15). Psalm 109:10-12 extends the punishment of poverty to
those who trouble the plan of God. And, the book of Proverbs is
explicit in its declaration that poverty is sometimes
self-inflicted when a person becomes lazy (6:6-11), undisciplined
(23:21), or out of control with his spending (21:17). As
important as these principles are, there is one overriding theme
found in the Old Testament concerning the rich and the poor that
helps shed light on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels.
Central to Old
Testament thought on the subject of wealth and poverty is that
Yahweh is protector of the poor and needy.The commandments listed in
Exodus 20 mandate basic human respect. Property rights are also
affirmed since the command “Thou shalt not steal”
(vs. 15) assumes people have private property to steal.
Included in the legal tradition of the Old Testament is the
command to “ . . . not deny justice to your poor people in
their lawsuits” (Ex. 23:6) and to lend provision to the
poor and needy (Deut. 15:7-11). Under the Old Covenant,
God’s blessing on a person’s finances was directly
tied to his benevolence to the poor (15:10). But what about those
who are poor because of debt?
Mosaic Law in
Leviticus 25 established the Year of Jubilee to free all debts,
return ancestral lands, and free slaves. This provision gave the
poor a clean slate to try again to better their lives. This is
the setting in which the words were written, “Love your
neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), which Jesus quoted as
recorded in Matthew 19:19. Love in this context is not
essentially a feeling, but concrete acts that meet a
protector of the poor is also found in the writings of the
prophets. The prophets, in large part, spoke to the people of
Israel who had forsaken the covenant.They spoke warnings and
judgments to those who held power in order that they would steer
the people back to honoring God’s commands. Loyalty to the
covenant required social justice and the end of unfair taxation
(Amos 5:12), theft of land (Micah 2:1-3), unjust business
transactions (Amos 5:12), and the neglect of the poor and needy
concept that emerges in the Psalms is the unification of the
social aspect of the poor with the religious dimension. In Psalm
82, Asaph argues to defend the weak and fatherless, to maintain
the rights of the poor and oppressed, and to rescue the weak and
needy (vs. 3,4). Psalm 72:1-4 carries the thought of the poor
praying to God for justice in the midst of their poverty. And,
there seems to be more at stake than mere material goods in Psalm
35 as David talks to his Lord about the poor and needy (vs. 10).
David could well have been financially sound by the time he wrote
this Psalm.Justice and capital seem to
be of equal concern to David as he submits his cause to God.
Some have even
gone so far as to suggest the poor and needy are a special class
of people that could be called the “pious poor.”These are people poor not
because of their own doing but because of becoming legitimate
victims of the strong, powerful, and rich. This idea of God
defending the pious poor plays heavily in the New Testament in
Jesus’ teaching concerning wealth.
The book of
Proverbs demonstrates many different views toward wealth and
poverty. There is strong rebuke to those who are poor because of
laziness, foolishness, or extravagance. Yet, the Lord has
sympathy for true victims of injustice and will take up their
case (22:22). Proverbs sharply criticizes the rich who oppress
the poor (14:31), but – as is the general consensus in the
rest of the Old Testament – wealth is seen as a blessing,
which is desirable and obtainable if acquired ethically and
At least four
main social groups are addressed in Proverbs including the royal
court, the educated urban society, prosperous agricultural
workers, and small farmers (the working poor).A synopsis of Proverbs gives
three general conclusions.First,
the presence in society of a number of poor persons will always
remain. It is unfortunate, but, like sickness, poverty is
something to which human society is vulnerable. Fortunately,
there are measures that can be taken to eliminate or at least
minimize sickness – so too poverty. Secondly, the believing
community has humanitarian and religious obligations to provide
protection for the poor and needy from exploitation. Acts of
charity preserve the poor from starvation and exposure. Proverbs
does not suggest that complete eradication of poverty is possible
or commanded, but rather that assistance should be provided on a
limited but caring basis for basic needs.
mentioned above, Proverbs condones wealth as desirable and
possible but warns of its inherent dangers and pitfalls. Wealth
should not be sought after at the expense of breaking down
one’s body through exhaustion (23:4,5). This is similar to
Jesus’ challenge recorded in Matthew 16:26, “What
good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet
forfeits his soul?” In the eighth Proverb wealth is a lower
priority to wisdom, yet one of the results of wisdom is wealth.
