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.
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.