by Bob Lupton
Wealth. A sign of God’s favor. At least that’s how it was viewed in Old Testament times. Wealth was equated with prominence, influence, leadership, and yes, even righteousness. Consider Job and Abraham. Oh yes, there were evil and corrupt rich men to be sure. The prophets took them on. But generally riches were seen as evidence of God’s blessing. That’s why the disciples were so puzzled by Jesus’ pronouncement that it was harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. “Well who can get in, if not the wealthy?!” they questioned. It was clear that they viewed wealth like most other devout Jews – as a sign of God’s favor. Their Teacher was casting an entirely new (and dubious) light on the nature of riches.
Money, power, prestige – these would no longer be the measures of prominence in this Kingdom Jesus was introducing. Meekness, humility, compassion – these would become the defining attributes of greatness. Rich people could certainly join, He said, but this new order of things would be difficult for them – difficult to divest their personal assets rather than contine to accumulate more, difficult to subordinate their privileged status to those of lesser social standing, difficult to place their security in God rather than in their wealth. It would not be impossible, He said, just difficult. Matthew the tax collector was case in point, and of course the very wealthy Zacchaeus. Luke the physician was another. But by and large the wealthy were relegated to lower standing in the pecking order of the Kingdom. It was all upside down – the first being last and the last first. Big change from Old Testament to New.
And so the value of being wealthy was turned on its ear. The well-off became suspect. It was a rich man who treated poor Lazarus poorly and was condemned to eternal damnation. A rich young ruler too tied to his wealth to become a follower. A proud rich man in the Temple whose offering was unacceptable. A successful farmer who took early retirement who was declared “a fool.” Deceitful Ananias and Sapphira, tragic examples of rich folk who held out on God. Wealth became associated with self-indulgence, with mercilessness, with arrogance, with fraudulence. As a matter of fact, one is hard pressed to find a single reference in the New Testament affirming wealth as God’s blessing. Warnings, yes, but no recognition of its essential role in Shalom.
But just behind the scenes, unmentioned but clearly present, were wealthy supporters of this Kingdom. Zacchaeus was still one of the richest men in Jericho even after he made restitution and gave half his money to the poor. And what about Matthew’s tax business and Luke’s medical practice? And the women of means who supported the Messiah campaign? And members of the early church that sold property to underwrite the church budget? Oh yes, wealth was there alright. It’s just that generosity and self-sacrifice and living by faith were the themes that got the sermon coverage.
But then, how could it be any different? Everybody in the early church was readying for the eminent return of the Messiah. Everyone was on a short-term schedule. Don’t even get married, the apostle Paul urged. Put all your energy into preparedness for the second coming. But Christ didn’t return as expected. (Not yet.) And so in time everybody began settling into a new normal of church and community life, some thriving, others surviving. The themes of generosity, self-sacrifice and living by faith imbedded themselves in the culture of the church. Wealth remained suspect. The apostle James made quite sure that the rich were not shown deference.
And so the issue churns. Those who create wealth continue to receive the warnings while those modest souls who live off the benefits of the economy that wealth-producers create receive the affirmation. John Coors, a very wealthy and very devout Christian, calls it an “industry of making the rich feel guilty.” Billionaire Robert Kern, who loves the church but endures the judgment, has allocated a large portion of his estate to educating ministers in the fundamentals of how the economy works.
“Give it all away,” Jesus said. Even your second coat. Don’t concern yourself about tomorrow. Budgeting? Trust a miracle. Hmm. Does the One who holds the economies of the world in his hand not realize that thoughtful planning and responsible investing are essential for stable societies? Was it not He who gave the promise of prosperity to Israel if they would keep His commands? Was He not the One who warned Joseph in a dream about seven years of famine that would befall Egypt, and positioned him to plan ahead during seven years of plenty? How then are we to understand this radical “take-no-thought-for-tomorrow” departure from divinely guided resource management?
He came to fulfill the law, not do away with it, He said. Don’t abandon the God-given teachings and principles of the past – take them to a deeper level. The blessing of wealth is meant for the Shalom of the entire community, not to be hoarded for personal sumptuousness. Managed well, it provides a stable lifestyle for a workforce and their families, stimulates ancillary enterprises, contributes to the prosperity of the whole village or region. No, He did not come to destroy Shalom but to inspire it. Admittedly, He did use some highly provocative words and actions to shake up a religious culture that was misusing wealth to amass personal power, privilege and possessions. Scattering stacks of money-changers’ cash all over the Temple portico floor was a bit extreme perhaps. But sometimes dramatic intervention is required when greed and self-indulgence become acceptable norms within the Temple community. And He certainly did that!
But perhaps the time has come to bring theological balance back to our understanding of wealth. 2000 years of cautions for those who have the gift of wealth creation may be an adequate length of time to make the point that mammon is seductive, that one’s heart must be carefully guarded against its enticements. At a time when the entire world is awakening to the reality that healthy economic systems are fundamental to the elimination of extreme poverty, perhaps this is a moment for resourced members of the Western church – who have unparalleled capacity to create profitable businesses – to step forward. Perhaps this is the time when the church begins to see itself as more than a purveyor of compassionate service, but as a catalyst of just and fruitful economies. Might this be a turning point when the wealthiest church in history awakens to the reality that their job creators are the very ones gifted by God to bring economic wholeness to struggling souls too long resigned to unending poverty?