Jesus calls wealth “deceptive” and said that it stifles the obedience to the word of God like thorns (Matthew 13:22). Paul says that we should be content with food and clothing and says that those who want to get rich fall into temptation and snares, which throws men into destruction and perdition (1 Timothy 6: 8-9). James takes an even harsher view: “Listen, you rich, weep and howl for all miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches will rot and your clothes devoured by moths. “(James 5: 1-2) Even Jesus lamenented the rich, while he praised the poor as blessed (Luke 6: 20-24).
The more money and gadgets wealthy people keep for themselves, the less they give to the poor by definition. You can not spend a hundred on makeup while providing the same hundred to a humanitarian organization. The Apostle John writes: “If anyone has earthly possessions and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). John the Baptist proclaimed: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the one that has none, and he who has food should do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
How does the rich Christian relate to the Bible’s radical teaching on wealth control and economic equality? Many do not feel particularly comfortable with it and try to find theological justifications why they can nevertheless be rich. An example of this is the prosperity theology, “Health and Wealth” – message, which says that Christians not only can but should be rich as a result of a strong faith. My impression is that this theology is rarer today than, for example in the 1980s, and that most Christians now agree with St. Paul that prosperity preachers “have lost the truth when they say that fear of God should lead to pofitability.” (1 Timothy 6: 5).
Instead, far more common today is what I would like to call attitude theology: the idea that it’s OK for a Christian to be rich as long as he or she has a healthy attitude to their money and not value money higher than God. “The problem is not that you own money, the problem is whether the money owns you.” When Jesus told a rich young man to sell all that he owns to give the cash to the poor (Mark 10:21) is according to this view interpreted as an advise which the rich man should follow because he had an unhealthy attitude to his wealth – the average middle class person ”with a house and a white picketed fence” need not worry about his wealth as long as he is pious.
This attitude theology is deflated by Jesus himself in his great Sermon on the Mount. The idea that it is possible to have a lot of money while remaining in God’s heart is contradicted by Jesus who says: “Gather not your treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal. Gather yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also “(Matthew 6: 19-21).
The Greek word for “treasure”, thesaros, literally means chest or storage and is a synonym for wealth. Jesus puts the material treasure on earth (“where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal”) in contrast to the intangible (or at least imperishable) treasure in heaven. His point is that we can not have a lot of wealth while having our heart in heaven, our money will inevitably stifle our fear of God as long as we keep them for ourselves. The love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and that love is maintained by all that keeps their wealth, otherwise, they would have sold it, and given the money to the poor.
The poor are often forgotten by attitude theology – the reason Jesus commands the rich young man to sell his possessions is not tied to his relationship with God per se, but that the poor should get help. Rich people spend a lot of money on unnecessary things – luxury, entertainment, beauty products and more – while poor people are suffering and dying because of lack of resources.
Compassion therefore requires sacrifice, and reduction in poverty levels requires reduction in wealth concentrations. This biblical understanding is in stark contrast to our focus upon growth of wealth through increased consumption, but is also the answer to the crisis, many find themselves in when it is clear that capitalism as we know it can not save us from climate change, inequality and war. The Church can only gain by presenting an alternative, equitable and generous culture based upon simplicity and love instead of increased profitability and competition.
Jesus’ command to sell everything was not a call to abandonment of goosa but a call to community of goods. In the Acts, we read about how the early Christians sold everything, put their money into a common pot and handed it out to all according to their needs (Acts 2: 44- 45). None of them suffered from any need (Acts 4:34), since no one was rich.
Thus, the Christian community in the West does not need to be near its end, we do not need to be suffocated by the golden thorns of secularization. We do not need to be part of the rich Western world around us. Let us revive the idea of communal ownership and simplicity and show the world that we represent an ”anti-rich” kingdom, that really takes the divine carpenter’s son’s words seriously: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide money bags for yourself that does not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. “(Luke 12:33)
This piece was originally written by me in Swedish and published in the Christian newspaper Dagen. A gentleman called Sverker Johansson took the time to translate it to English to send it to a friar friend in New York, which made it possible for me to publish it here as well.