The Attitude of Jesus Toward Earthly Riches
In order to discern Jesus’ attitude toward earthly riches, one must consider both his actions and his words. These actions and words reveal both positive and negative attitudes toward earthly riches. Although wealth brings great dangers, earthly riches can be used in positive ways.
The “Disadvantage” of Wealth
Jesus’ words about earthly riches seem to have a mostly negative bent. He identified the rich as afflicted (“Woe to you who are rich” Lk 6:24)[i] and claimed the poor as a primary focus of his ministry (Lk 4:18; Is 61:1, 2). Jesus described wealth in several negative ways.
First, Jesus described earthly riches as perishing. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:19). In the first century people accumulated wealth primarily in three ways. Garments were considered an important commodity. Grain was considered a treasure since famine was an ever-present reality. Gold, a precious metal, was sometimes hidden in fields or houses. However, all of these earthly treasures had potential problems. Garments could be destroyed by moths. Grain could be eaten by mice, rats, and worms. (The word “rust” in 6:19 can mean “to eat.”) Gold could be stolen. The phrase “break in” may contain the idea of “digging.” First century thieves were called diggers. Houses were made of mud brick and diggers would dig through the house or into the ground to steal treasure.[ii] Earthly treasures spoil (John 6:27) and material wealth quickly passes away.
Deceiving & Distracting
Second, Jesus described earthly riches as deceiving and distracting. He spoke of a farmer who scattered seed on various kinds of soil. Some seed fell among thorns and was choked. Later, Jesus explained, “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful” (Mt 13:22). Mark’s version is “deceitfulness of wealth and desires for other things” (4:19). Luke’s version is “choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (8:14). Earthly riches can be a seductive distraction, choking out the life-giving Word of God. The result of this deceitful distraction can be enslavement. It’s possible to “serve money” and be mastered by it (Mt 6:24). These words seem strange on the surface. After all, money is impersonal. How does a man serve money? Certainly not by assisting it, enriching it, or being a benefactor to it. However, money can exert control over a man by holding out the promise of happiness. A man serves money by giving himself over to it and pursuing his happiness in it. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money” (Mt 6:24). A man either pursues his happiness in earthly riches or in the kingdom of God. Since man’s life does not consist in material possessions (Lk 12:15), it is wisest to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt 6:33).
Those who are rich are used to getting what they want when they want it. They are self-sufficient. This sense of self-sufficiency often bleeds into one’s spiritual life. A comparison of Lk 6:20 (“Blessed are the poor”) with Mt 5:3 (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) seems to indicate a possible link between material poverty and humble dependence on God. Perhaps this is why Jesus told the rich man to sell everything in order to find eternal life (Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30). Although the disadvantage of wealth is real, it is not impossible for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom. With God all things are possible (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27; Lk 18:27). However, “what never appears in the Gospels are well-to-do followers of Christ who are not simultaneously generous in almsgiving and in divesting themselves of surplus wealth for the sake of those in need.”[iii] A comparison of the rich man who ignored the plight of Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) and Zacchaeus who gave half of his possessions to the poor (Lk 19:8) illustrates this reality.
The Positive Uses of Wealth
Despite the overall negative flavor of Christ’s words about wealth, the actions and words of Jesus do contain positive perspectives. These perspectives serve as a reminder that the material world is good. Matter is not evil. Earthly possessions are necessary and can be used in healthy, enjoyable, and lasting ways.
Meeting Human Needs
Jesus affirmed that humans have real and legitimate material needs. He claimed that the Father knows those needs (Mt 6:32). Therefore, worry about the future is unnecessary (Mt 6:25ff). What matters is seeking first the kingdom of God (Mt 6:33).
Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated by his actions that earthly riches can serve legitimate purposes. He accepted material support from several women who helped him “out of their own means” (Lk 8:1-3). These women had ownership of earthly riches. Would Jesus have accepted their financial support if he believed that their private ownership of earthly riches was automatically evil? At the end of Jesus’ earthly life, he borrowed (or rented) a room in a house that was owned by someone else (Mt 22:10-12). Would Jesus have used this room if the owner was disobeying God by possessing private property? The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus’ disciples had their own monetary fund. Judas was in charge of this fund and Jesus apparently had authority over it. The disciples speculated that Jesus had instructed Judas to buy provisions needed for the Passover, or perhaps to give something to the poor (Jn 13:29).
