One does not have to be around Christian institutions for long—whether colleges, parachurch ministries, or local congregations—before one senses the power that money and the people who have money exercise.
Whether we discover this servitude among the unscrupulous, who manipulate the masses for their personal gain, or the good-hearted and genteel, who yield to the subtle pressures of donors and the realities of budgets, we see one thing: Christians bowing before wealth and the illusory security it promises.
The hidden but real power that money exercises on Christians and in Christian organizations is so strong and pervasive that one wonders if it were not this deception Jesus spoke of when he said that in the last days false prophets would arise that would if possible “deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24:24).
The Tie That Binds?
Are Christians, like everyone else, slaves to Mammon? This is not only an empirical question (one that could be answered by observing spending patterns and totting up statistics). It is also a spiritual puzzle. For if Christians are just as bound in their relationship to wealth as their unbelieving neighbors, where is the power of the gospel?
In different ages and in different spiritual traditions, Christians have offered different answers to the problem of money and material possessions. Some have freed themselves by giving it all away and then living on the grace of God (who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”) and the generosity of the faithful (who thought it was better stewardship not to run from their possessions, but to manage them well). Others have advocated striving for a “simple lifestyle.” Still others have emphasized personal industriousness and the responsible management of its rewards.
But those who flee from money may be capitulating to its spiritual power as much as some of those who earn and live lavishly. Physical solutions (giving it away, managing it well) are only partial solutions. But so are spiritual solutions (if that means having an attitude of detachment, being “poor in spirit”) if they ignore the physical, material reality of this spiritual power. Money, wealth, Mammon—this is a spiritual power and a physical reality. It must be dealt with on both levels.
Those who affect an attitude of detachment, claiming to be beyond Mammon’s power while retaining a “normal” North American lifestyle, are probably fooling themselves. Likewise, those who emphasize divestiture, stripping themselves of the weight of unnecessary wealth and belongings in order to live a spiritually freer life, may miss their goal if they fall into the “simpler-than-thou” trap. There are ditches on both sides of the road: one is legalism, the excessive focus on behavioral standards; the other is spiritualizing, the denial of the power of the physical reality if only one’s inner attitude is right.
If the danger is both spiritual and material, it is likely that our salvation will be both spiritual and material. But for the answer to be “spiritual” does not mean that it is of our own doing. It does not mean achieving the right inner attitude through positive thinking or some other mental gymnastics. Instead, the solution is “spiritual” because it is the power of God’s Spirit that changes both our attitudes and our behavior. In Acts 2:44–45 and 4:33, the economic generosity of the early disciples is the immediate result of the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit that created the early Christian community. And the presupposition of all Paul’s writing about Christian generosity is that we walk by the Spirit and not according to the flesh.
Because it is the Spirit who leads us through the maze of money, each Christian must begin to look for answers in the Scriptures, which the Spirit inspired. There we will find certain basic themes that must be reckoned with, themes that form the skeleton of the essays that follow. In these essays, the different ethical approaches within the stream of orthodox Protestantism are represented. We have done little to minimize the tensions among them. For as followers of Christ, we have much to struggle with here.
Unfortunately, we Christians often distract ourselves by arguing about the Christian value of assorted political and economic programs. But in the beginning and in the end, each Christian must make and live by personal decisions about wealth, luxury, and the kingdom of God.
By David Neff.
Contributors: Wayne A. Grudem is associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has written The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Crossway, 1988). Kenneth S. Kantzer is a senior editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and dean of the Christianity Today Institute. He is also the Distinguished Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. David Neff is senior associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid is director of the religion department at Antillian College in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Thomas Schmidt is associate professor of religious studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He has written Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels (JSOT Press, 1987). Raymond C. Van Leeuwen is associate professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. Michigan. He has written Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25–27 (Scholars Press, 1988).
Most North American Christians try carefully to follow the teachings of Jesus, but when his words deal with the nature and use of wealth, we tend to look away from him rather than toward him for ways to explain away these passages. We look longingly to the wealthy patriarchs and kings in the Old Testament, we quote business advice from the Book of Proverbs, we scour the Gospels for rich people who do not get condemned, or we infer generously from Paul’s relative silence on the subject. In short, we interpret the plain, disturbing teaching of Jesus in the light of everything else instead of interpreting everything else in the light of Jesus’ teaching.
Believers have always struggled with the harsh words of Jesus about wealth, but it was probably in Puritan England that the seeds of today’s prosperity theology were sown. So many earnestly pious people were prospering that it was difficult not to see wealth as a reward for righteousness. Wisely, they tempered this deduction by stressing such virtues as simplicity, charity, modesty, and personal discipline. Later, John Wesley pushed the sensible formula “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” More recently, Christians appear to have concluded that two out of three is not bad.
But what of the teaching of Jesus on wealth? Is it only directed toward rich young rulers and perhaps toward the disciples for the period of his public ministry? Certainly not. The Gospels were written 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ public ministry not merely to inform about the past but also to instruct the readers of that and all subsequent generations. Jesus goes as far as to say that only those who obey his words will enter the kingdom (Matt. 7:21–27). Which of his words would he say were no longer relevant a generation (or two millennia) later? The principles behind those words clearly apply in the modern world. Let us consider some of the words themselves.
The Command To Sell All
As a familiar story repeated in three of the Gospels (Matt. 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; Luke 18:18–30), the account of the rich young ruler is a good place to begin. Jesus responds to the man’s question about eternal life by telling him to sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man refuses. Jesus goes on to explain how difficult it is for rich people to get into heaven. If one wonders whether Jesus meant “very difficult” or “impossible,” one need only attempt to insert a camel through the eye of a needle. Well-meaning attempts to shrink the camel (by the claim that Jesus said “cable” rather than “camel”) or to enlarge the needle (by the medieval legend that there was a small gate in the wall of ancient Jerusalem called “the needle’s eye”) are creative, but desperate.
