The Role of Riches in Christianity   6 comments

Are Christians required to be Poor?

Link to Medium Article

That’s been a recent discussion on my Facebook page. I’m no theologian, but I don’t think the answer is a straight-forward yes or no.

I’m a Christian who is also a libertarian, which means I absolutely believe it is a Christian duty to take care of the poor, but I reject notions that we need to steal from others through the tax code to give to the poor. In fact, I think if you’re advocating for using the tax code to fund projects for the poor, you’re violating at least three of the 10 commandments (idolatry, theft, coveting and sometimes dishonoring your parents). I try to ground my everyday ethics on Christian values. It’s a big topic that can’t possibly be covered in a single blog post, so I occasionally touch on topics that will form a larger whole.

What Does the Bible Say?

First, the Bible categorically requires that Christians help those less fortunate themselves. Second, the Bible never advocates for Christians to force non-Christians to help them do that by taking their income. Charity is always voluntary in the Bible.

But I can see where a cursory reading of the Bible might confuse some people who fixate on one phrase rather than all the words in all the books and chapters of what is a very complicated, but internally cohesive book.

A rich man asked Jesus about the requirements to inherit eternal life. Luke recounted the story in this way:

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:18–27)

You could jump to a conclusion here that Jesus considers wealth incompatible with a life of faithful discipleship. Others interpret this story to say material things and following Jesus mix about as well as oil and water. Too much focus on material blessing as a necessary indicator of God’s approval can stifle efforts at legitimate Christian disciplines, such as frugality, generosity, and financial sacrifice. I am personally no fan of prosperity theology.

I’m even less of a fan of taking Jesus’ words out of their larger context.

So, what was Jesus saying about material wealth? Is it better to be poor than to be rich? Does one have to give up everything in order to follow Jesus? Does wealth itself ever keep people out of the kingdom of God? These questions impact our personal call to discipleship and the churches’ ability to address social issues that require financial resources.

Fortunately, we are not required to found our theology of finances on out-of-context verses. Luke has a lot to say about material wealth throughout Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

Here are just a few incidents that reflect on the topic of wealth:

-the rich fool stores up material wealth to the point that his life is found forfeit by God (Luke 12:13–21).

-a rich man finds himself in Hades, while poor Lazarus looks on from comfort in the afterlife (Luke 16:19–31).

-Ananias and Sapphira die because they lie to the apostles about the status of their possessions (Acts 5:1–11).

Our possessions can certainly get in the way of the right kind of life in the kingdom of God. However, Luke does not condemn material things outright. Jesus’ own lifestyle was sparse (Luke 9:58), but there were women who contributed to the needs of His ministry through financial means (Luke 8:1–3). Joseph of Arimathea had significant social prominence and was able to afford a private tomb for Jesus at His death. He was considered “good and upright… himself waiting for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:50–53). There were also those in the early churches who used significant financial resources to support the advances of the gospel. Lydia of Thyatira, a “dealer of purple” (a lucrative enterprise that made her wealthy) was an early convert to Christianity through the ministry of the Apostle Paul and her business afforded her the financial means to provide a location for the first house church in Europe from her resources. This community became the church in Philippi Paul wrote to with much affection (Acts16:13–15, 40), among other reasons because they were so giving, even though at one point Philippi apparently experienced a recession.

Clearly, material resources were used in the early church to benefit the gospel, without requiring every individual to divest themselves of all possessions in order to be in right standing before God. And yet, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James all mention rich men in a less-than-complimentary way.

How do we reconcile these various perspectives in Luke? It’s not something that can be completely settled in a blog post. I recently read Christopher M. Hays’ Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character, a comprehensive research project seeking to reconcile passages on money and possessions that seem to be in tension throughout Luke and Acts and I offer a brief overview.

-Does Luke’s understanding of wealth require us to give up all things, or is there a legitimate place for having some (or even significant) material resources?

-Why did the early church pool its resources communally in Acts, and to what extent is that model required of us today?

-Why do we see some people condemned in the handling and keeping of their possessions, while other wealthy people are commended as being righteous?

