Evangelicals emphasize a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and the belief that it represents the literal word of God. But on one particular topic we behave as though the Bible were fallible and ignore what Jesus taught. Instead we embrace a secular worldview that appeals to us and dismiss as irrelevant Jesus’ many lessons on the subject. We have little interest entertaining the idea that our perspective on the matter contravenes the very Bible we claim to follow so closely. Rather than accept the unambiguous principle Jesus conveyed we scrutinize God’s word for exceptions to the rule, to excuse us from following His counsel. As a result we face the dangers, temptations, and risks He warned us would occur when we follow our desires instead of His guidance.
Jesus informed His disciples that, “it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Matthew 19:23, NLT). Knowing this truth would surprise the disciples He immediately reinforced His point, “l say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (vs. 24). This shocked the disciples who wondered, “who then can be saved?” (vs. 25). We tend to focus on Jesus’ response to that question, “with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26, NKJV). We insist that Jesus’ message has very little to do with the difficulty of the rich going to heaven and everything to do with accomplishing anything we want with God’s help. But if Jesus had simply wanted to emphasize the point that all things are possible with God, He needn’t have said anything at all about the wealthy.
Jesus’ primary message in the passage is that the wealthy rarely get to heaven. This should not surprise us. A cursory study of the Bible reveals the basis for this truth. Pride often resides with the affluent who tend to credit themselves for their success. Frequently, they ignore the needs of others, use their resources selfishly, and demonstrate a lack of compassion for the less fortunate. Worse of all, they fall in love with the things of the world and develop an idolatrous relationship with riches and the world. The Old Testament is replete with examples – as is modern America.
Jesus understood the dangers, temptations, and risks associated with acquiring wealth. He frequently warned His followers of these and consistently cautioned them against pursuing the things of this world. Doing so almost always leads away from God and precludes the joy of eternal life. In fact, Jesus references wealthy individuals on at least three occasions during His ministry and in every instance the person is separated from God and falls short of heaven. Let’s look briefly at each.
In the first a man asks Jesus to command his brother split an inheritance with him. In response, Jesus advises the crowd, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses,” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). Jesus’ point is clear. Quit focusing on this world and wasting time collecting things. That is not what this life is about. He then shares a parable about a rich farmer who harvests a bountiful crop. Instead of thanking God, sharing with the poor, and using the income to fund God’s work, the man responds selfishly, greedily, and arrogantly. He credits himself for his wealth and lavishes himself with luxury. God calls him a fool and informs him that he will die that night and must exchange his soul for the life he lived. Jesus then challenges the crowd, explaining that such is the case for everyone “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God,” (Luke 12:21, NKJV). Wealth almost invariably distracts us from investing in our relationship with God and fulfilling His will. That is why Jesus required His disciples renounce everything before following Him.
In the second example a rich, young ruler approaches Jesus and inquires about what he must do to achieve eternal life. Jesus reminds him of several commandments, to which the young man responds, “All these I have kept from my youth,” (Luke 18:21, NKJV). On hearing this Jesus tells him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me,” (Luke 18:22, NKJV). At this, the man walks away in sorrow. He has no interest in following Christ or attaining eternal life if it costs him his possessions and wealth. The man had deceived himself into believing he was living his life for God and on the fast-track to heaven. But with one simple command Jesus explodes that myth. So it is with many of us. We have convinced ourselves we are evangelical Christians who love the Lord, do His will, and are heaven-bound. But our love for the world, our pursuit of possessions, and our lives of luxury suggest otherwise. We, too, have been deceived.
Finally, Jesus shares a parable about Lazarus and a rich man (we never learn the wealthy man’s name because he is a composite for the affluent). We learn little about him except that he “was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and lived each day in luxury,” (Luke 16:19, NLT). He showed no compassion for the poor, displayed no humility or gratitude toward God, and refused to direct His resources to advance God’s Kingdom. He was consumed with himself and believed his riches were his to be used however he wanted. On death he is cast into hell and tormented. Again, Jesus reminds us how dangerous wealth can be. It diverts our attention from our true purpose in this world (to know Christ and make Him known to others), and convinces us to focus on ourselves, the collection of material things, enjoying the lap of luxury, and entertaining ourselves. As we pursue those objectives we find ourselves further and further from God and His will.
Of course, Christian leaders will remind us that it is not a sin to be wealthy. That is true. They will also assert that God sometimes materially blesses those who follow Him. That is also true. What we often fail to hear from them, though, is the truth that wealth frequently leads us away from the Lord and corrodes our relationship with Him. It repeatedly leads to arrogance, selfishness, greed, and idolatry. For this reason readers ought to resist the temptation to chase riches and the things of this world as that almost always leads to destruction and torment.
Postscript: This blog provides rudimentary coverage of the topic but Scripture says much more on the subject of wealth and the danger it represents, the temptation it produces, and the deceit it manufactures. We would do well to explore more closely Jesus’ teachings on the subject. I address this theme thoroughly in my book, Difficult Is the Path: Why Life as a Disciple of Jesus Is Not for the Fainthearted. It is available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.