The disciples react in amazement to such a rigorous demand, and Jesus responds that it is indeed impossible without God. This is clearly not a statement that the rich man will be saved anyway because God will forgive him. Such an explanation would make Jesus’ teaching up to that point meaningless. It is obvious that the disciples get the point, because they respond with a question about the adequacy of their own “leaving all.” Jesus affirms this response and adds that everyone who acts the same way will get the same reward. He does not digress into a discussion of God’s grace in spite of our disobedience: he speaks of our action, which must appropriate God’s power.
Another important passage is Luke 14:25–33, which ends with the disturbing statement, “So therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his possessions” (NASB). It is not possible to reduce the impact of this command by spiritualizing it. Jesus is not commanding followers merely to give up an ambiguous “everything” (an interpretation that, in practice, usually means “nothing”). The word for possessions here is used elsewhere in the New Testament only for material goods (e.g., Matt. 19:21; Luke 12:33). Nor does he say that one must be merely “willing” to give up all: the verb is used elsewhere in the New Testament only for actual abandonment (e.g., Mark 6:46; Acts 18:18).
There is a tendency to spiritualize the possession of wealth by claiming that “in my heart I have given it all to God.” This may follow from the justifiable position that one’s attitudes and motives matter as much to God as one’s actions. But Jesus, in contrasting God and wealth, does not allow this option of believing one way and acting another. One or the other, God or wealth, is one’s “employer” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13), and the one that is not served is hated. (The term “hatred” is intended to stress further the separation between God and material wealth. It is used similarly in Luke 14:26, 33 to show that believers must never place family or possessions on the same plane as Christ.) If his language is strong, it is because he knows “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). One’s conduct with money reveals the state of the heart.
There are numerous other troubling passages. Jesus concludes the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:21 with the warning against placing wealth above being “rich toward God.” Later in the same chapter he commands his disciples to apply this by selling possessions and giving to the poor (12:33). Luke 16:9 is a rather obscure command that believers should “make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” The command could be paraphrased “give away possessions so that when you die God will give you eternal reward.”
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), the rich man is guilty for neglecting the poor man at his gate, and it seems that his comfortable life “clothed in purple and fine linen” may have contributed to his punishment. When Jesus explains the parable of the sower (Mark 4:14–20), he describes people whose initial response to the truth is destroyed by “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.” The second phrase is particularly strong because it describes wealth as deceitful. Is this too harsh? Jesus is even more harsh on at least one occasion. When the money-loving Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ teaching about choosing between God and wealth (Luke 16:10–14), Jesus responds that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Jesus is not attacking pride here—no one exalts pride—but rather the cause of pride: the possession of money. The word abomination could not be stronger: it is used elsewhere of idolatry (e.g., see Ezra 9:11; Rom. 2:22).
In all of these passages, Jesus clearly condemns the possession of wealth.
Exceptions In The Gospels?
Since the composite effect of these passages can be devastating, we try to lessen their impact. There are several ways to do this. One is to point to examples of rich believers in the Gospels who are not condemned. Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) is cited most often. Jesus announces the salvation of this man after he pledges, “Half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” It is a mistake to read this as a justification for retaining half of one’s wealth (but how many do even that much?). Zacchaeus retains half his wealth not in order to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, but in order to channel his giving to the appropriate sources. His former victims would hardly be impressed by the news that he had given their money to the poor. His fourfold restitution would quickly deplete his resources. Zacchaeus, then, is not an example of acceptable wealth but a contrast to the rich man in the previous chapter who would not give away his wealth.
Some have pointed to Luke 22:35–36—where Jesus tells his disciples they should now carry purses, bags, and swords—to counter his previous teaching about wealth. If so, it is strange to find such a great quantity of teaching earlier in the Gospel, and addressed specifically to disciples at that. What is far more likely is that this passage describes the specific urgent situation in the garden where Jesus is “reckoned with transgressors” (22:27). The passage is difficult to understand, but there is not ample reason to consider it an exception to the teaching about possessions elsewhere in the Gospels.
The disturbing truth is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a consistently negative picture of wealth. There simply are no significant exceptions, and whatever straws one attempts to grasp are overwhelmed by the repeated and clear statements directed by Jesus to people who would follow him. The possession of wealth creates a false sense of security, the opposite of that complete dependence on God without which no one will be saved. The texts do not give a precise definition of wealth other than to suggest that any material possession has the potential to become valued more highly than God (Matt. 6:19–20; Mark 12:44). But even with a less radical definition of wealth, almost every North American Christian will feel the sting of these harsh words.
What To Do?
Every time Jesus offers an opinion about riches, it is negative. Every time he teaches about the use of wealth, he counsels disciples to give it away. For people who take the Bible seriously, and who take Jesus most seriously of all, how seriously should we respond to these teachings about wealth? It may be time for more believers to consider the most obvious and least comfortable option: to obey them—to conform our lives to the commands of our Lord rather than the other way around.
What would it mean if we at least moved in the direction of Jesus’ words? For one thing, it would put us in closer contact with Christians through the ages who have made a significant impact on the world around them. Unlike the Puritans, for example, modern believers appear to be immune to a sense of shame. Not only the more dramatic demands of discipleship, but even most of the little taboos that once marked us off from nonbelievers are now optional. The result is a moral vacuum, an absence of pressure to “witness” by our behavior in specific areas. The proper use of wealth could be an enormously influential area of witness for believers, such that the world might begin to see this Christianity responding rather than contributing to the sin of materialism.