Hays suggests the moral directive does not necessarily require individuals to divest themselves of all possessions but to renounces everything in service to God’s purposesTurning your resources over to God’s purposes might be expressed differently by individuals within varying vocations or communities. For example, there is an older woman in our church who has a lovely home that is far too big for one person. It’s always open for the various groups in our church to gather. If she were to sell her home and give the proceeds to the poor, those groups might struggle to find other places to gather — it might cost our college students, for example, money they don’t have to rent space that would be far less welcoming to visitors to their group.

The Problem of Wealth

Coming back to the story of the rich ruler, there are two things to notice. First, Jesus does not say that the rich cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He says riches can provide a significant difficulty in doing so. Second, when Jesus addresses the issue of wealth with the rich ruler, He switches from God’s universal expectations in the law to something more personally directed:

You still lack one thing.”

Apparent from his response, this rich ruler was addicted to his wealth. Jesus knew he was and He called him out for it.

Very little in Luke’s writings are coincidental. Luke immediately precedes this story with another one that talks about entrance into the kingdom of God:

People were even bringing babies to Jesus for him to touch them. When the disciples saw this, they spoke harshly to the people. But Jesus called the little ones to himself and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. I tell you the truth, anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will in no way enter into it.” (Luke 18:15–17; paraphrased)

Although I could go into a lot of reasons why little children are models for Christianity, let’s just focus on this — they are utterly dependent on resources outside of themselves for their well-being. Adults don’t generally consider dependency to be a commendable trait, especially in those who have acquired significant material resources. And yet, an inflated sense of self-sufficiency can prevent us from responding in trust to God regarding our deepest spiritual needs.

Jesus called the rich ruler to recognize an utter lack of self-sufficiency in himself before God, just as very young children naturally recognize their dependence on others. To enter the kingdom of God, the rich man needed to put his trust in God to do something that he could not do for himself, namely be spiritually healthy before God. Spiritual realities and our material possessions are often seen as separate, but significant financial resources can be among the things that isolate many from the existential concerns of a fallen world that mirror our spiritual lostness. We are insulated from the need for God’s transformative effect on our spirit if we are overly comfortable in our material ease. Thus, Jesus asked the rich man to renounce his wealth in a very specific way (full divestiture) that was specific to his need, because rendering himself destitute would redirect his trust to God instead of his wealth. The rich ruler insisted he had done perfectly well on all of the other legal requirements and that shows self-sufficiency was at the heart of his specific need, and his significant financial resources served to obfuscate his spiritual need. Jesus required a radical antidote to the most pressing spiritual need of the man.

Today’s Application

It may be a good thing that more of us are not significantly wealthy if it distracts us from the spiritual life that Jesus describes. On the other hand, I know some poor people who spend all their time worrying about where their next rent payment will come from so that they don’t have time to consider spiritual matters or be involved in spiritual ministries. They certainly don’t have the financial resources to help anyone else. We should also be grateful that there are those with spiritual sensitivity who have been blessed by God with material resources, as it can serve the churches in significant ways, as it did the early churches. There’s a local man here who has built buildings for both the Food Bank and Rescue Mission, drawing from his wealth to assist ministries for the poor. He then moved his corporate offices into an annex of the Food Bank so that the rent helps them keep the doors open. He couldn’t have done that if he’d given away all of his wealth, although he has given away significant portions of it.

The real issue is understanding that our possessions don’t belong to us entirely. Everything we have was given to us by God, Who gave us whatever we needed to earn whatever we have. We have simply been given temporary stewardship over material things that can be used in God’s service. God is also concerned our things do not create barriers to the kind of transformative work that He wants to do in our lives, either for entrance into the kingdom of God or in service within it. The kind of trust that provides an initial entry into God’s kingdom is the same kind of trust that sustains us within it.

Which leads us to pointed questions about our own possessions and God’s kingdom:

-Do I trust significantly in my own ability to take care of myself, or do I trust in God for my ultimate well-being?

-In what ways does God ask me to loosen my grip on my possessions for the kingdom of God?

-Does this require full divestiture of certain things, or reappropriation of them towards other ends?

Although few of us today live in the sort of poverty that was commonplace in Jesus’ lifetime, the questions of wealth then were the same ones we experience today. Not only should we seek to be faithful with the things we have been given, but we must develop hearts that are sensitive to the work of God in the world. That doesn’t mean Christians must be poor.

It means we must be generous with whatever God has given us, whether in our poverty or our wealth. It also means we should recognize that it is our responsibility to be generous with our resources, not our purview to force others to be generous with theirs.


