Wealth and Provision (Matthew 6)
Jesus speaks about wealth frequently. Wealth and provision are not in themselves work, but they are often the result of work, our own or someone else’s. A central tenet of economics is that the purpose of work is to increase wealth, making this a work-related topic. Here are Jesus’ teachings on wealth and daily provision as they appear in the Sermon on the Mount.
Immediately before this request for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer, we read, "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). In God’s kingdom, receiving our daily bread is a certainty, but in our world marred by sin, daily sustenance is questionable. Although God has given humanity everything we need to produce enough food to feed everyone on earth, we have not ended hunger. Thus Jesus’ first word about wealth or daily provision is this petition, “Give us this day our daily bread." We turn to God for the bread we need.
But note that the petition is plural: Give US this day OUR daily bread. We don’t pray only for our own bread, but for bread for those who have none. As people longing to maintain right relationships with others, we take others’ need of bread into consideration: we share what we have with those who have need. If every person, business, institution, and government worked according to the purposes and principles of God’s kingdom, no one would be hungry.
Not only are we to ask God for our daily provision, but we also are warned against stockpiling material wealth and other treasures on earth:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21)
“Treasures in heaven” is not a vaporous reference to kindly thoughts in God’s heart or some such platitude. God’s kingdom will ultimately rule on earth. “Treasures in heaven” are things of worth in God’s coming kingdom, such as justice, opportunity for everyone to be productive, provision for everyone’s needs, and respect for the dignity of every person. The implication is that we would do better to invest our money in activities that transform the world, than in securities that protect our accumulated surplus.
Is it wrong, then, to have a retirement portfolio or even to care about the material things of this world for ourselves or for others? The answer is again both no and yes. The no comes from the fact that this passage is not the only one in the Bible speaking to questions of wealth and provision for those who are dependent on us. Other passages counsel prudence and forethought, such as, “Those who gather little by little will increase [wealth]” (Proverbs 13:11b), and, “The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). God guides Joseph to store up food for seven years in advance of a famine (Genesis 41:25-36), and Jesus speaks favorably in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30, which will be discussed later) of investing money. In light of the rest of Scripture, Matthew 6:19-34 cannot be a blanket prohibition.
But the yes part of the answer is a warning, summed up beautifully in verse 21, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We might expect this sentence to run the other way, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” But Jesus’ actual words are more profound. Money changes the heart more than the heart decides how to handle money. Jesus’ point is not “You tend to put your money into things that matter to you,” but, “the possessions you own will change you so that you care more about them than about other things.” Choose carefully what you own, for you will inevitably begin to value and protect it, to the potential detriment of everything else.
We may call this the “Treasure Principle,” namely, that treasure transforms. Those who invest their deepest treasure in the things of this world will find they are no longer serving God but money (Matt. 6:24). That can lead to anxiety coming from the uncertainties of money (Matt. 6:25-34). Will it be eroded by inflation? Will the stock market crash? Will the bonds default? Will the bank fail? Can I be sure that what I’ve saved will be enough to handle anything that could possibly happen?
The antidote is to invest in ways that meet people’s genuine needs. A company that provides clean water or well-made clothes may be investing in the kingdom of God, whereas an investment that depends on politically motivated subsidies, overheated housing markets, or material shortages may not. This passage in Matthew 6 is not a rule for portfolio management, but it does tell us that our commitment to the ways and means of God’s kingdom extends to how we manage such wealth as we have.
The question, then, is what kind of attention you should pay to material needs and the accumulation of resources. If you pay anxious attention, you are foolish. If you let them displace your trust in God, you are becoming unfaithful. If you pay excessive attention to them, you will become greedy. If you acquire them at the expense of other people, you are becoming the kind of oppressor against whom God’s kingdom is pitched.
How are we to discern the line between appropriate and inappropriate attention to wealth? Jesus answers, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matt. 6:33). First things first. Despite our large capacity for self-deception, this question can help us observe carefully where our treasure has put us. That will tell us something about our hearts.