Open Letter to a Wealthy Man
"Sell everything you have and give to the poor," said Jesus to a rich man (Luke 18:22). Jesus' demand is shocking. Is there something wrong with owning things and having money? Did Jesus make similar demands of all his disciples?
We learn answers in Luke's Gospel. Both Luke and some of his readers had reason to be especially interested in Jesus' teachings about money. Luke had come from the wealthier part of society — his literary skills reflect an education available primarily to families who could afford private schooling.
Theophilus, the recipient of Luke's Gospel, was probably among the wealthiest members of society. Luke addresses him as "most excellent," a title of honor given to officials of high rank. Luke names him as the patron of his book, implying that Theophilus was wealthy enough to own a library and underwrite publication of a book. Theophilus, who had enough faith in Jesus to finance Luke's book, had ample reason to be interested in Jesus' teachings about money. Perhaps for such reasons we see more about finances in Luke than we see in the other Gospels.
Woe to the rich
The Gospel begins with a warning for the rich: God puts down the mighty and sends away the rich; he exalts the low and fills the hungry (1:52-53). Readers soon learn that Jesus' gospel is targeted to the poor (4:18; 7:22). The rich are told to give to the poor (3:11). Peter, James, John and Levi "left everything" to be disciples of Jesus (5:11, 28).
The sermon on the plain is particularly shocking with its radical demands: The poor are to be blessed, but there is woe for the rich (6:20, 24). People should give and lend sacrificially —"to everyone who asks" (6:29-35). Though the reader might make some allowance for exaggeration or further clarification, the demands are nevertheless startling and thought-provoking. Luke did not report this so poor Christians would make demands of rich ones. Rather, he wrote this to all who had money, exhorting them to be generous.
But Jesus was not consistently critical of the rich. He ate with Levi and other tax collectors in a great feast (5:29). Levi was able to give a banquet after he had supposedly "left everything." This discrepancy between what is said and done suggests that at least some of the statements about wealth are hyperbolic or exaggerated —a possibility we must consider for other statements. When the account says they "left everything," it does not mean they abandoned everything they owned and accepted destitution. Rather, it seems to mean they quit what they were doing — they changed their profitable career to that of being a disciple.
Jesus was criticized for attending Levi's banquet —not because of the life-style of wealth, but for associating with "sinful" tax collectors (5:30; 7:34). Later, he stayed at the house of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector (19:2-5). Jesus healed the slave of a centurion who was wealthy enough to build a synagogue (7:2, 5, 10). Jesus included both the poor and the rich in his ministry.
Parable about a creditor
While Jesus was eating with Pharisees, a woman anointed his feet with perfumed oil (7:36-37). Though such perfume was expensive, Jesus was not criticized for the waste of wealth, at least not in the way that Luke reports the story, but for allowing a sinful woman to touch him (7:39). Jesus used the opportunity to tell a parable paralleling a financial matter and a spiritual principle. The creditor, in a role corresponding to God and Jesus, forgave debts, corresponding to forgiving sins (7:41-42). Later, Jesus even implied that God forgives our sins if we forgive those who owe us money (11:4). Creditors should forgive; debtors are encouraged to pay up quickly (12:58).
The parable of the creditor shows that the appropriate response to forgiveness is love (7:47) or, by example of the woman, the use of financial assets to serve Jesus. Also, the parable incidentally notes that one can gain friends by forgiving debts, a lesson also illustrated by the parable of the shrewd steward (16:1-9).
Jesus' own examples
How did Jesus himself live? His parents seem to have been lower middle class, judging by their offering of two doves (2:24) and by the occupation of carpentry. Jesus once said he had nowhere to put his head (9:58), but that seems to have been a hyperbole appropriate to an itinerant stage in his ministry right after he had been refused housing (9:52-53). Elsewhere, Jesus stayed in houses, such as that of a rich man (19:2-5) or of a woman (10:38), and ate at banquets.