Those who want to increase their financial condition are given
practical instructions in Proverbs 1-9 on how to properly climb
the social ladder. And other passages in Proverbs remind the
prospering to remember the less fortunate along their way to a
better life (Prov. 31).
We have seen
that throughout the Old Testament God reveals Himself as
protector and provider of the poor and needy. It has also been
suggested above that the poor and needy are people experiencing
social, material, and religious oppression. The primary concern
in the Old Testament is for innocent people who unjustly and
unwillingly have been subjected to the dominating wealthy and
powerful. Yet, those who have inflicted poverty upon themselves
are given their ticket out in Proverbs through faithful giving,
diligent work and thrifty saving.
Here is one
final, but crucial, comment concerning the Old Testament
perception of wealth and poverty before Jesus’ teachings
are examined. There is a concurring theme running throughout the
Old Testament that is important to understand in order to
appreciate what Jesus taught about wealth. Proverbs speaks of
a reversal of fortunes between poor and rich (24:19,20).
The Psalms also echo this theme as David, for example, informs
that the wealthy wicked will be brought down and the poor and
needy will be blessed and inherit the land (Ps. 37).
prophet prophesied about the oppression over the people due to
injustice (Is. 58:6-9). In chapter 61 Isaiah declares freedom to
the oppressed and good news to the poor (vs. 1). Freedom and good
news is made possible because the Lord saw that there was no
justice (59:15) and displayed His wrath to the enemies (vs. 18).
With God’s intervention there is an absolute inversion
of power and wealth. This inversion is to occur between the
wicked wealthy and the pious poor. God is not
interested in decimating wealth that is fairly accumulated.
However, those who oppress with wealth will certainly answer to
In relation to
this, those who abuse wise principle and suffer poverty as a
consequence are not the “poor” for whom
freedom is declared. Freedom is already available for
those poor by following the precepts of Proverbs. And, of course,
consideration for the needs of these poor is obligated as
previously noted. But, it is for the unjustly oppressed
poor that freedom is announced in Isaiah. An inversion of
wealth and power is declared and takes place between the wicked
wealthy and the righteous poor. With these concepts in mind
from the Old Testament, the focus now turns toward the New
Testament and specifically the life example and teachings of
Jesus Christ concerning wealth and poverty.
The Life Example
and Teachings of Jesus
first formal public address was drawn from the very passage in
Isaiah just examined. The passage applied equally to the context
of Isaiah’s time and to the historical circumstances of
Jesus’ day. Jesus employed Isaiah’s words to address
an oppressive social and economic situation in which exploitative
urbanism and powerful redistributive central institutions such as
the Roman state and the Jewish hierarchy helped to keep property
and power in the hands of the few.
is important to the interpretation of the passage in Luke 4:18.
By declaring that he was anointed to “preach good news to
the poor” Jesus was not inferring that the poor would
automatically become rich. Jesus also said he had come to
“release the oppressed.” In the dismantling of
oppressive strongholds of social and religious powers, Jesus
removed the obstacles to religious and economic growth. (It still
remained for the poor to prosper through their own faith and
industry.) Now, because of the presence of Jesus, the oppressed
had the opportunity for spiritual and economic betterment.
of Jesus reading Isaiah also seems to be related to His words at
the closing of Luke 4. In Nazareth, Jesus said he had come to
preach good news to the poor “ . . . to proclaim the year
of the Lord’s favor” (vs. 18, 19). Subsequently, in
Capernaum Jesus said that He needed to go other places to
“preach the good news of the kingdom of God” (vs.