Of course, such a commitment involves a risk. What will God do with us when we fall short of perfect obedience, as most of us will in this and other areas? If we refuse to water down the demand but then fail to do the good thing that we could do, are we making a mockery of God’s mercy? These are key questions that may suggest why we are tempted to water down the commands in the first place. Why bother to heed these teachings on wealth if in the end we fail to live up to them?
The answer lies in maintaining a continual tension, treading a razor-edge line between obedience and mercy. The demands of Jesus are there to be met. The forgiveness of Jesus is there to meet our failure. The Cross covers precisely the distance, for each of us, between what we attain and what God demands—between our striving and our arriving.
But if we refuse to move we deny the need for forgiveness, and that destroys the tension. We must hold on just as tenaciously to the words of Jesus about obedience as we do to the words of Paul about grace.
Obedience will inevitably seem to be much further away than grace, but to stand still because the goal is distant is to miss the point that discipleship is a journey. We begin at different points and we move at different rates, and that should prevent us from measuring one another’s progress. But the biblical message is clear enough about the destination.
How much of our wealth should we give away? More.
Wayne A. Grudem
All day long we are “investing” in using time, skill, energy, money, and possessions for various purposes—expecting some good return from the way we “invest” these things.
Some people make incredibly foolish choices and invest primarily in drugs, alcohol, or sex to gain immediate sensual pleasure. But they soon find these things to be cruel masters—they take all we invest and pay back destruction and early mortality, thus confirming that even physically, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Others—including many Christians—invest their whole lives in things that seem benign or even praiseworthy: physical health, travel and recreation, even education. Yet these investments—as sound as they may be—pay no eternal rewards. Others invest years and dollars in acquiring power. Whether the goal is political, corporate, or ecclesiastical power, or power over public opinion through the media or education, these people seek the same things Jesus spoke of: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them” (Matt. 20:25). Yet Jesus warns us, “It shall not be so among you” (Matt. 20:26).
Still others, like the rich fool, invest in gaining material wealth (honestly, or otherwise). But Jesus clearly taught that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Indeed, “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim. 6:7).
So what is a worthy investment for a Christian’s time, energy, and money?
Jesus calls us to invest all we have in a different goal: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth but lay 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 will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19–21). In a broad sense, even routine activities must be done with a view toward honoring God: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Specifically, this means that all of our investment of time and skill, all of our use of money and possessions, must be used in ways that God approves. It is not just a question of giving a percentage of our income (or time) to the Lord: All that we have is a gift from him, and we are merely stewards of “our” skills and possessions. Paul rightly reminds the Corinthians, “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). What skill do we have that we did not receive from God? What physical or intellectual ability? What friendship or family relationship, or job, or spiritual maturity, or moral ability? Indeed, every breath of air we draw is given from him (Acts 17:25).
Therefore, if God wished to demand 100 percent of our time and possessions, even with no reward paid us, we would have no just grounds on which to object. Yet God has done much more: He has promised us rewards—a “return” on our investments—both in this life and in the life to come if we invest our time and possessions in ways pleasing to him. This applies to our work, our use of possessions, and our expectations for heavenly rewards.
Investing Time And Strength
Even among Christians, few go to work on Monday morning thinking they are going to work for the Lord. But that is what Paul commands: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24; compare Eph. 6:6–7). Our daily work is pleasing to God, and it is rendering service to him—consistent with the fact that God gave work to Adam and Eve before there was any sin in the world: They were to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over everything on it (Gen. 1:28), and they were to “till” and “keep” the Garden (Gen. 2:15). So work in itself is something “very good” in God’s eyes (Gen. 1:31). Though there is pain in work because of the Fall (Gen. 3:17–19), work is still a blessing from God and something we can thank him for.
Should we work to become wealthy? If we do our work faithfully, God may or may not grant us wealth as a result. “In all toil there is profit” (Prov. 14:23), but in some toil there is more profit than in others. Nevertheless, our goal must never be to become wealthy: “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be wise enough to desist” (Prov. 23:4). We cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24). Paul’s warning against striving to become rich is strong and needs to be memorized by followers of a misleading “health and wealth gospel”: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:9–10).
We sometimes value jobs as the world does: more status and more pay signify more importance. But our goal in our work should not be acquiring wealth or status, but rather being faithful to God whether our tasks be (in the world’s sight) large or small. This lesson is in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30): Each servant who was faithful with what he had been given received his master’s commendation, “Well done … you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much” (Matt. 25:21, 23). That commendation is what we, too, should seek—after all, what is earthly wealth or fame compared to the “Well done” of the Lord of heaven and earth?
This should give us satisfaction no matter what kind of work we do. We do it for him! “Whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether slave or free” (Eph. 6:8). Often our work will involve earning a living (1 Thess. 4:11–12; 2 Thess. 3:6–12). For many Christians it will involve caring for children and households (Prov. 31:27–31; 1 Tim. 5:10, 14). At other times it will involve work to help the church (1 Peter 4:10). These jobs are to be done trusting God for the appropriate reward.
And there will be reward for doing our work as to the Lord, reward far greater than earthly wealth. Paul reminds managers to treat those under their authority “justly and fairly, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1), thus suggesting God expects fair and thoughtful management practice. On the other hand, those who work hard and are not rewarded adequately in this life are called to trust that God will be true to his Word, and will ultimately reward “whatever good anyone does” (Eph. 6:8). Scripture says, “From the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24). Even if we “do right and suffer for it,” and “take it patiently,” we “have God’s approval” (1 Peter 2:20), and he will not forget.
Investing Money And Possessions
Not only our time and effort, but also the money and goods that God has given us must be “invested” in ways that will bring God’s approval and fulfill his purposes.