Furthermore, Jesus recognized the legitimacy of paying civil and religious taxes (Mt 22:15-21; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26; Mt 17:24-27). This presupposes some kind of access to wealth. Although on occasion Jesus told his disciples not to take gold or supplies on their missionary journeys (Mt 10:9-10; Mk 6:8-9; Lk 9:3; 10:4-7), he later instructed them to take purses, bags, and even a sword for their journey (Lk 22:35-36). Consideration of context is essential in hearing the words of Christ. His words must be interpreted by his actions and by the original audience, purpose, and circumstances in which those words were spoken.
Jesus participated in festive occasions which included eating and drinking with others (Mt 9:10-11; Mk 2:15). He was even called a glutton, a drunkard and a friend of riff-raff (Mt 11:18-19; Lk 7:33-36). Although this slur was certainly inaccurate, it’s doubtful that it would ever have been used if Jesus never entered into joyful celebration with “sinners.” In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus positively described a lavish feast (Lk 15:22-23). Although the main point of the parable is the Father’s undying love for his son, the story assumes the goodness of festal celebration. Furthermore, when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana, he didn’t chastise the family for having an expensive feast. Nor did he say, “Just drink water and save your money for the poor.” The purpose of this miracle was to be a sign of Jesus’ Sonship, but the miracle presupposed the legitimacy of festive enjoyment. The Gospels repeatedly record Jesus giving thanks for food (i.e., Mt 14:19; 27:26-27). As the perfect Man, Jesus exemplified grateful enjoyment for God’s bountiful gifts. He demonstrated that “the religion of gratitude cannot mislead us” (Wordsworth). Genuine gratitude and enjoyment can coexist with a sacrificial, generous determination to relieve the suffering of others. (The Apostle Paul echoes this theme in 1 Cor 10:30 and 1 Tim 6:17-18).
Finding Salvation / Investing in Eternal Treasures
Despite Jesus’ warnings about the disadvantages of wealth, Jesus also taught that earthly riches can be used to facilitate the process of salvation. In response to a rich man seeking eternal life, Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). On another occasion, Jesus told his disciples to sell their possessions and give to the poor. He promised eternal dividends on their investment (Lk 12:33).
There are several reasons why giving money to the poor can facilitate the process of salvation. First, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:34). Divesting personal possessions and giving to the poor stimulates a process whereby one’s heart becomes enamored with the kingdom of God more than the fleeting riches of this world. Second, benevolent, sacrificial giving puts one in a position of reliance upon God for daily provisions. When someone gives away tomorrow’s surplus, they leave themselves in a vulnerable position: “If I sell my possessions and give to the poor and then lose my job, what then? What if I need surplus for the next rainy day?” Jesus highlights the important link between sacrificial giving and childlike trust. Those who give away their possessions to help the destitute can relax, knowing that their heavenly Father is aware of their needs and will provide what is necessary (Mt 6:19-34). Third, faithfully managing earthly riches is a prerequisite for managing heavenly riches (Lk 16:11). Finally, giving to the poor is a kind of “spiritual networking.” In business, people network with others in order to develop mutually beneficial relationships. The blessed poor (Lk 6:20) and the disadvantaged rich (Mk 10:23) can mutually help each other. The poor gain immediate relief from misery and the rich gain their eternal friendship: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Lk 16:9). In the same chapter of Luke, Jesus describes a rich man who failed to engage in this “spiritual networking.” By failing to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, the rich man missed an opportunity to gain a blessed friend for himself (Lk 16:19-31). In this respect, it’s safe to say that the rich gain as much, if not more, from the poor than the poor gain from the rich. Jesus did not oppose riches or investments. He merely opposed the wrong kind of investment. “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted” (Lk 12:33).
Jesus’ attitude toward earthly riches was both negative and positive. He viewed the possession of earthly riches as a serious disadvantage. Yet Jesus also recognized the necessity of material possessions for life in this world. He received material blessings with gratitude and joy. He also taught that earthly riches, when given to the poor, can be a means of eternal investment and spiritual transformation.
Jesus instructed his followers to give secretly (Mt 6:1-4), sacrificially (Lk 12:13-21; 18:18-30) and without worry for the future (Mt 6:25-34). Sacrificial, charitable giving is not a privilege reserved only for the rich. Jesus’ reflections on the widow’s meager offering reveal that generosity is not measured by how much people give, but by how much is left over after they give (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4).
[i] All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
[ii] Haddon Robinson, Sermon on the Mount. Recorded lecture.
[iii] Blomberg, Craig. Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 145.