Jesus told that story of the rich man and Lazarus in response to the ridicule he was receiving from some prominent religious leaders who were, according to Luke’s Gospel, “Lovers of money” (Luke 16: 14). This brings out another aspect of the problem. Flaunting our wealth is a way to tell ourselves and our neighbors that we have arrived and are important.
Religious people tell themselves that their wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Such prosperity teaching is as old as history but Jesus isn’t having any of it. Instead, “being liberated from stuff” is the sermon he keeps coming back to again and again. The Apostle Paul picks up where Jesus lets off when he rebukes those who “imagine that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6: 6-12).
Thinking that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing makes it all too easy to ignore the seamier aspects of acquiring great wealth. Different professions reward people much more than others not because they contribute more to society but because they have more political and economic clout. And most of us who are wealthy received out wealth by being born into wealthy families. It’s worse when our wealth is connected to organized crime or the destruction of whole communities in other parts of the world. Such recognition makes us humble about all the stuff we’re accumulating.
Paul flips such prosperity teaching on its head as he takes on those who “imagine that godliness is a means of great gain.” Sure,” Paul says, “there is great gain in godliness when it’s combined with contentment.” We brought nothing into this world and we’ll take nothing with us when we die. Contentment, therefore, is being satisfied when we have food, clothing, and shelter. Such contentment is the first step to being set free from the tyranny of stuff.
It doesn’t necessarily mean giving everything away but let’s do it if that’s what it takes to be free. Mother Theresa is an example. She lived in a small single room in the Sisters of Charity house in Kolkata, India. The furnishings of the room were a small desk, a chair, and a single bed to sleep in. She wore the simple white dress with a blue border of the Sisters of Charity and she picked out her shoes from the donated shoes that her order gave to poor people.
The problem isn’t money itself. It’s our love of money. Money is a great resource that makes so many good things possible. But it’s very alluring, tempting us to want more and more of it. That’s why Paul says that seeking to become rich is a snare. We get caught up in our desires and lose our faith in God. We also lose our humanity.
Jesus, makes it stark, “You can’t serve both God and money.” So how shall those of us who are rich thread that eye of a needle so that we can be part of God’s exciting new world coming? Listen to Paul’s advice in I Timothy 6: 17-19 in Eugene Peterson’s translation:
Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last forever, gaining life that is truly life.
I recently saw this relationship with wealth in action when I had the privilege to be part of an informal advisory group for Ray Martin. The problem of climate change has become Ray’s passion and one way he has responded is by donating $ 1 million to begin a Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University. Driving with Ray and others to participate in the launch of the Center was richly rewarding. He told me that he felt very privileged with the amount of wealth he had accumulated but he didn’t want to die as a rich man. Ray’s extravagant generosity was focused on making our world a better place. In return, he received so much joy and satisfaction,”gaining life that is truly life.”