Is it Wrong to be Rich?
by Sherry Kenney
As some of you know I had the privilege of completing the Certificate in Ministry program at Austin Seminary during the time I worked for the Presbyterian Foundation. One of my favorite professors was the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Rigby, a prominent contemporary theologian. Cindy stressed to her students the importance of going to scripture to learn what is important to God, rather than to look for what God thinks about what is important to us.
Even a casual reader of the Bible will conclude God has a lot to say about money. One source I consulted states that money and possessions are the subject of almost half of the thirty-eight parables, and, that in the Gospels, one in ten verses deals directly with the subject of money. Money, and its effect on us, definitely do matter to God.
Listen now to Jesus speaking to his disciples in the nineteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, verses 23 and 24. “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (In other words, impossible!) The disciples are astounded and ask “Then who can be saved?” to which Jesus answers “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” This is the word of the Lord.
So, what is Jesus saying to his disciples? The exchange takes place after a rich young man has come to Jesus and asked what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which he concedes he has done. Then Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, and give the money to the poor, and follow him. And the young man went away grieving, unable to do what Jesus had asked. The implication seems to be that the rich young man had done what was required of him to be saved, and the only thing coming between him and total commitment to God was his wealth.
Many of us are rich, certainly by world standards, and regardless of how generous we are and how much we love Jesus, would find it difficult to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor, or to the church, or to anyone else. Our wealth gives us options.
Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with a virus that doesn’t know rich from poor, the poor still get sick more often and experience higher mortality due to underlying and preexisting conditions associated with poverty. Those who are rich can shelter in place in comfortable homes and have groceries delivered – not an option in most states until recently for those on food stamps.
Although God has promised to satisfy our needs, our access to resources tends to cause us to trust in them rather than trusting in him. A friend of mine quips “if it’s a problem that can be solved by money it isn’t a problem”.
Jesus knew this about our human nature, and warned the people of his day – and warns us today in scripture through the power of the Holy Spirit – about the potential pitfalls of our riches.
In addition to distancing us from God, money can cause us to distance ourselves from each other. Few of us have a truly economically diverse circle of friends. We tend to socialize with people who can afford to take the same vacations, eat at the same restaurants, and live in the same neighborhoods we do. Typically, this division happens gradually, as we climb the socio-economic ladder, and we don’t even realize we’ve developed an attitude of entitlement and have come to expect special privileges.
Of course no one is vacationing or eating out much these days, and distancing is the law of the land, but access to the internet, another resource often missing in economically disadvantaged communities on any reliable basis, allows us to connect and socialize virtually.
Although God has promised to satisfy our needs, our access to resources tends to cause us to trust in them rather than trusting in him.
Something that has confused me about the Matthew reading in the past, and still does, is the question the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” It sounds as if they are saying everyone is rich (and so no one can be saved), definitely not the case. In fact, they go on to remind Jesus that they have left everything to follow him. I wonder if their question relates more to the righteousness of the young man. In other words, “if he’s this righteous, having obeyed all the laws and kept the commandments, and can’t enter the kingdom of heaven, then who can?”
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, in the sixth chapter at the seventeenth verse, he writes, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Paul seems to be advising we change our attitude about riches, our love of wealth, and be willing and eager to share it, rather than saying our riches themselves will necessarily keep us from a relationship with God. He seems to be asking us to be humble even in light of our financial success, and to store up good works, rather than more wealth, to “take hold of the life that really is life”. He references “those who in the present age are rich” and “the uncertainty of riches” implying that the material wealth we possess is transitory and the freedom it affords us cannot be trusted.
The reference to good works certainly doesn’t mean it is our works that save us, since we know from other scriptural references this is not the case, but rather that in giving of ourselves and our wealth we open ourselves to relationship with God and with each other, trusting that God will continue to provide and that we don’t need to hoard what we have.
So, what does this really mean for us? Is it wrong to be rich? Does having wealth keep us from entering the kingdom of heaven?
It might be helpful to ponder what the kingdom of heaven really is. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is another favorite topic for Jesus. For me, this kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God, or eternal life, or in Paul’s words “the life that really is life”, refers to a state of being in right relationship with God and with each other, a world order in which there is justice for all, where the most vulnerable are cared for and lifted up, and where no one goes without food or shelter or access to health care.
Our role as followers of Jesus Christ is to be his hands and feet, helping to bring about his kingdom here, on earth. If we’re consumed with the accumulation and protection of wealth, we cannot partner with God in this mission. Jesus warned us we could not serve both God and money.
The passage from Matthew – the one about the camel going through the eye of a needle – is one that has intrigued me since I was a child, perhaps because of the absurd image it suggests. I have friends who are very wealthy – multiple homes, trust funds, private planes – and for years when I read this I imagined Jesus was talking about them. I even felt concerned for them.
Then, at a point in time, I realized that Jesus is talking to me. I am the one for whom it is difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven, because I am so privileged. I am among the rich in this present age.
Thankfully, Jesus assured the disciples, and assures us today, that for God, all things are possible. Our current COVID-19 situation is the perfect testing ground for Paul’s instruction. We are faced with a crisis that all the money in the world has not yet been able to resolve, but we as people of faith have the opportunity to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, and to take hold of the life that really is life.
May it be so for us.