43). The year of the Lord’s favor probably refers to the
Year of Jubilee in which debts were cancelled, slaves released,
and lands returned.
year was legally and historically an aspect of military conquest
of the land of Canaan.As an
incentive to fight, families that participated in the war would
inherit specific pieces of land. Every 50 years, each parcel of
land had to be returned to the lawful heir of the original
family. The jubilee year was the year that restored the
family’s lost inheritance. It symbolized the restoration of
all things. It is evident why Jesus chose this particular passage
for His opening address to commence His ministry. Jesus linked
the temporal concept of the Year of Jubilee with the physical
arrival of the eternal kingdom of God. In doing so, He proclaimed
much more than just the opportunity for material acquisition
– though economic gain was definitely included in the
proclamation. Jesus proclaimed the realized eschatological event
of all time. This is the kingdom of God overtaking Satan’s
oppressive authority on earth, through Jesus Christ – a
complete inversion of power. This is good news!
In Christ came
a totally new order spiritually, relationally, and economically
– all three being interdependent. The new order is not
utopian or idealistic but has very practical application. First,
Jesus disclosed God as Father (John 14:9). This new spiritual
order has direct bearing on one’s attitude toward the
accumulation and use of wealth. Jesus taught a radical reordering
of priorities in order to live in the will of God, and Matthew 6
records premier teaching of Jesus concerning wealth and its
relationship with the spiritual life of faith.
“mammon” (King James) or “money” (NIV) in
Matthew 6:24 means something ungodly that entangles.Mammon is a
transliteration of the common Aramaic word for riches and is
close to another Hebrew word meaning to be firm and steadfast.Jesus personifies mammon
in verse 24 in order to contrast devotion to it with devotion to
God. A fundamental shift in allegiance must take place in order
to follow the decrees of God’s kingdom. A reordering along
relational and economic lines must occur for one to experience
the power of the kingdom of God. Before looking closer at Matthew
6, here is one example in Jesus’ experience of a man who
would not reorder his life to align with kingdom
It is seen in
the case of the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-30) how intricately
intertwined are relational and economical issues. Jesus connects
economic reordering with spiritual devotion to righteousness in
his challenge to the rich young man. He requires the man to sell
all, give it to the poor, and follow Him. The young man’s
refusal to sell his possessions exposed the kind of value he
placed on God’s spiritual kingdom. Apparently, the man did
not see Jesus as better than his temporal possessions –
else he would have gladly sold all in order to inherit something
better. On the surface this looks like an economic issue.
However, as Jesus demonstrated, it contained a much deeper
spiritual and relational issue.
were perplexed with Jesus’ teaching at this point. They
were surprised to hear that it would be hard for the rich to
enter the kingdom of God (19:23,25). They were perplexed partly
because they had only seen the surface issue. They were puzzled
because they functioned in the Old Testament Jewish mind-set that
wealth, rightfully gained, was a desirable blessing from God.
They were well aware that many in their scriptures had great
wealth including Abraham, David, Solomon, Joseph, Job, and
others. “Who then can be saved?” (19:25).
their fears first by saying that with God all things are possible
(19:26). He then points to the central issue of the attitude of
the heart. To “leave everything for His sake” (19:27)
demonstrate that new priority – economic and relational
reordering – has been given place in a person. The
“leaving everything” is not nearly as important as
the reordering of inward attitudes. In fact, the total surrender
of possessions found in the gospels (Luke 5:11, 28; 14:33;
18:18-23; Mark 10:21) was a temporary demand given only to those
personally asked by Jesus for the specific purposes of His
possibly was calling the rich young man into an earthy ministry
partnership much like that which He had previously called the
other disciples. They had willingly forsaken all to follow, but
the rich young man was unwilling to reprioritize his life and
lost the opportunity for ministry with the Master. The fact that
God is good to multiply and return any possessions sacrificed for
His service in this life (Mark 10:30) illustrates again that God
is not interested in our permanent abandonment of wealth but
rather in our total and continued obedience from the heart.
Returning to Matthew 6 will give a more conclusive view of the
spiritual aspect of Jesus’ teaching on wealth.