Jesus himself is not shown giving money, and he turned away a man who, in effect, asked for money (12:13-15). Jesus didn't even try to determine whether the man had a legal right to the money; he simply used the occasion to warn about greed (12:15-21). Jesus gave food to the 5,000, but this was clearly not his usual practice.
When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, he told them to take no money with them (9:3; 10:4). This instruction would not have been needed if that had been the practice of the group all along. Further evidence that the group normally carried money is the fact that the disciples wondered whether they should buy food for the 5,000 (9:13). One source of their money was the women who traveled with them (8:3). When Jesus told the 12 to travel without money, it was for a short journey, and for a lesson in faith, not a normal practice. Sympathetic listeners would provide food and shelter (9:4; 10:7). For the disciples' later ministry, they were told to carry some money (22:36). A life of faith does not require a life of destitution.
Wealth — an enemy of faith
But it is clear that riches can be an enemy of faith. Jesus warned that riches could "choke" a disciple and cause him to be spiritually unfruitful (8:14). Those who exalt themselves (a tendency of the rich) are warned that they will be humbled (11:43; 14:8-11; 18:14). Jesus warned against banqueting that diverted attention from spiritual necessities, in parable (12:45), in Old Testament examples (17:27-28) and in direct admonition (21:34). When Christ returns in glory, we are not to worry about our goods (17:31). A parable described rich men as too preoccupied to attend the kingdom's inaugural banquet (14:18-19). Jesus chided Martha for allowing physical things, apparently even humble ones, to divert her attention away from discipleship (10:41).
Jesus taught that the wealthy should not trust in their wealth (12:15-21), and the poor should not have anxiety about their needs (7:22-25; 12:29). Faith is needed by both rich and poor. Life does not consist of possessions; that is not what life is about (12:15). Instead, we are to look to God each day for the physical needs of the day (11:3). If our allegiance is toward God rather than physical things (16:13), he will supply our needs (12:29-31). Day-to-day dependence on God requires faith. This is one lesson the disciples learned in their journeys without money (22:35).
At another dinner, Jesus scathingly criticized the Jewish religious leaders, including their use of money. They tithed faithfully but neglected justice (11:42a). They should have done both (11:42b) by giving alms to the poor (11:41). When they give dinners, they should invite the poor and the disadvantaged (14:12-13), reflecting the kingdom of God's invitation to the poor and disadvantaged (14:21).
"Sell your possessions," Jesus told his disciples after telling them to have faith rather than anxiety, "and give to the poor" (12:33). But we see no record of the disciples actually giving everything away. Indeed, we see later that they are told to carry a moneybag (22:36); the women spend money on spices and perfumed oils rather than giving it away (23:56), and they seem to have a house to stay in (24:33).
We must understand Jesus' command in 12:33 as an exaggeration for teaching purposes — not intended to be taken to literal extreme (much as we do not expect disciples to be perpetually girded and their lamps perpetually burning — 12:35). Jesus' point is not a requirement for poverty — it is a startling demand for faith and allegiance to God.
Treasures in heaven
Since wealth is a powerful tool of self-exaltation, it tempts anyone who has it. But as we use wealth for others instead of just for ourselves, we gain "treasure in heaven" (12:33; 18:22-23). This spiritual treasure comes from the heart (6:45). By using possessions for others, we counteract mammon's temptation and reinforce our desire to seek God's kingdom (12:34, 31). If we give generously, we will be rewarded generously (6:38) at the resurrection of the just (14:12-14).
Jesus told the rich to give to the poor. But what about gifts to God or his ministry? Such gifts are also commendable: Jesus told a healed leper to make an offering (5:14). We are to be "rich toward God" (12:16-21). Jesus commended the widow who put two pennies into the temple treasury (21:2). We should give to God "what is God's" (20:22-25). Jesus upheld the practice of tithing (11:42), but noted that it could not justify anyone (18:12). When we do only that which is commanded, we are "unworthy servants" (17:10).
