I recently listened to a talk by American businessman Alan Barnhardt in which he described his determination that his financial success not turn into spiritual failure. He had poured over the teachings of Jesus during his college years and saw that wealth was described as a spiritual health hazard. When he took over a modest family business his solution was to set an income cap and give away everything he earned above that. The cap allowed him and his family to enjoy a decent but modest lifestyle (by US middle class standards) and to avoid the trap of greed. His company now gives away more than $1 million a month and is structured so that when it is sold the proceeds of the sale will also be given away.
I think Barnhardt was right. Read through the teachings of Jesus and wealth is described as a spiritual health hazard.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for the rich 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 the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When people hear the message about the kingdom and do not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their hearts. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to people who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to people who hear the word and understand it. They produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
These are not selective quotes. The only time Jesus has anything positive to say about wealth is when it’s shared.
Both the Love of Wealth and the Possession of Wealth are Spiritual Health Hazards
The church I grew up in took the teaching of the bible very seriously. When it came to wealth the understanding was simple: it’s not the possession of wealth but the love of wealth that is a spiritual health hazard. This allowed us to enjoy enormous wealth by global standards and relatively high standards of living by Australian standards. We bought new cars, built large homes, traveled, indulged in recreational pursuits and more. We also practised tithing, the dedication of 10% of our income to God’s service, and were regularly challenged to ensure that we were more devoted to God and God’s purposes for our life than to anything else.
As admirable as this was, I don’t think it comes close to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus certainly challenged the love of money, but he also challenged the possession of it.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus’ doesn’t say “Store up treasures on earth but don’t love them.” Rather he sets up the storing of treasure on earth and the storing of treasure in heaven as mutually exclusive. “Treasures on earth” are those things that can be stolen, that moths can eat and rust destroy – ie material goods. “Treasures in heaven” are those things that have value in the eyes of God, and in the only two places they are explained come from giving away one’s earthly treasure to the poor (Luke 12:32-34; 18:22).
To hold onto wealth is to rob the poor
Why should the possession of wealth be a problem? Jesus’ teaching draws on the Old Testament conviction that God created a world sufficient to provide for the needs of all and gave it to humankind and the creatures for their sustenance (Genesis 1:29-31). This led to a vision of world where everyone would have access to their own land, on which they could grow their own crops free from conquest, unmanageable debt, or dispossession (eg Isaiah 65:17-31).
When Israel was formed this vision was embedded in the Law – every household was given their own land, interest free loans were to be extended to everyone in need and the unpaid portion forgiven every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15). Recognising that for one reason or another some people would be forced to sell their land a year of jubilee was to be celebrated every 50 years. In this year all land was to be returned to its original owners (Leviticus 25). In the meantime those who became landless were to be left a portion of each farm to harvest for their own needs (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19).
While landlessness could exist in Israel, it was to be temporary, and the poor, that is those without land, were never to go hungry or needy (Deuteronomy 15:1-15). Poverty as hunger and marginalisation was a sign that the non-poor had failed to enact the biblical provisions.
This is something the Old Testament prophets focussed upon. It seems that the biblical provisions were routinely ignore. This left the landless – typically the widow, the fatherless child and the foreigner – destitute. This represented a complete breakdown of the covenant vision of a community marked by justice, equity and love. Thus Isaiah declares woe upon those who “add house to house and field to field” (Isaiah 5), neglecting justice for the poor – ie failing to implement the debt, jubilee and harvest requirements of the Law (Isaiah 58). Amos graphically decries the wanton luxury of wealthy women
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”
Jesus continues the prophetic critique. He declares that in his ministry the year of Jubilee is being enacted, which is good news for the poor (Luke 4:18-19). This sees him:
- assure the poor that in God’s kingdom they will be free from poverty (eg Luke 6:20-22);
- call the wealthy to start enacting the debt and Jubilee provisions of the Law (eg whenever Jesus calls a wealthy person to follow him he calls them to divest themselves of their wealth, giving it to the poor; Matthew 6:9-13 – note the prayer for forgiveness of debt and that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven; Matthew 23:23-24);
- announce God’s judgement upon those who fail to live out the biblical vision (eg Luke 6:23-24; 16:1-9);
- and form a new community committed to sharing, justice and equity (eg Luke 6:27-36);
By holding onto their wealth the rich showed they had failed to grasp the biblical vision of communities where everyone had access to their own land, was offered interest-free finance and was able to meet their needs. Indeed, social historians such as Richard Horsley have shown that first century Palestine was in the grip of a debt crisis. Increasing numbers of households found themselves unable to meet the burden of paying taxes to Rome, local authorities and the temple. They were taking loans at a heavy interest rate from the urban rich, who would then take ownership of the land when the loans were not repaid. Thus the number of landless households was growing while the urban rich were acquiring large estates. The newly landless would be reemployed in the financially precarious positions of tenant farmers and day labourers. Rather than enacting the debt, jubilee and harvest provisions of the Law, the wealthy were exploiting the poor for their own gain. And like the prophets before him Jesus was uncompromising in his critique.