Does this mean we have to give all that we have to the church, or to the poor? Though Jesus asked that of the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:21), he did not ask it of others who came to him, but rather spoke to each person in terms of the particular area of resistance to his lordship that person needed most to hear (compare John 4:16). Rather than giving away all that we have, we are required by Scripture to develop and use our resources as “faithful stewards,” just as those who were faithful in the parable of the talents and the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11–27; compare 1 Cor. 4:1–2; 1 Peter 4:10). We must do both: use some resources in ways pleasing to God, and give away some resources in ways that please him. Both using and giving away are investments in the work of God.
What uses of possessions are pleasing to God? First, God is glorified when we simply enjoy—with thanksgiving to him—the abundant resources of his good earth (Gen. 1:26, 28; Acts 2:46; 14:16–17). To command people to abstain from “foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving” is to give in to “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1, 3). In fact, Paul says that God “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Thus, we can glorify God by using the products of the earth with joy and thanksgiving.
Similarly, it is right to use some of our resources to increase the productivity of the earth—whether through planting more crops, developing more effective computers, or building more efficient factories. This is fulfilling God’s purpose for us to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over it, thus making it useful and productive for our benefit as well as his glory. An unbeliever may produce material goods simply to increase his or her own wealth and power, but a Christian can build the same kind of factory or invest in the same kind of computer company with a desire to please God and be a faithful steward. One investor is serving money; the other, God.
But while investing in such material productivity is good, the emphasis of the New Testament is clearly on investing in something better: “spiritual productivity.” We invest in spiritual productivity when we give generously to the work of the church (1 Tim. 5:17–18; Gal. 6:6; 1 Cor. 9:3–14; Phil. 4:15–18). This is directly helping the work of God’s kingdom, because it is building on the foundation of the church with “gold, silver, precious stones,” which will be tested with fire on the day the Lord returns (1 Cor. 3:12–13). This testing will disclose whether our giving has been for the Lord’s glory rather than our own, and has been done in methods consistent with scriptural teachings.
One of the most common New Testament ways of investing for spiritual productivity is giving to the needs of others. Though such giving involves physical, material goods, it has rich spiritual implications: We show Christ’s love through such gifts, for he says, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And we evidence lack of Christ’s love within us when we fail to meet the needs of other Christians (1 John 3:17). In giving food and drink to one of the least of Christ’s brothers, we are ministering to Christ himself (Matt. 25:40).
Paul clearly demonstrated this concern by devoting the second half of his third missionary journey to taking up a collection for the needy Christians in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25–27; 2 Cor. 8–9). In fact, he seemed to think that Gentile Christians in Greece, though separated from the Jerusalem Christians by culture and distance, had an obligation to help fellow Christians in need: “They ought to be of service to them in material blessings” (Rom. 15:27). Here Paul specifies no 10 percent limit, but emphasizes generous giving, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6), and “he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:5). We are to give until the need is met (2 Cor. 8:15; compare 1 John 3:17; Matt. 25:36–40). In all this we imitate—and thereby glorify—our Lord Jesus Christ, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Though the New Testament emphasis is on giving to the needs of other Christians, it is not exclusively so: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). When we give to help unbelievers, even our enemies, we glorify God because we reflect his own character of mercy and love: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36).
Scripture tells us that those who are “rich in this world”—and that includes most Christians in modern industrialized societies—have a special obligation to invest in heavenly reward by giving to the needs of others. When Paul gives specific instructions for Christians who are “the rich in this world” (1 Tim. 6:17–19), he does not say that it is wrong for them to be rich, but he does say they are to be especially generous in their giving. They are “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.”
Trusting God For Rewards
Scripture motivates believers to give by referring to the rewards of generosity: we can trust God to provide us “enough” in this life, and “abundance” in heaven if we obey him. But the notion of reward carries with it a spiritual perspective. Paul reminds the Philippians, who have sent a generous gift to him, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). He reminds the Corinthians, as he encourages generous giving, that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8; compare Matt. 6:28–30; 1 Tim. 6:6–8; Heb. 13:5).
Often such provision comes in the fellowship of the church: Jesus, knowing of the sharing of relationships and possessions that will occur in the church, promises that whatever has been relinquished for his sake will be abundantly replaced: “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30). In this age, we can trust God, not to make us wealthy (the New Covenant never promises that), but to supply all our needs.
But what will happen in the age to come? Here I think it will surprise almost all modern Christians (at least in the United States) to find how often the New Testament motivation for giving is promise of greater heavenly reward. This is why Jesus reminds us not to lay up treasures on earth, but tells us, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” The reason? “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19–20). When those who are rich in this world are generous in their giving, they are thereby “laying up for themselves [literally, ‘treasuring up for themselves’] a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:18–19).
In fact, the New Testament will amaze us if we begin to count the number of times it emphasizes making sacrifices for the Lord’s work here in order seek a greater heavenly reward. In many passages the idea of “investment” in God’s work is closely connected to the clear teaching that God will ultimately and abundantly repay that investment: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). We are to invite those who cannot repay us for dinner—“the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”—and Jesus tells us “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13–14). And in our daily work, we know “that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free” (Eph. 6:8). Paul mentioned reward in explaining how he delighted to preach the gospel without charge (1 Cor. 9:17–18), and many other verses have similar themes (Matt. 19:21; Luke 6:22–23; 1 Cor. 3:8; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:9–10; Eph. 6:7–8; Heb. 10:34–35; 1 Peter 1:4; 2 John 8; Rev. 11:18).
So the New Testament does not teach us simply to give away possessions for the sake of giving them away or appearing virtuous. Nor does it encourage us to adopt a “simple lifestyle” because simplicity has merit in itself. Rather, all of these commands are put in the context of glorifying God and furthering the work of his kingdom, and of laying up treasure in heaven and increasing our heavenly reward.