A question of allegiance
Luke 16 contains several teachings about wealth, including the parable of the shrewd steward, which concludes with some sayings that imply that we should be faithful in our use of money (16:10-12). "No servant can serve two masters.... You cannot serve both God and Money" (16:13). Jesus' statement, succinctly describing the tendency of money to vie for our allegiance, challenges us to purify our priorities.
The Pharisees, "who loved money," criticized Jesus again, and Jesus said, "What is highly valued among men [in this context, money] is detestable in God's sight" (16:14-15). Anything that diverts our allegiance from God is an abomination.
Next comes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The beggar was carried "to Abraham's side"; the rich man went to torment in Hades (16:22-25). Why was he tormented? The parable associates his torment with his enjoyment of wealth in this life (16:25). This is of course not intended to be a precise prediction of the afterlife or of eternal rewards, but it is part of the picture about wealth being painted by Luke as he relates the story.
"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" said Jesus in one of his most famous sayings. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom" (18:24-25). He said this right after a rich man had refused Jesus' command to "sell everything you have" (18:22-23). "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (14:26-33). We must renounce any undue influence it might have on us; it must not diminish our allegiance to Christ.
We have already seen that extreme destitution was not the life-style of Jesus or his disciples. Jesus was making a point about allegiance, not poverty. Ifthere is a conflict between following Jesus and making or saving money, we must forsake money, or even our family or our own lives (9:23-24; 14:26), and we will be rewarded in the age to come (18:29-30).
Wise use of wealth
God, as Creator, has a prior claim to everything we might have. We have enormous debts to him, debts he has graciously forgiven. His grace toward us has been extravagant; his claims on us are likewise extravagant: everything we own. We have no reason to cling to any of it. Yet God, the giver, gives us varying amounts of wealth. What are we to do with it?
Jesus' parables often focus on a right use of possessions. Jesus criticized both stockpiling (12:16-21) and waste (15:13; 16:1). The Samaritan is praised for giving money as well as help (10:35). The faithful steward is to give food to his fellowservants (12:42). "From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (12:48). The fig tree was expected to bear fruit (13:9); the vineyard was rented out with the expectation of productivity and payment (20:9-16). Christian leaders are expected to serve others, and they will be rewarded in God's kingdom (22:25-30).
In the parable of pounds, servants were given money with which to do business. If they increased their master's money, they were rewarded (19:13-26). "To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away." [The modern equivalent of this proverb is, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Jesus was using the proverb in a novel context, that of future reward for earthly faithfulness.]
In contrast to some modern social critics of wealth, Luke only tangentially addresses the method by which people have become wealthy. John the Baptist (rather than Jesus) suggests that wealth may be ill-gotten (3:13-14); a tax collector admits the possibility but implies that he is innocent (19:8). Jesus accuses the scribes of devouring widows' houses, presumably profiting from the widows' losses (20:47). Jesus drove traders out of the temple (19:45), but there is no stated connection between their trading and wealth. The Pharisees are criticized for not giving alms and neglecting justice (11:41-42), but there is no suggestion that they became wealthy by being immoral. Perhaps the implication for the reader is that the past does not matter as much as the use of wealth in the present.
Good role models
Near the end of Luke's Gospel come two distinctly positive role models for wealthy men. First, Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, volunteered to give half his fortune to the poor and to repay with penalty if he had taken anything dishonestly. Jesus did not demand the other half of the man's goods. Instead, he said, "salvation has come to this house" (19:2-10).
Last, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who was looking for the kingdom, buried Jesus in a new tomb (23:50-53). Luke does not say he was rich, but it seems to be implied. Theophilus, or any other wealthy reader, might be able to identify with Zacchaeus and Joseph.
Christianity is not a religion exclusive to the lower class; it is a reasonable and respectable way of life that men of intelligence and wealth may accept. Jesus welcomed the poor; he also welcomed the rich, and of each he demanded allegiance and faith and obligation to serve one another.