Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Part 1. What did Jesus say about wealth?

I was recently asked rhetorically if I was against being rich. I didn’t have time to reply. I’m fairly certain that the questioner assumed that my answer would have been NO. How many times have I heard the wise old correction to the fictional misquote, “money is the root of all evil” by adding, “money is not the root of all evil but the love of money.” (1 Tim. 6:10). I guess that means if you don’t love it, money is good. OK, I think that it is obvious that being rich is a key American value. Doing a reread of Rom. 12:2 is warranted here. Usually church people want to narrowly apply this text to so-called unchristian behaviors, smoking, drinking, cursing, and the like. This narrowness allows this important text to be coopted to decimate its impact and deter us from its real thrust. Such a reading misses the real focus of Paul’s warning that sets forward a clash of worldviews… how we think, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” How do you and I think about riches? Should wealth be our aim in life?

The overall tenor of New Testament teaching projects a negative evaluation of both wealth and the wealthy. It may be even justified to claim that this view dominates both testaments. Oh yes, I know that there are clear references to riches as blessing, the fruit of wisdom, even glowing depictions of royal wealth especially during the reign of Solomon. Yet these examples should not blind us to the biblical warning. People do not enjoy being poor, destitute, subsistent. For years I have joked with my students with reference to Paul’s discussion of personal contentment, “… for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along in humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity…” Phil. 4:11-12 by exclaiming repetitively “I am willing to be tested with wealth!” It always gets a good laugh, but it really is untrue. Why, because wealth is a real threat to faith and morals. To parody a familiar saying, wealth corrupts and “absolute” wealth corrupts absolutely.

In the traditions passed down to us, Jesus did not have many positive things to say about wealth. Once Jesus did say that by following him faithfully and when on lost family or farms that his followers would materially benefit a hundredfold. (Mark 10:29-30). By contrast, he commonly spoke out frequently against seeking riches. If this was Jesus’ attitude and even a surface reading of the gospels will reflect this, holding an opposing view suggests that we are following the values of our culture not the kingdom. Incidentally this fits in with a more nuanced translation of Paul’s first phrase, “Stop being conformed…” When we start our faith pilgrimage we begin walking shaped by the society we live in, and over time we abandon its approaches, its values, its thinking to following the ways of Christ.

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