So the question is not “Shall we adopt a simple lifestyle?” nor is the question “Will God make us wealthy?” For those questions are too exclusively focused on this world.
An overemphasis on a simple lifestyle can burden us with false guilt, and can lead us to be poor stewards. Unnecessary self-denial may actually hide our talents (Matt. 25:25). We spend so much time caring for basic necessities of life that we become less productive in the work God has called us to do, and therefore far less able to give to the needs of others.
On the other hand, an overemphasis on becoming wealthy will lead us to the twin sins of selfishness and wastefulness, and we will disregard the needs of others and the church, hinder the work of the kingdom, and greatly diminish our heavenly reward. In addition, both the simple lifestyle and the wealth emphases neglect the spiritual, heavenly dimension that is so crucial to the Bible’s teachings on our possessions.
The more important question we must ask ourselves is this: In all our use of time and wealth, are we really investing in ways that we know are pleasing to God, so that we are continually, in all our actions, laying up treasures in heaven?
Perhaps the solution to our excessive materialism is worship. Perhaps we need to have our investment strategy changed through experiencing what greater joy there is in fellowship with the Lord and in service for him.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8).
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen
The Bible calls the splendid world that came from God’s hand very good, but it forbids us to idolize its goodness or to let it steal our hearts. God created the cosmos as the theater of his glory, and man and woman as his noble image on its stage. From monarch butterfly to great blue whale, from quark to spiral nebula, the majesty and wonder of God’s creatures show forth his boundless wealth and wisdom. In the holy temple of Creation, God deigned to dwell with Adam and Eve, to walk with them in the cool of the day. But for all its goodness, the creation is not God, nor is our love for any created good to disinherit our love for him. From the very beginning, God set limits to our earthly loves, but bade us to love him boundlessly with heart and soul and strength.
God created the world for shalom, for “peace and prosperity.” Shalom (and its companion righteousness) implies harmony: “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”; every man is “under his vine and fig tree.” Shalom means peace between God and humankind, among tribes and nations, among generations and neighbors, spouses and families. The place of the widow and orphan is respected. Eve’s children are at home in the world and with one another. The riches of creation—mineral, vegetable, animal, and cultural—and the wealth of nations are not at war with one another. The prosperity of the sons of Adam is not purchased by the rape of creation.
The Problem Of “Too Much”
For Adam and Eve, the continued experience of Creation’s goodness depended on their submission to the order that God established in the beginning. In Genesis 1, God set limits for all his creatures by separations and distinctions: light from dark, waters from waters, earth from water. Each plant and animal was created “according to its kind.” The church father Irenaeus rightly took this phrase, seen in the larger context of Scripture, to mean that “to the whole world [God] has given laws, that each one keep to his place and overstep not the bound laid down by God, each accomplishing the work marked out for him.” In the Bible, such bounds are most powerfully represented by God’s limiting command to the sea: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here your proud waves will be stayed” (Job 38:11).
The mysterious thing is that only humans can overstep the bounds laid down by God. By an act of trespass, humans violate their creaturely limits and mangle the good by ripping it from its proper place. The story of the Fall illustrates this concretely. Eve was tempted by good. God had created nothing bad or evil of itself. “The woman saw that the tree was good.” In Hebrew this line exactly imitates that glad refrain of Genesis 1, “And God saw that it was good.”
But of all the good trees, God had placed one off limits. Seduced by the serpent, Eve tasted the fruit that did not belong to her. Sin, we might say, is an attempt to take God’s place as Creator by redrawing the lines and limits of creation to suit our will rather than his. So, too, a married man may be tempted, not by evil per se, but by the beauty and grace of his neighbor’s wife. She may be very good, but she is not good for him, because for marriage God has sharply etched the channels in which sexual love may flow (Prov. 5:15–19). Sin wants freedom from limits, forbidden acts without consequences. But God did not make his world this way. When we try to play Creator, to redraw the boundaries, when we trespass the limits, we die a little—or a lot—like a fish out of water. This is true not only for individuals, but for nations and cultures (Dan. 4:26–27).
Against this background of Creation and Fall, we can understand two things that apply to material wealth. First, we are invited to enjoy the goodness of creation and to thank God for it. Second, the Creator’s design and the Redeemer’s purpose set limits to our enjoyment of his gifts. The biblical phrase, “righteousness and justice,” sums up both the right order for wealth and the limits by which alone the good remains good.
This twofold perspective on wealth is clearly set out in 1 Timothy 6:
Godliness with contentment is great gain.… If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap.… For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.…
But you, man of God, flee from all this and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love.… Command those who are right in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share, (NIV)
Scripture never calls us to deny ourselves the enjoyment of creation, as if some things in the world—the body or wealth or art, perhaps—were bad in and of themselves. But the Creator forbids that anything usurp his place in our hearts, and he does limit us to the goods that are proper to us: food, not poison; marriage, not free love; the truth, not false witness; and wealth, not injustice. Righteous love of our neighbor sets limits to our acquisition of wealth. And the ecological order of creation sets righteous limits to the technological wealth of nations.
Sometimes the Book of Proverbs is mined for wisdom concerning wealth and poverty, especially when it appears we have overstepped those limits. But the message of this book is anything but a simplistic gospel of health and wealth. Proverbs requires Spirit-filled wisdom to understand and use its many-faceted sayings rightly: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Prov. 26:7).
