Jesus and Wealth in the Book of Luke

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

How to Become a Generous Person (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts considers how the path to being a generous person in Luke 12:32-34 goes like this: God gives generously to you. You give generously to others in response. Your act of giving opens your heart, transforming you on the inside to become a generous person.

The last two passages move from the topic of provision to the topic of wealth. Although Jesus has nothing against wealth, he views wealth with suspicion. Market economies are predicated upon the generation, exchange and accumulation of privately owned wealth. This reality is so deeply embedded in many societies that the pursuit and accumulation of personal wealth has become, for many, an end in itself. But, as we have seen, Jesus does not see the accumulation of wealth as a proper end in itself. Just as one’s work (modeled upon the life of Jesus) must exhibit a profound concern for others and an unwillingness to use work-related power or authority only for self-gain, so also wealth must be used with  a deep concern for neighbors. While Luke’s second volume, Acts (see Acts and Work at www.theologyofwork.org), has more wealth-related material, his Gospel also poses significant challenges to dominant assumptions about wealth.

Concern for the Wealthy (Luke 6:25; 12:13-21; 18:18-30)

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Jesus’ first problem with wealth is that it tends to displace God in the lives of wealthy people. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Jesus wants people to recognize that their lives are defined not by what they have, but by God’s love for them and his call upon their lives. Luke expects us — and the work we do — to be fundamentally transformed by our encounters with Jesus.

Put Family Ahead of Business (Click to Watch)

Peter Schneck sold a thriving ad agency when he realized it was keeping him from being in a close relationship with his son.

But having wealth seems to make us stubbornly resistant to any transformation of life. It affords us the means to maintain the status quo, to become independent, to do things our own way. True, or eternal, life is a life of relationship with God (and other people), and wealth that displaces God leads ultimately to eternal death. As Jesus said, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:25). The wealthy may be lured away from life with God by their own wealth, a fate that the poor escape. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” says Jesus (Luke 6:20). This is not a promise of future reward, but a statement of present reality. The poor have no wealth to stand in the way of loving God. But “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:25). “Be hungry” seems a bit of an understatement for “miss eternal life by putting God outside your orbit of interest,” but that is clearly the implication. Yet perhaps there is hope even for the wretchedly rich.

The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) takes up this theme dramatically. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” too much to fit in the man’s barns. “What shall I do?” he worries, and he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. He is among those who believe that more wealth will lead to less worry about money. But before he discovers how empty his worrisome wealth is, he meets an even starker fate: death. As he prepares to die, God’s mocking question is a double-edged sword, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). One edge is the answer, “not yours,” for the wealth he counted upon to satisfy him for many years will pass instantly to someone else. The other edge cuts even deeper, and it is the answer, “yours.” You—the rich fool—will indeed get what you have prepared for yourself, a life after death without God, true death indeed. His wealth has prevented him from the need  to develop a relationship with God, exhibited by his failure to even think of using his bumper crop to provide for those in need. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Friendship with God is seen here in economic terms. God’s friends who are rich provide for God’s friends who are poor. The rich fool’s problem is that he hoards things for himself, not producing jobs or prosperity for others. This means both that he loves wealth instead of God, and that he is not generous toward the poor. We can imagine a rich person who truly loves God and holds wealth lightly, one who gives liberally to the needy, or better yet, invests money in producing genuine goods and services, employs a growing workforce, and treats people with justice and fairness in their work. In fact, we can find many such people in the Bible (for example, Joseph of Arimathea, Luke 23:50) and in the world around us. Such people are blessed both in life and afterwards. Yet we do not want to remove the sting of the parable: if it is possible to grow (economically and otherwise) with grace, it is also possible to grow only with greed; the final accounting is with God.

The Rich Ruler (Luke 18:18-30)

Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-30) points to the possibility of redemption from the grip of wealth. This man has not let his riches entirely displace his desire for God. He begins by asking Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In answer, Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments. “I have kept all these since my youth,” replies the ruler (Luke 18:21), and Jesus accepts him at his word. Yet even so, Jesus sees the corrupting influence that wealth is working on the man. So he offers him a way to end wealth’s pernicious influence. “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Anyone whose deepest desire is for God surely would leap at the invitation to daily, personal intimacy with God’s Son. But it is too late for the rich ruler — his love of wealth already exceeds his love for God. “He became sad, for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23). Jesus recognizes the symptoms and says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).

