Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and “Mammon”, which is Arameic for wealth (Mt 6:24). God and Wealth are not coworkers. In this series of ten parts, made out of texts as well as of youtube videos, I am discovering what the Bible really says about wealth and inequality. Rich guys, prepare to get uncomfortable!
When I visited South Africa, I made a sequel to God vs Wealth about poverty reduction, called God vs Poverty:
I’ve also written an E-book on this topic called God vs Inequality. You can download the whole book as a PDF right here: God vs Inequality. It contains all ten parts in the God vs Wealth series, as well as its sequal God vs Poverty and several other texts published on this blog like Should Christians Wear “Formal” in Church?,It’s Time for All Christians to Become Vegetarians and Seven Reasons Why Inequality Sucks. Everything is illustrated by some beautiful photos I captured when I was in South Africa last year (or, to be honest, random stuff I’ve taken from Google Images) and put into an amazing layout by my dear friend Andreas Lundström.
Can a Christian be rich?
Well, that depends on how you define “rich”. If being rich means earning much money, it is neither good nor bad, because you can earn much money and still give it all away to the poor and the needy – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if being rich means having much money, if it is to keep a lot of resources for one self and thereby not give it to the poor – then it is wrong.
We live in a world where 1,4 billion people live in extreme poverty, that is, on less than one dollar a day. The food produced on this planet is enough for 12 billion people – although 800 million go to bed hungry each night. Why? Because 20 % of the earth’s population consumes 80 % of the earth’s resources. We belong to that 20 percent. It is obvious that we cannot grab in the sand for resources to the poor while we sit on a lot of resources ourselves. God knows this, and the Bible is full of commandments that make it impossible for a Christian to be rich, that is, having more than necessary and thereby not giving to the poor although one is able to. The Bible says this is a sin:
“Be careful not to … show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.” (Deut 15:9)
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. ” (Ezek 16:49)
It is therefore a sin not to give to the poor and to be overfed (other translations: “having abundant food”). If we have extra resources, we much share with those who have none. This is necessary if we want to repent from our sinful life, like John the Baptist said when he was asked what one must do if one want to repent:
“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11)
According to the Bible, it is definitely wrong to have abundant food and extra resources. We shall be content with the most necessary, and not keep overflowing resources:
“But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim 6:8)
If being rich means having a lot of stuff that aren’t necessary: TV, summer house, CD:s, make up, ties… then no, a Christian cannot be rich. We shall be content with food and clothing, and if we have too much of that, we’ll share with those who don’t have food and clothing.
Greed, that is, thirst for money, is a sin. And being rich – that is, having a lot of money for oneself – is being greedy. If you are rich and aren’t greedy, you won’t be rich for so long when you see the needs of our hungry neighbours. The opposite of greed is generosity. We should be as generous as possible. If we are as generous as possible, we give away all we have until we have the most necessary left, food and clothing. However, if we are a little bit greedy, we’ll keep some things that we don’t need. Thus, having stuff that you don’t need, wealth, is being greedy. It doesn’t matter how much you have given to the poor if you still got things you don’t need left. True generosity is not measured in how much you give but in how much you have left (Luke 21:1-4).
No treasures on earth
Many (rich) Christians claim that it doesn’t matter how much money you have – what matters is how you relate to them. “It isn’t wrong if you own wealth – but it’s wrong if the wealth owns you”. As long as we don’t put the money so high in our lives we can still have plenty. Actually, there is a text in the Sermon of the Mount that contradicts this teaching:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… 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 [Mammon].” (Matt 6:19-21, 24)
We shall not store up treasures on earth. The Greek word here for treasures, thesaurous, does also mean “repository”, “store”, “chest”, “coffer”… that is, stuff on piles, gathering of things – wealth! Luke 12:21 and James 5:3 also shows us that thesaurous is a synonym for wealth. We cannot have riches on earth while we have them in heaven; we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Aramaic for “wealth” (not “money”)). And where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. This contradicts the teaching of the rich Christians who claim that we can have a lot of money without loving them. We cannot have riches and claim not to love them, because we have them in our heart no matter what we claim. And love for money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). If we want to be rich, we “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim 6:9). And rich people want to be rich. Because if they don’t want to be rich – why are they rich? “Hi, I’m rich, but I don’t want to be rich…” Maybe you shouldn’t be rich then.
We cannot serve both God and wealth, and we cannot love both God and wealth, because we “will hate the one and love the other”. Therefore, if we truly love God, we have to hate wealth. We have to hate stockpiles in a world of starving children if we are followers of Jesus. And thus, we have to get rid of our own treasures on earth. We have to sell everything we have. The Bible only mentions “Treasures in Heaven” combined with selling everything and to get rid of your treasures on earth (Matt 13:44-46, Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33).