One group of biblical proverbs does point out a fundamental connection between godly righteousness and wealth, while another group highlights the connection between wickedness and poverty. Often the two contrasting thoughts appear in a single two-line verse: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (10:3). “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure, but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” (15:6). “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous” (13:21). Laziness is a type of wickedness: “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty” (28:19). Other, related proverbs simply seem to say that wealth is good and poverty bad: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin” (18:10–11). If we had only these proverbs and others like them, we might think that if you are godly, you must be rich; if you are poor, you must be bad. This is what Job’s “friends” thought about him. They were wrong.
We need to realize that proverbs, including biblical ones, are true with regard to the particular situation which they fit. This is not “situationalism”; it is just the nature of proverbs. What the German poet Goethe said of languages is better said of proverbs: “He who knows one, knows none.” For example, of most marriages we might say, “Birds of a feather flock together.” But there are some lovely couples of whom we declare, “Opposites attract.” To one of our sons we usually say, “Look before you leap!” But his brother needs to be encouraged with “He who hesitates is lost!” Do Americans believe that “Money talks” or that “Money isn’t everything”?
Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” This is the usual advice in the Bible for dealing with fools. (Compare the saying of Jesus, “Do not throw your pearls before swine.”) But the next verse in Proverbs says, “Answer a fool according to his folly.” The wise person will know which proverb fits.
Another group of biblical proverbs shows that the good and godly can be poor, while the wicked prosper. It is not always true in this life that “the blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it” (10:22). Proverbs knows that “violent men get riches” (11:16), that “the fallow ground of the poor yields much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (13:23), and that “there are those whose teeth are swords, whose teeth are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among men” (30:14).
In the context of a fallen world, wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. It all hangs on whether wealth stays within the boundaries carved out by righteousness and justice, whether wealth serves the kingdom of God or the kingdom of the Self. Proverbs is very plain on this. “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it” (15:16). “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is perverse in his ways” (28:6). In Scripture the choice between righteousness with poverty and wealth with injustice is clear. Jesus himself put our earthly needs and anxieties in the context of righteousness: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33).
Both Old and New Testaments insist on the responsibility of the rich for the poor, and that failure to care for the poor leads to God’s wrath, but kindness to his blessing. On this topic Proverbs echoes the Law and the Prophets: “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge” (29:7). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (11:4). “He who mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished” (17:5). “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (19:17). “He who oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to want” (22:16). “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard” (21:13).
Enjoying The Bounty
These biblical perspectives on creational norms and limits to wealth are accentuated and deepened by the Fall. In our present world, the boundaries are massively eroded; God’s limits are trampled on. And so troubles multiply, for we reap what we sow. Temporary prosperity is too often bought by violating the ecological limits of creation. The rich often build their kingdoms at the expense of God’s kingdom, which includes the poor (Matt. 25:35–45; Lev. 25). People and nations spend and borrow beyond the limits of economic common sense.
But the Fall is not the last word. Our Redeemer came to save sinners and the creation, to restore them and it to righteousness—which includes economic affairs. So it is that Paul works out the practical implications of the Cross for financial stewardship. He writes to the Corinthians with inspired balance concerning his collection for the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. The basis of Paul’s appeal is this: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV). This is “the mind of Christ,” which ought also to be in us because we are his, bought with his blood and anointed with his Spirit.
God’s kingdom has not fully come with goodness and justice for all. The bitter words of Ecclesiastes still echo in our minds:
I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.… Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them. (Eccles. 3:16; 4:1)
It is in this sad context that we are called to follow Christ, to “invest in the kingdom of God,” to be stewards of his good earth, until he comes again to wipe away every tear, to make all things new.
And yet, he invites us to enjoy his bounty even now (Eccles. 9:7–10). In this world of woe, the enjoyment of creation remains an amazing grace of God, pure and simple. It testifies to our Maker’s goodness and love. He invites us, in the earthly bread and wine, to taste and see that the Lord is good. He invites us in the bodily joy of marriage to recognize the mysterious love of Christ and his bride.
For that wedding feast we still wait.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid
Traditional (or shall we say popular) stewardship theology in many contemporary churches runs something like this: Pay a tithe of your earnings to take care of the ministry and give a generous offering to take care of the other basic necessities of the church. Thus, biblical stewardship for some Christians is a relationship with the financial structure of the church. For those of us who grow up in a free-market economic system where individualism is an ideal, what we do with the rest of our wealth has nothing to do with Christian stewardship.
The New Testament, however, teaches a holistic view where stewardship involves all one has and does. This wider view of stewardship leads many to think the New Testament teaches us not to be wealthy, but it does not do that. Nowhere do we find a call for the church to be poor and to divest itself of wealth. There is, however, an overriding concern regarding the wealthy. They are presented in a negative light, in part because of their stewardship. That is, what they do with their wealth, not wealth per se, is condemned. Of course, wealthy people are strongly chastised for their flagrant oppression and injustice, but in many instances it is simply their failure to participate in the desacralization of wealth by sharing it. Wealth is not necessarily bad, but a failure to share it with those in need is always wrong.
This biblical teaching is clear in the most precise New Testament passage dealing with Christian stewardship. Paul writing to the Corinthian church makes a radical call for equality. He pastorally pleads, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:14–15).
This classic passage on stewardship is a surprising text for an urban, Western, Greek church. We usually associate such language with the rural Palestinian or poor urban Jerusalem church. But this radical call for equality was not based on time and space. It was part of the transformed relationship God expected of all his people.
The earliest church realized that what the believers possessed came by the grace of God and must be therefore used in accordance with his character—character grounded in sharing. Thus, Paul could write to the Philippian church, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). He then followed this with the example of Jesus Christ, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but shared himself with humanity, even to the death on the cross (vv. 5–8).
The theme of sharing one’s wealth as part of one’s stewardship, therefore, flows through the entire New Testament. However, it is more dominant in the Synoptics-Acts and James due to their Palestine provenance. And it is mostly in these writings that we find out what happens when this type of holistic stewardship is either neglected or followed.
