By Alan W. Dowd
Sometimes I wish the only version of the Beatitudes was Matthew’s. After all, in Matthew’s account, Jesus offers a pep talk to the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for
The good news is that I can strive to be those things. However, that’s only part of the message. Luke’s account takes a sledgehammer to my neat little understanding of Christ’s words. “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), Jesus declared emphatically, with no qualifiers. And then, as if to remove any doubt about his meaning, Jesus warned, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (v. 24).
Why all the anguish, you ask? Well, I’m not poor. And the odds are that if you’re reading this, neither are you. In fact, even the poorest Americans are rich when compared to the rest of humanity. How rich? The typical poverty-level household in America owns more than two TVs and has more living space than an average middle-class European household; in America, obesity among the poor is a greater concern than malnutrition.
And for those of us blessed to live somewhere north of the poverty line, consider how much we spend on things that aren’t necessities: $15 billion annually on bottled water, $15.9 billion on spectator sports (count me among the guilty), $20 billion on ice cream, more than $20 billion on high-end TVs (guilty), $52 billion on pets, and $66 billion on soda pop (very guilty).
Our wealth, as Jesus warned, puts us in a danger zone full of obstacles to living the abundant life—obstacles that are as old as the Bible and yet as new as the stuff Madison Avenue is peddling.
I must confess that the candid prayer offered in Proverbs 30 largely reflects my view of wealth. “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” the writer asks. “Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal and dishonor the name of my God” (vv. 8, 9).
Since I’m closer to the riches side of the spectrum, I strive to check my inclination to acquire stuff by keeping a few questions in my mind and on my heart.
How’s My Vision?
In the 1830s, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville argued that by pursuing the same material enjoyments possessed by one’s neighbors—by keeping up with the Joneses, as it were—there could emerge “a kind of virtuous materialism . . . which would not corrupt, but enervate the soul.” The Gordon Gekko character in the 1987 film Wall Street made essentially the same argument: “Greed works,” he said. “Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
We know they’re both wrong. But let’s be honest: Prada shoes are prettier than Payless. A BMW is a lot nicer than a Kia. And a brand-new house is more enticing than an aging bi-level.
We naturally appreciate and gravitate toward beautiful things. The question is, what do those things trigger in us? When we gaze too long at things, our eyes—our discernment between needs and wants—can fail us. And when that happens, it affects everything.
Most likely, the line that separates the abundant life from the danger zone of materialism is different for each of us. In this regard, it pays to recall that Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus, Jairus, or Joseph of Arimathea—all men of considerable means—to go and sell all their possessions. But he did tell a rich young ruler to do just that. Why the distinction? We might assume the other men had as much or more land and gold as the wealthy young ruler. Unlike them, however, the rich young man’s wealth was holding on to him, and he was holding on to his wealth. It was not just a means to an end beyond himself, but rather an end in itself—an idol, a god.
Appearances Matter: What Am I Driving?
Even so, we should not be oblivious to how the things we do, buy, and consume reflect on God. Conspicuous displays of wealth are simply out of whack with Christ’s example. But what’s conspicuous? Indeed, it’s easy in a wealthy society to give the impression that we are enthralled by created things rather than the Creator. And so we try to convince ourselves that the person with the newer house, faster car, glitzier laptop, bigger TV, or fancier clothes is the one with the materialism problem—not us.
For instance, to rationalize my own materialism problem, I may quietly judge a neighbor for buying a brand-new Mercedes-Benz. But all the while, a friend who drives a 15-year-old clunker may think the same about my two-year-old Camry. The single mom, who has to catch three buses to work her two jobs outside the home, may think the same about the 15-year-old clunker. And just imagine what the AIDS orphan in Kenya, who walks three miles to fetch water for his siblings, thinks about us.
Perhaps Christ’s “Woe to you who are rich” observation was his way of warning us that our material blessings can become a spiritual burden. To ease that burden, he challenges us to store up treasures in Heaven (not on earth) by sharing our wealth—and to leave the judging to the One who has perfect vision. After all, it is what God thinks about our hearts—not what I think about your riches or what you think about mine—that matters. Only you and God really know if you have crossed into the danger zone.
Motives Matter: What’s Driving Me?
Testing our motives is yet another key to steering clear of the line that separates the abundant life from materialism and greed. As Proverbs 16:2 puts it, “Motives are weighed by the Lord.”
“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9, 10), Paul warns. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
The words I’ve italicized in this oft-misquoted passage are related to motive. Paul reminds us that it’s not money that concerns God, but how we use it, what it evokes within us, what it does to us. Paul is not saying that all rich people are headed for ruin and destruction, but rather those who make getting rich their mission in life. And he’s not saying money is the root of all evil, but rather the love of money.
God wants us to reflect on our desires, wants, and passions. In doing so, we discover the real motives behind our decisions—and purchases—and get a chance to make adjustments.
The good news for rich people like me and you is, well, the good news. Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler reminds us that even though it’s “hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven,” it’s not impossible. “With man this is impossible,” Jesus assures us, “but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23, 26).
The disciples posed an interesting question in the middle of this story. After Jesus explained, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” they asked, “Who then can be saved?” (vv. 24, 25).
The question intrigues me because the people asking it were poor. By the time they accepted Jesus’ invitation, his disciples depended on the kindness of strangers—or the miracles of Jesus—for food and shelter. Yet after Jesus’ exchange with the rich man, they are left wondering how anyone can be saved.
In other words, they sensed Jesus was using the encounter with the rich young man to make a point to everyone about wealth: that wealth is a major obstacle to the kingdom. In fact, it distracts people and distorts their vision so much that it makes it impossible for them to be saved.
Thankfully, impossible things—dead men rising, blind men seeing, even rich men finding a place in a kingdom made for the poor—are possible with and through Jesus. However, the rich young ruler learned that simply meeting Jesus, or encountering him, or talking to him is not enough.
The key is accepting Jesus and then allowing him to rearrange our priorities—and use our wealth for his purposes.
Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer in Fishers, Indiana.
Rethinking Money and Possessions
2. Read about Newark Mayor Cory Booker taking the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge. Politics aside, do you think you’d be able to take on a similar challenge?