This is why it was more difficult for the rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It meant repenting of their greed and exploitation of the poor. As illustrated in the story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-9) it meant returning to the poor what had been taken from them. It meant breaking up their land holdings and returning them to the landless, providing interest free loans and inviting those still landless to share in the harvest. In short it meant abandoning their wealth acquisition strategies along with their wealth. Not many were prepared to do this.
Our hearts follow after our treasure
In the saying of Luke 6 I referred to earlier, Jesus warns against storing up treasure on earth, “for where your treasure is there your heart will be also”. This is another saying that I think is widely glossed over. We tend to reverse the saying, reading it as “Wherever your heart is, that is your treasure”, allowing us to indeed store up treasures on earth as long as we don’t set our heart on them. But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus’ point is that our hearts inevitably follow after our treasure. If we have stores of material wealth we will inevitably become very attached to them. We will find it very difficult to let go of them and share with those in need. And the stories of the rich who came to Jesus bear this out (eg the rich young ruler of Luke19:18-29).
Conversely if we invest our time, energy and money in building the sort of world God desires this is what we will become emotionally attached to and will be the focus of our interest. Jesus is suggesting that right doing leads to right thinking and affection.
Financial Success and Spiritual Failure Today
We are called to the same vision of community as those in the biblical eras – ie a world where everyone has access to the sufficiency of the earth, where social systems are designed to ensure this and where those with material wealth use that wealth to see this vision realised.
Put quite simply, it is sinful for us to hold onto our wealth. Certainly Jesus’ teaching doesn’t suggest the creation of wealth is sinful. What he certainly does suggest is that the keeping of wealth is sinful. It is not acceptable to argue that the accumulation of wealth is acceptable as long as we don’t love it. According to Jesus that is near impossible to do.
Nor is wealth accumulation wise, for it will divert our intellectual and affective focus from what really matters – building the kingdom of God.
So how do I ensure my financial success doesn’t turn into spiritual failure? First, I need to stop making excuses. Like most people I like to think that I’m not wealthy, and compared to the super-rich I’m not. But if I shift my horizon of comparison from the uber-rich and my peers to the total human population of the world the reality is I am very wealthy.
Second, I have tried to consciously embrace a philosophy of sufficiency. I need a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, computer equipment to do my job and write this blog. I want my kids to have a good education, opportunities to nurture their talents, to have what other kids have. But where do I draw the line? I have no hard and fast answers. In fact I don’t think there’s any absolute line that can be drawn. Rather Sandy and I are trying to practise sufficiency. What type of home is sufficient for us to function as a family and practise hospitality? Let us be content with that. What type of transport is sufficient for us to carry on daily activities? Let us be content with that. What type of holiday is sufficient for us to recharge? What schooling is sufficient for our kids to be well enough educated that they can have adequate future opportunities? Let us be content with that.
Third, we are seeking to give away as much as we can. Our family sponsors both children and development projects in developing countries. We give on a pledge basis, ie we have monthly deductions taken from our bank account. And we are committed to increasing these pledges year by year. This year we quadrupled the amount we are giving to development projects and sponsored an additional child.
All this still leaves me far short of the radical generosity to which Christ calls me, but I believe I am making steps in the right direction. Like Alan Barnhardt I don’t want my financial success, modest as it may be in comparison to my peers, to equal spiritual failure.