The Wages Of Selfishness
There are two clear negative outcomes for those who fail to participate in this lifestyle: condemnation and failure to share in the final eternal rewards of the believer.
Two parables illustrate the condemnation in store for those who do not share from their bounty: the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), and the rich fool (Luke 12:16–21). In both of these parables Jesus is not reported as being concerned with how the wealthy men obtain their riches. He is not concerned in these parables as to whether they exploited their workers or even Lazarus at the gate. The overriding concern of Jesus was what they did with their wealth and surplus possessions. The rich man in Luke 16 had no concern for Lazarus. The rich fool thought only of himself. They are condemned for not sharing their abundance with those who lack the basic necessities and for thinking only of themselves.
But there is also another subtle area for condemnation. Besides not sharing, there seems to be an implicit condemnation of the luxurious living of the wealthy. It is possible that the detailed description of the rich man in the story with Lazarus (he was “clothed in purple and fine linen and … feasted sumptuously every day” [Luke 16:19]) was intended to denounce such a lifestyle.
This seems to be most definitely the case in the Epistle of James where in 2:3 the man with “gold rings and fine clothing” is viewed negatively (v. 6) and in 5:2–3 where all these luxury items are cast upon the dust heap of eternity. In contrast to such, Jesus draws attention to John the Baptist’s life of simplicity, contrasting it with the lifestyle of the wealthy, and thus implicitly commends his simplicity (see Luke 7:25).
The biblical data, therefore, seems to recognize that “fine clothing,” “gold rings,” and “sumptuous meals”—all symbols of luxury—might hamper the call to Christian social equalization. That is, such symbols have the power to separate people who otherwise might enjoy Christian fellowship.
Beyond the condemnation for failing to practice this radical stewardship is the loss of one’s final reward. Conversely, those who hoard their possessions will receive eternal punishment. Again the story of the rich fool illustrates this point. He was attempting to “lay up treasures for himself” (Luke 12:21) in this life, but he lost out on the eternal treasures.
Even more forceful is the actual story of the rich young ruler who desired to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22). This is not an isolated teaching. In Luke 12:32–34, Jesus demands selling one’s possessions and giving alms as a prerequisite for heavenly treasures.
But even more sad than the loss of such treasure is the final destruction that will befall the wealthy who fail to share with the poor. It is interesting to note that according to the prophet Ezekiel, the reason why God destroyed Sodom was because she refused to share with the poor (16:49–50).
And as it was in the case of Sodom, so it will be for Christians who fail to participate in this call to be stewards. This is the basic point of James’s diatribe against the rich and his prophecy of their ultimate destruction (James 1:9–11; 5:1–6). It is the natural result of those who spurn the call to share.
The Rewards Of Sharing
For those who are willing to participate in the lifestyle of holistic stewardship, however, there are clear positive outcomes. Those who willingly share are singled out and commended for their generosity. For example, Paul praised the Macedonian believers because “they gave according to their means … and beyond their means, of their own free will” (2 Cor. 8:3).
But it is important to note that the believers did not demonstrate their stewardship to obtain praise. Instead, they realized that sharing and caring for the needy and marginal was “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). It was a demonstration of God’s love abiding in them (John 3:17). It was a proof of discipleship.
This point of discipleship should not be quickly passed over. A key criterion for becoming a disciple is sharing. Before the rich young ruler could come and follow Jesus he had to “sell … and distribute to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Without doing that, he could not be part of a group that was a sharing community. Jesus and his disciples shared a common purse (John 12:6). The women traveling with Jesus shared their financial resources with Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1–3; Mark 15:40–41). There was oneness in sharing, without which they could not be Christ’s disciples.
An automatic result of this oneness is that it would convince the world to believe in Jesus (John 17:20–23). The evangelistic impact of this radical stewardship in the early church is very clear in the Book of Acts where we find the repeated phrases, “and the Lord added to their numbers day by day those who were being saved” (2:47); “and with great power the apostles gave their testimony” (4:33); “and the word of God increased” (6:7).
All these reports of the evangelistic success of the church appear in the context of the sharing practiced by the early church. It was not a failed experiment, as some have suggested, but was a vital part of their discipleship, which had a profound impact upon non-Christians. It was part of what Ronald Sider calls, in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a “redeemed economic relationship where there was unlimited economic liability for, and total economic availability to, the other members of Christ’s body.”
The greatest result of such a Christian lifestyle is the ultimate reward of salvation. Zacchaeus’s redeemed lifestyle elicited the words from Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). He was no longer among the rich upon whom Christ had pronounced his woes (see Luke 6:24). He was now a disciple of Christ to whom salvation had come.
It is in this context that we must understand the dialogue with Jesus when he was asked, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). For Jesus, whoever was willing to give up all for the kingdom—whoever was willing to be generous toward those who suffer for lack of the basic necessities—these will receive abundantly more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life (Luke 18:29–30).
The pattern of the New Testament church, then, was one in which those who had abundance would supply the want of those who lack “that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:14). It was a pattern in which the haves and the have-nots experienced social and spiritual equality. It was part of their call to be Christian stewards.
Kenneth S. Kantzer
Self-indulgent materialism has seized most of Western civilization in an iron grip. In these closing years of the twentieth century I see no real sign of any lessening of its tenacious hold upon our society. But extremes breed their opposites, and here and there in the West we hear a lonely voice raised in defense of a world-denying asceticism.