By contrast, the poor often show amazing generosity. The poor widow is able to give away everything she has for the love of God (Luke 21:1-4). This is no summary judgment by God against wealthy people, but an observation of the heavy grip of wealth’s seductive power. The people standing near Jesus and the ruler also recognize the problem and despair over whether anyone can resist the lure of wealth, though they themselves have given away everything to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28). Jesus, however, does not despair, for “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). God himself is the source of strength for the desire to love God more than wealth.

Perhaps wealth’s most insidious effect is that it can prevent us from desiring a better future. If you are wealthy, things are good as they are now. Change becomes a threat rather than an opportunity. In the case of the rich ruler, this blinds him to the possibility that life with Jesus could be incomparably wonderful. Jesus offers the rich ruler a new sense of identity and security. If he could only imagine how that would more than make up for the loss of his wealth, perhaps he could have accepted Jesus’ invitation. The punch line comes when the disciples speak of all they’ve given up and Jesus promises them the overflowing riches of belonging to the kingdom of God. Even in this age, Jesus says, they will receive “very much more” in both resources and relationships, and in the coming age, eternal life (Luke 18:29-30). This is what the rich ruler is tragically missing out on. He can see only what he will lose, not what he will gain.

The story of the rich ruler is further discussed under "Mark 10:17-31" in  Mark and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Concern for the Poor (Luke 6:17-26; 16:19-31)

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Diversified Chemical Technologies - Caring for the Poor by Investing in Business in Detroit (Click to watch)

The well-being of the rich is not Jesus’ only concern with regard to wealth. He also cares about the well-being of the poor. “Sell your possessions,” he says “and give alms [to the poor]. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). If the hoarding of wealth is harming the rich, how much more is it harming the poor?

God’s persistent concern for the poor and powerless is inherent in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-26), and indeed throughout Luke’s Gospel. But Jesus brings it to a point in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). This rich man dresses in grand clothes and lives in luxury, while he does nothing to help relieve Lazarus, who is dying of hunger and disease. Lazarus dies, but so, of course, does the rich man, which reminds us that wealth has no great power after all. The angels carry Lazarus to heaven, apparently for no reason other than his poverty (Luke 16:22), unless perhaps for a love of God that was never displaced by wealth. The rich man goes to Hades (or “hell” as the NIV translates it), apparently for no reason other than his wealth (Luke 16:23), unless perhaps for a love of wealth that drove out any room for God or other people. The implication is strong that the rich man’s duty was to care for Lazarus’ needs when he was able (Luke 16:25). Perhaps by so doing, he could have found room again in himself for a right relationship with God and avoided his miserable end. Further, like many of the rich, he cared for his family, wanting to warn them of the judgment to come, but his care for God’s wider family as revealed in the law and prophets was sadly lacking, and not even one returning from the dead could remedy that.

Generosity: The Secret to Breaking Wealth’s Grip (Luke 10:38-42; 14:12-14; 24:13-15)

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This suggests that God’s secret weapon is generosity. If by God’s power you can be generous, wealth begins to lose its grip on you. We have already seen how deeply generosity worked in the heart of the poor widow. It is much harder for the rich to be generous, but Jesus teaches how generosity might be possible for them too. One crucial path to generosity is to give to people who are too poor to pay you back. 

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or relatives or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)

Give and Give and It Will Come Back to You (Click to Watch)

Buddy Roybal is founder of Coronado Paint & Decorating located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Employees are given time off and are paid to do volunteer work in the community.