Matthew’s purposes in writing his gospel may have been to
challenge the prosperous house churches of his day to apply
Jesus’ priorities to their lives.The coming of Jesus
brought a reordering of spiritual authorities with Satan’s
defeat and the coming of the kingdom of God. The authority of
Jesus Christ is to permeate every aspect of His follower’s
lives. This is emphasized in Matthew 6 as Jesus contrasts the
life of faith versus the life filled with anxiety.
instructs on the futility of worry in verses 25 through 31, he
gives a key statement concerning God’s will in our pursuit
of wealth. Denoted by the word “but” in verse 33,
Jesus contrasts the difference between pagans and believers in
their behavior toward material possessions. Jesus said that the
pagans “seek” (King James) and “run
after” (NIV) all of these material things. This
“running after” speaks of addictions to cultural
appetites. Michael Crosby in his House of Disciples calls
social attitudes that control thinking patterns and behavior
“cultural addictions.”He suggests that the same
steps used to break any addiction are necessary to break the
addiction of consumerism. One important step in any recovery is
for the addict to realize he has “bottomed out” and
is in need of a higher power. Jesus taught the same concept.
with His insistence that a person cannot serve two masters (Matt.
6:24), Jesus brought the kingdom to bear on his follower’s
values. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his
righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as
well.” The rule and reign of God over a believer’s
life can break any cultural addiction. Jesus taught that it is
essential to maintain cooperation with God’s reign
within in order to avoid or break the deadly trap of anxiety
caused by cultural addiction to materialism.
The only way
to accomplish this is to continue to “hunger and
thirst” (Matt. 5:6) for God’s order in our lives.
Seeking God’s kingdom replaces anxiety and fear with faith
and trust that God will provide all that is needed and desired.
Jesus’ own life example and teachings affirm the ethical
acquisition of wealth and teach the right use of possessions for
personal enjoyment and the enhancement of the kingdom of God.
Jesus knew and operated from a positive Old Testament viewpoint
of wealth. The gospel of Matthew never portrays Jesus or His
disciples as unable to access resources.He probably owned a house
(Matt. 8:5,14; 4:13; 9:1, 10, 28; 13:1, 36; 17:24, 25)and did not classify
Himself as financially poor (Matt. 26:11). His disciples were
socio-economic backgrounds but, at worst, came from lower middle
class. Neither did Jesus’ ministry suffer poverty as boats
(Matt. 13:1), lodging (Luke 19:1-10), food (John 6:1-15) and
other needs were continually provided. He considered his ministry
on earth a time of festivity and enjoyed things only money can
buy (Matt. 26:6-13). Judas even stole from the ministry treasury
without being noticed, suggesting that there were substantial
funds from which to steal (John 12:6).
teachings left little doubt of his attitude toward the positive
value that wealth can have if used correctly. In Luke 16 Jesus
used the parable of the shrewd manager to show the potential in
worldly wealth to attract people’s favor. The manager used
his wealth to win the favor of debtors and thus provide for
himself in his time of crisis. In commending the manager’s
wise decisions (vs. 8), Jesus was calling for the right use of
wealth, not the abandonment of possessions.Jesus taught that the wise
use of wealth is found in being faithful and honest with small
amounts (vs. 10), using wealth in service to humanity (vs. 9),
and serving God’s purposes undistracted (vs. 14, 15). The
person who uses money wisely can literally win friends for
eternity and receive heavenly rewards (vs. 9).
to meet needs and win people for eternity is an important theme
in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus encouraged his followers to give
freely even to people from whom there is little hope of any
return (Luke 6:35). On the other hand, He also encouraged giving
with expectation that even more would be given back in return
(Luke 6:37,38). These are not contradictory statements.
statements again emphasize the motive and attitude that giving
should assume. Giving is to be done out of a motive of love with
no strings attached (“without expecting to get anything
back”). And, giving is to be done with strong faith in God
that He will orchestrate an even greater return on our giving
(“give and it will be given to you . . . running
over”). Jesus taught that as we acquire wealth we should
look for needs to meet as an investment in His kingdom. God will
then handle the return on these investments!