Jesus said “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” to all of His disciples (Luke 12:33). He also said that you cannot be His disciple if you don’t get rid of your property (Luke 14:33). The first disciples did as Jesus had told them and sold everuthing they had, having all things in common (Acts 2 and 4). Many Christians say that this wasn’t something that all congregations did, but that’s a lie. For example, early church father Justin Martyr (100-165) wrote: “We who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need.” (First Apology 14). The Didaché, an early church order written in c. 90 A.D., says: “Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.’ If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last.” (Did. 4:8). Lucian, a pagan author of the 2nd century, wrote: “Christians despise all possessions and share them mutually.” (Peregrinus 13). These texts from the time of the early church (and there are plenty more) indicate that this wasn’t something that just a few Christians did in a little congregation somewhere, this was something that characterized all Christians; it was a Christian behaviour to have everything in common.
The purpose of selling everything is not to live property less but to have all property in common. When the first Christians sold everything, they placed all the money in a common pot, and then they distributed it equal to everyone. The rich Christians sold their houses along with everything else (Acts 4:34) but later on, Christians still owned houses (Acts 12:12). The difference was that they now owned the houses in common. And while the rich Christians before had houses that were too luxurious and the poor Christians had houses that were hovels, all now had houses together that were simple but good.
We shall be neither rich nor poor, as the Scripture says: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Prov 30:8-9). The aim of giving to the poor is not that we should be poor ourselves, the aim is that everyone should have equal distribution of property: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.’ ” (2 Cor 8:13-15). When we sell everything we shall give the money to the poor, and when we don’t have anything we are poor ourselves, therefore it is reasonable to keep a bit of property for oneself so that one can afford food and clothing. However, this is not being rich, this is having one’s daily bread as described in Prov 30:8, which Jesus has promised us to give as long as we serve God (Matt 6:25-34), the worker is worth his keep, therefore we should not have silver and gold when we serve the Lord for He will provide us (Matt 10:9-10). The fact that God provides us is a great reason for not living for money (Hebr 13:5).
God will give us our daily bread when we serve Him, and with that we should be content. But if we have things we don’t need – luxury, entertainment, beauty products – in a world where people are starving, then we sin. That’s why the Bible criticize rich people (Luke 6:24-25, James 5:1-6).
What about the rich people in the OT?
Some may argue that there are godly men in the Old Testament who were rich. But when we take a closer look at this, we’ll see that this doesn’t contradict the economic teachings of the NT.
God commands through the whole OT that one should give to the poor (Deut 15:7-8, Prov 14:31, Is 58:7, Jer 22:13-17). He indeed gives abundance to men who believe in Him, both in the OT and in the NT and today, but the reason is that we should have what we need, food and clothing, and that we ourselves give abundance to others (2 Cor 9:8). The purpose of receiving God’s blessing is to bless others. This was also what many in the OT did. Job had a lot of property, but he did not spend it on himself but on the poor. He said: “If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless- but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow- if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep … then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.” (Job 31:16-20, 22). Texts like Job 29:7-16 suggests that Job’s job was an aid worker – he was the one who took care of the poor and the needy, his multitude of sheep and donkeys wasn’t spend on himself but on the poor. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Actually, there are no evidence that the people in the OT that we call rich spent more resources on themselves than food and clothing. The rich people in the OT were landlords and kings. Mighty men who had many to provide, not only themselves. As I wrote above, the purpose of selling everything is having all things in common, to live in community. And this was what the rich people of the OT did. Abraham for example did not just sit on his own pile of money and cattle but he had a family plus hundreds of servants and slaves to provide. The thing was that this community of people bore his name. Likewise, the king had his court to provide. The Scripture says: “Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors [6,6 kiloliters] of fine flour and sixty cors [13,2 kiloliters] of meal, ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl.” (1 Kings 4:22-23). I’m not sure if he ate all that on his own…
However, some kings did not spend their riches just on the supply of their court but on gold, silver and luxury. When they did this, they sinned. Even kings who were called righteous were sinners. Several of the kings who did this were polygamists as well – but is that an indication of that God think polygamy is OK? He could give them riches, but they were responsible for what they did with them. And when they spent them on luxury instead of providence for their court and their people, they did not do what God wanted them to do. He said to Moses that a king shouldn’t be a polygamist nor collect much silver and gold: “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deut 17:17). Thus, a king who does this sin.
Using resources for God
Of course, resources spent on God are not wasted. This is what the text in Mark 14:3-9 wants to say to us: we shall not fear to spend a jar of perfume on Jesus – He can bring ten jars from heaven! He fed more than 5000 people with five loves of bread and two fishes – economics are no problem for God. Therefore, we should have no doubt to spend resources on the service of the Lord, just as the Jews in the OT sacrificed masses of animals to the Him. It was not a waste of resources, because God had promised them that He would let their crops sprout and feed the poor as long as they sacrificed to Him and nobody else (besides, He said several times that it is mercy He wants, not offerings, and that He doesn’t care about offerings if the people don’t care about the poor, see Prov 21:3, Hos 6:6 and Matt 12:7).
We can use resources in the service of the Lord, like Paul when he wrote letters. But this is not being rich. It’s nothing wrong when we spend resources on others or on the Lord. But when we spend resources on our selves, when we are not content with food and clothing for ourselves but want luxury, entertainment and all kinds of products that aren’t necessary, then we sin and have to repent.