P1030504In this series about Christian giving, two New Testament passages have been offered to prove that riches deceive believers and are detrimental to our spiritual growth:

  1. “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person 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 a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 19:23–24).1
  2. “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).

Based on Jesus’ teaching in these two scriptures, this question was asked: “If riches are deceitful and harmful to spiritual growth, why do churches present themselves as prosperous to those who attend?” While the reader ruminates on this question—and believe me, I’ve been ruminating on it, too—I’d like to offer another spiritual grenade that Jesus tosses into our midst concerning wealth. Before we go there, however, a little setup.

Imagine that you are one of two remaining children in your family. Your elder brother is seven years older than you. In spite of the age difference, your brother has always been caring and kind to you. As he grew older, he proved to your parents, family, and friends that he was a responsible, maturing young man. Your parents drew up a will when your elder brother was in high school and you were only ten, thinking it best to place the responsibility for distribution of their wealth in his care, in the event that they both died simultaneously. After you and your brother grew into adulthood and the difference in your ages became unimportant, your parents simply neglected to change the will. Your father died suddenly, and soon thereafter, your mother. Although you loved and missed your parents very much, you were excited about the prospect of inheriting half of their estate. The house alone was valued at $300,000. They also left around $400,000 in stocks and bonds. With half of $700,000, you could pay off your stifling debts. You could purchase a new car to replace your fifteen-year-old beater. You could put a substantial amount of money down on a new house and put nicer furnishings in it. You could buy a new TV, computer, and sound system. You could put a nice chunk of money away for your kids’ college education. When the will was read, however, you discovered to your shock that your brother inherited the entirety of your parents’ estate. Your mother, who had left the bulk of the responsibility for their finances in your father’s hands, had forgotten to change the will before she died. Nevertheless, you naturally expected your brother to divide the estate equally. But he didn’t. He kept it all to himself. He was now almost a millionaire, and you had not one dollar more. Your brother’s selfish disregard presented you with enormous challenges. Your relationship with him became strained to the breaking point, although you knew, as a Christian, you could not hate your own brother. As you struggled before the Lord in prayer, you asked Him to change your brother’s heart so he would justly divide your parent’s wealth with you.

A similar request was brought to Jesus in Luke 12:13: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”

Jesus’ response to this request may not be what you would expect. To paraphrase, He said, “No, that’s not my job”: “But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’” (vs. 14).

Surprisingly, Jesus didn’t take this man’s side.

However, what Jesus didn’t say next is as astounding as what He did say. Instead of comforting Him, Jesus warned him. “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (vs. 15). Jesus expected this man to be happy with what he possessed at that time, with no increase to it.

I don’t think Jesus made a friend that day.

According to the Lord, the man who wanted his brother to divide the inheritance with him, was being covetous. Now, that’s a new and staggering thought, especially in light of this from Paul: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). So, this supposedly wronged brother was not only covetous but also in danger of being an idolater, just because he wanted his fair share of their parents’ estate. How far these truths are from me! From my point of view, the man’s request was legitimate. What his brother had done seems uncaring and unfair. Regardless of my point of view, I am faced head on with the Lord’s truth about what has genuine value in life, and it’s not wealth: “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Well, what does one’s life consist of, then? To explain, Jesus then told this parable:

“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

One’s life consists, totally and unequivocally, of the greatest treasure available to us: God Himself. Although this rich man thought the same way almost every Western person does when they dream of retirement, Jesus tells us that if we lay up treasure for ourselves and are not rich toward God, we are fools. Regardless of the beautiful pictures the retirement articles present, if you are drawing up plans for someday living in paradise on a beach, sitting in a chair, holding a drink with a little umbrella, you have been led astray.

Riches are deceitful. Wealth is an intoxicating drug and can lead believers into spiritual poverty. Unfortunately, we rarely think and live this way. Contrary to our thinking, Jesus regarded wealth a great danger and had no respect for it whatsoever. In fact, He had such little regard for money that He gave the purse for His ministry to Judas, a thief (John 12:8). He was so poor that He told Peter to go fishing in order to obtain the money for the temple tax. Even then, in spite of His poverty, Jesus shared those two coins with Peter and didn’t keep one of them for Himself (Matthew 17:24-27). Jesus trusted His Father for His provision in a way that is astoundingly difficult for me to grasp. I must ask myself how deeply and thoroughly I have been deceived and impoverished.

1All scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.