Needless to say, the self-indulgent hedonistic variety has penetrated the nominal Christian church far more than has self-denying asceticism. But what many do not see is that both—and both equally—are the very antithesis of the way of life taught by our Lord and set forth in the Bible—in both Old and New Testaments. The self-indulgent person seeks for himself all the pleasure he can get. He—not God—is the center of his own life. And this is the essence of idolatry. The ascetic eschews vain pleasures and seeks to build the inner core of his own soul. And for him, too, he—not God—is the center of his own life. And that also is idolatry.
The Christian ideal is neither the one who seeks pleasures nor the one who denies pleasures. It is rather the one who seeks first God and his righteousness. It is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. This is the key to the whole of biblical ethics (that is what our Lord said!), including the issues of wealth and poverty. Into this theme every passage of the Bible may be placed when it is properly interpreted (and I do not mean explained away).
Suiting Our Desires
To love God and neighbor is the key to a Christian understanding of wealth and poverty. Yet, in a fallen world, the implications of this biblical principle become exceedingly complex. Unfortunately, we tend almost irresistibly to make biblical instruction say what we would like it to say for our own personal comfort and selfish enjoyment. We seize on certain aspects of biblical teaching that suit our desires and choose to ignore or misinterpret the rest. In practice this completely negates the clear teaching of Scripture taken as a whole.
For example, the Book of Proverbs—as well as much of the Old and New Testaments—teaches that wealth is the gift of God and a reward for obedience. Everything that exists was created by God for our good and is intended as a blessing. Even in our fallen world, God graciously gives to us good things to enjoy and graciously rewards us when we live according to the principles he built into his creation. For example, the hard-working, prudent farmer generally has better crops and makes more money. That is a true proverb intending to set forth in pithy language one isolated aspect of reality. It reflects a valid aspect of the created order and is just as true for unbelievers as for believers. Every farmer ought to be industrious and prudent. And his industry and prudence will usually have their appropriate reward. But God has not promised that locusts will never destroy the crops of either believers or unbelievers. A proverb is by no means a universal promise.
Wealth, therefore, is good, comes as a gift from God, and is often a reward for those who live in accordance with the principles he has built into the world. Yet the Bible does not teach that material wealth will come necessarily or always. God loves us too much for that. In a fallen world, it is not always best for us that God should give us material rewards; hence, because he loves us, he withholds them for our good. We plant, but drought and hail and the cankerworm destroy the crop. God permits this because he knows it is best for us.
Moreover, God calls each of his children to a particular role in life. He then gives to each what we need to fulfill this calling most effectively (or withholds what would interfere with our performance). Yet he has also promised that whatever we lose for the sake of the kingdom, he will make up to us either in this life or the next. So we do not ultimately lose by being obedient to his call even when that call demands some sacrifice or even a sacrifice of our life (as is illustrated in the life of our Lord; see Phil. 2:5–11).
Of course, we must not think of God’s promises to reward us merely in terms of earthly pleasures delayed until we reach heaven. There is no suggestion in the Bible of a Muslim-like heaven of sumptuous banquets served by voluptuous houris. The heavenly rewards promised in the Bible consist of goods that are truly good in God’s sight (and, therefore, should be in our own also). They consist of a deepened relationship with God and, perhaps, with others, in the moral and spiritual character that we have formed and in the special joy that we have in serving God and pleasing him. Our reward is God himself, and is rooted in our love for him.
Most important, wealth must never become our idol. This is the point our Lord stressed in a most radical fashion—so radically, in fact, that we try to dismiss it by ignoring or misinterpreting the message. But the teaching remains: We must give up all our wealth. We must own nothing. We are only stewards of what God owns. The point is not that we must merely be willing to give it up and then live like everyone else. Rather, we must actually give it up. We are to abandon completely any claims to the wealth of this world. It is not our own and we do not have ultimate control over it.
Therefore, while wealth is a gift of God and intended to be a blessing, it is never a blessing if we keep it for ourselves. As Saint Francis taught us long ago, it is only in giving it away that we can receive it as a blessing. Even then it does not prove to be a blessing unless as God’s stewards we use it in accordance with the limitations and instruction that God has given us. Of course, it must not be used selfishly, for it does not belong to us. Rather, it must be allocated by us prudently for the good of all of God’s creation—especially for the care of the poor and needy. That is God’s means to weld us together and to bring within the body of Christ a social and spiritual equality.
Thus, wealth is good and created by God for our good. But it is like a stick of dynamite. It may be used to build bridges or it may be used to destroy life. All wealth must be used within the moral controls for good that God has built into the universe and in which he has instructed the Christian. When these are disregarded, wealth becomes, in fact, a curse.
Wants And Needs
For this reason it is especially important that we avoid luxury. But, of course, we have to ask, What is luxury? What one person considers luxury, another reckons as essential for life. It is not easy to draw a line between legitimate use of God’s resources and the wasteful, luxurious use of his resources.
God invites us to enjoy his creation. He made it for us. We are to use it and enjoy it. The problem comes when we seek selfishly to use it for our own good and enjoyment apart from the equally legitimate rights of others to enjoy it. We want too much—more than is our proper share, more than is appropriate to our divinely assigned role in life, and more than we need to enable us to fulfill our divine vocation.
And how much is my need to enable me to serve God best? What is my appropriate share of the good things of this world? Of music and art and leisure and residence and car and travel? No two human beings are identical and, therefore, no two human beings have exactly the same needs even when they carry the same role in life and are called to the same tasks. This should remind us to be extraordinarily cautious in judging what our fellow Christians really need, especially when they take into their lives what, for me, would be outrageous luxury.
Each of us is a steward for God. It is our task to dispense the goods of this world in accordance with God’s good pleasure and his knowledge of what is each person’s fair share. This also applies to how much we allow for ourselves.
God will hold us responsible for the honesty, fairness, and unselfishness with which we make these judgments about wealth that he entrusts to us as his stewards.
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