The parable of
the Good Samaritan is one other example Jesus used to teach of
the correct use of the power of wealth. Love is the summation of
the Law according to Jesus (Luke 10:26-28). The Samaritan used at
least two days wages to provide medicine and lodging for the
beaten victim. He became the supreme example of taking advantage
of an opportunity for using wealth to compassionately minister to
examples of the life and teachings of Jesus, it is clear that He
is not opposed to the ethical gain of wealth and its enjoyment,
especially in light of its rightful use to minister to
people’s needs. However, an understanding concerning His
teaching about money would not be complete without seeing how He
framed them within the parameters of sober warnings and
In the parable
of the sower (Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:14-20, Matt. 13:1-23), Jesus
describes the one who casts seed, the types of ground upon which
the seed falls, and the amount of production the seed yields. The
parable is followed by an interpretation of the key elements. In
comparing the seed to the word, the people are the ground
receiving the word, and the yield depends on the attitude the
people have toward the word sown into their hearts. Threats to
the word include Satan (Mark 4:15), trouble (4:17), and
persecution (4:17). In verse 19 Jesus bluntly warns that worries
of this life, desires for other things, and the deceitfulness of
wealth have the potential of choking off the word of God from
growing in a disciple’s heart and life.
thought is not the sower but the condition of the ground. The
context of the ancient Israelite farmer allows for the
possibility of the practice of casting seed prior to plowing the
field.This would explain the
apparent carelessness of the sower sowing seed indiscriminately
on unproductive grounds. Jesus, as sower, sows the word to all
without favoritism. According to the parable then, the person
must decide whether or not the ground of their heart will be
fruitful (vs. 20).
account adds “as they go on their way” and
“they do not mature” (8:14) signifying an ongoing
struggle with the seduction of wealth.Jesus is adamant that
there is a very real danger of gradually allowing the worry and
desire for material possessions and pleasures to choke a
person’s devotion to the kingdom of God. However, if a
disciple maintains his reordered priorities and continues to seek
first the kingdom, wealth acquisition ceases to be a
warning Jesus gave was against covetousness and elitism. In
outward appearance, it doesn’t seem that the Rich Fool of
Luke 12:16-21 did much to deserve his label. The parable explains
how foolish the decision was for the man to build bigger barns on
the tail of a bumper crop. The foolishness was not in providing
for the excess but in making the decision completely without
regard to God’s will or other people in need.
The man was
most likely an elite landowner that lived off other
people’s labor and could possibly have intended to store
his excess in view of a future drought in which he would charge
much more than what the crop was worth.Jesus considered this as
covetousness and warned that a man’s life does not consist
of his possessions (12:15). Covetousness in this sense, from the
Greek word pleonexias, means to take advantage of
another.In satisfying his own
greed, the man totally neglected eternal realities of the
impending kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching directly
confronts human arrogance and self-centeredness and challenges
listeners to keep kingdom concerns first place in the use of
their wealth (12:21).
This has not
been an exhaustive consideration of all that Jesus taught about
wealth. It is, however, a sampling of His major thoughts in
regard to the acquisition and use of material goods. Jesus taught
from a mind-set that was generally positive toward wealth due to
His roots in historic Israel and the teachings of the Old
Testament scripture. His coming began the fulfillment of the
promised hope of a reversal of fortunes between the wicked rich
and the righteous poor. The coming of the kingdom of God demanded
are reordering of spiritual, relational, and financial
Christ are expected to put kingdom interests and the needs of
others ahead of their own. They are to arrange their lives in
such a way as to be able to maintain primary relationships and
– with their righteously gained wealth – expand the
kingdom of God and minister to the basic needs of the poor. Thus,
Jesus does not negate the importance of ethically acquiring
wealth, but He does insist on reasonable boundaries in its
pursuit. Jesus warns of the seductiveness of riches,
covetousness, and arrogance associated with material possessions.
According to Jesus, temporal and material matters find ultimate
value when linked to the higher and eternal purposes of the
kingdom of God.
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