Lela Markham is an Alaska-based novelist and blogger interested in a variety of topics, often from a libertarian Christian perspective.

Posted March 6, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

6 responses to “The Role of Riches in Christianity

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  1. Pingback: The Role of Riches in Christianity — aurorawatcherak – All About Writing and more

  2. Good balance in your explanation. I think the core point you make is that God entrusted us with resources and wants us to realize he has made us stewards of those resources to be used for His service.
    Comes down to the question of what is our purpose in life.

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    • Exactly. The all black and whilte thing of “God says you’re a bad Christian if you’ve been financially successful” is not Biblical. It’s what you do with your riches that matters and sometimes the best thing you can do is provide jobs that keep people from needed charity. Other times, you’re going to be called to give to charity.

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      • I have a thing about philanthropy when a person in their later years decides to give mega dollars to charity. Two things that I find myself asking.
        1. Did you treat your employees fairly or are your riches which you are donating on the backs of your employees. That makes the philanthropy look like Catholic indulgences.
        2. There is the widow’s might which was valued above the large donations with fanfare out of a pot of plenty.

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      • I can’t speak for everyone. I’ve only known a couple of millionnaires. One was an employer when I was in college, but their “wealth” was in the land under the campground where I worked. Their cash reserves were not spectacular — and that’s what killed the business eventually when the State of Alaska decided tourists deserved “free” camping. They were pretty generous with what they had, but they just didn’t have a lot.

        My father-in-law, who is no longer a millionnaire, was a lousy employer and a spindrift. It was all about him and his wife and it still is even as my husband and I are taking care of his broke-ass. He’s actually a very charming man and I like him personally, but I’m the first to admit he’s selfish and wasn’t a good father. He’s lucky my husband became a Christian rather than stayed a Catholic.

        The third millionnaire I knew was Bill Stroeker. His father was a miner here in the Fairbanks area (one of the few who made good) and he started a bank (because you always make more money mining the miners). He left that bank to Bill and in the 1980s, Bill sold it to Keybank while maintaining a VP position and holding stock. By that time he was already a millionnaire in land holdings around the area, but the sale to Keybank really increased his wealthy. I’m told by former employees of his that he was a great boss who paid a fair wage, threw picnics and gave presents at Christmas. He financed at least a couple of employees’ college educations. We were neighbors – he lived in a middle-class house, shoveled his own walks, and drove an old Studebaker truck. He never tooted his own horn, but he gave generously to community programs. He and his wife never had kids. When he died his will had a foundation set up to continue his giving, with the proviso that the donations remain anonymous. Someone sued the foundation to make the information known, which is how we know so much about his giving because he never took credit for much of what he did while he was alive.

        The person who did the suing had that attitude – she wanted to prove that he was a ruthless robber-baron, but what was found was a man who had been generous his whole life and planned to remain generous from the grave in the same way he’d always done it – quietly. He’d be so embarassed that the entire town knows now.

        The fourth one is a local construction company and land developer who was greedy when he was young — he’ll readily admit this. About 15 years ago, he got really sick and thought he would die. He says his faith (which his mother had raised him and his brother in) became suddenly important to him. After he healed he changed his tune. He liquidated quite a bit of his holdings so he could fund some big charities locally. People are aware of it, but he doesn’t get up on the stage and say “Look what I did.”

        So, I’d say it depends on the person and their personal outlook. I think sometimes all that money at the end has to do with liquidity. The business that makes you rich often isn’t liquid — you don’t get tons of cash from it, although it might build a nice house and provide a nice car. So when you die, you have to liquidate anyway because of the inheritance taxes, so you see the large donation at the end. The idea that instead of the boss living a lifestyle that is above his workers he ought to pay the workers more has its upsides and downsides. A friend who owns a company here locally says he could afford to pay his employees about $1 more per hour in this economy, but when the economy tanks again (because it always does), he’d have no cash reserves and he’d still be stuck paying them that higher wage. So he puts that “extra” away for a rainy day, which is why he was able to weather the Obama economy when some of his competitors couldn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I love the examples you shared. Yes, it comes down to a heart matter. Your last example of needing to put away for a ‘rainy day’ is astute planning because employees will only stay if their pay continues.
        Thanks for sharing.

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