Generosity that earns favors in return is not generosity but favor-buying. Real generosity is giving when no payback is possible, and this is what is rewarded in eternity. Of course, the reward in heaven could be taken as a kind of delayed gratification rather than true generosity: you give because you expect to be paid back at the resurrection, rather than during earthly life. This seems like a wiser sort of favor-buying, but favor-buying nonetheless. Jesus’ words do not rule out interpreting generosity as eternal favor-buying, but there is a deeper, more satisfying interpretation. True generosity — the kind that doesn’t expect to be paid back in this life or the next — breaks wealth’s God-displacing grip. When you give away money, money releases its grip on you, but only if you put the money permanently beyond your reach. This is a psychological reality, as well as a material and spiritual one. Generosity allows room for God to be your God again, and this leads to the true reward of the resurrection — eternal life with God.

Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)

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The story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) also puts generosity in the context of love for God. Martha works to prepare dinner, while Mary sits and listens to Jesus. Martha asks Jesus to rebuke her sister for not helping, but instead Jesus commends Mary. Regrettably, this story has often suffered from dubious interpretations, with Martha becoming the poster child for all that is wrong with the life of busyness and distraction, or what the Medieval Church called the active or working life of Martha, which was permitted but inferior to the perfect life of contemplation or the monastery. But the story must be read against the backdrop of Luke’s Gospel as a whole, where the work of hospitality (a vital form of generosity in the ancient Near East) is one of the chief signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.[1] 

Mary and Martha are not enemies but sisters. Two sisters squabbling about household duties cannot reasonably be construed as a battle of incompatible modes of life. Martha’s generous service is not minimized by Jesus, but her worries show that her service needs to be grounded in Mary’s kind of love for him. Together, the sisters embody the truth that generosity and love of God are intertwined realities. Martha performs the kind of generosity Jesus commends in Luke 14:12-14, for he is someone who cannot pay her back in kind. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary shows that all our service ought to be grounded in a lively personal relationship with him.  Following Christ means becoming like Martha and Mary. Be generous and love God. These are mutually reinforcing, as is the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

See Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000).

The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

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The episode on the road to Emmaus is a fitting example of generosity for all Jesus’ followers. At first it seems to take Jesus’ death almost too lightly, or are we wrong to see something humorous in the two disciples instructing Jesus in the latest news? “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” they ask (Luke 24:18). One can almost imagine Cleopas adding, “Where have you been?” Jesus takes it in stride and lets them talk, but then turns the tide and makes them listen. Gradually, the light begins to dawn on them that perhaps the women’s story of the Messiah’s miraculous resurrection is not as crazy as they initially thought.

If this were all there was to the story, we might learn nothing more than that we are often “foolish…and…slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25) all that God has written. But the disciples do one thing right in this story — something so apparently insignificant it would be easy to miss. They offer hospitality to Jesus. “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over” (Luke 24:29). Jesus blesses this small act of generosity with the revelation of his presence. In the breaking of the bread they at last recognize him (Luke 24:32). When we offer hospitality, God uses it not only as a means of serving those in need of refreshment, but also as an invitation for us to experience Jesus’ presence ourselves.

Investing in Jesus’ Work (Luke 8:3; 10:7)

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The parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) teaches the importance of using money wisely. Luke provides examples in the persons of those who invest their money in Jesus’ work: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are named alongside the twelve disciples because of their financial support for Jesus’ work. It is surprising how prominently women figure in this list, because few women in the ancient world possessed wealth. Yet “these women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:3, NIV). Later, when Jesus sends out evangelists, he tells them to depend on the generosity of the people among whom they serve, “for the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7).

Give and Give and It Will Come Back to You (Click to Watch)

Buddy Roybal is founder of Coronado Paint & Decorating located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Employees are given time off and are paid to do volunteer work in the community.

What may seem surprising is that these two somewhat off-hand comments are all that Luke says about giving to what we would now recognize as the church. Compared to the unceasing concern Jesus shows for giving to the poor, he doesn’t make much of giving to the church. Nowhere, for instance, does he interpret the Old Testament tithe as belonging to the church. This is not to say that Jesus sets generosity to the poor against generosity to the church. Instead, it is a matter of emphasis. We should note that giving money is not the only means of generosity. People also participate in God’s redemptive work by creatively employing their skills, passions, relationships, and prayers.