Perspectives on Wealth

Patrick Henry, an outstanding patriot during our colonial era, and Governor of Virginia, was also a man of strong Christian faith. He not only said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He also said, later on: “I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them and that is faith in Jesus Christ. If they had that and I had not given them a single shilling, they would have been rich; and if they had not that {faith in Christ), and I had given them all the world, they would be poor indeed.” That’s true. The billionaire, H. Bunker Hunt, said, “A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be. You can lose it no matter how much you make. No matter what kind of job you’ve got, you could break a leg, get sick, the economy can turn around, the place can burn down. In order to have security, you’ve got to put your security in something that cannot be taken away from you. “

Long ago, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Son of God said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy [your clothes or coins], and where thieves break in and steal [your other valuables]. 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.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

There are two key terms there. The first is “treasure” that which you cherish, value, prize, take pleasure in; or that which you trust in and thus hoard, accumulate, stockpile. Matthew makes a play on words here, which John Wycliffe in the 1300s translated, “Do not treasure to you treasures.” If you let your belongings become your treasures, then they possess you rather than you possess them.

The second Key term is “heart” the center of your being; your love, your loyalty, your attention and delight. The bumper sticker sums up the world’s viewpoint very well–“He who dies with the most toys wins.” But disciples of Jesus–he who didn’t even own a home of his own–can’t agree.

Our Lord continued, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (24). We find two more key terms there. “Master”: that which owns you, which controls your life. That to which you are enslaved or addicted. Christ’s point is, materialism robs us of freedom, holds us in its grip. Related to that is the word “Serve”: to be a slave of, to work for and even obey. Matthew Henry observed that while 2 slave-owners walk along together–followed by one slave – other folks may not be able to tell whose slave he is. But when they come to a parting of the ways, you will discover to which one he belongs.

Some folks think they can serve 2 different masters: They serve Christ on Sunday (or claim to) but Wealth the other 6 days. They serve Christ with half their heart, and Wealth with the other half. Jesus said, Not possible.

No doubt James (the Lord’s half-brother) had Jesus’ statement in mind when later he wrote, “Purify your heart, you double-minded.” Don’t let anything dilute your devotion to Jesus. Whom or what do we serve? Whose slave am I? Some seem to say, “God owes me prosperity. I’ll serve Him as long as He gives me health and wealth but not otherwise.” Those who take that attitude desperately need to repent, and ask not only what God can do for them but mainly what they can do for God.

Yet, having said all that, we do need to clarify a point here. See the following.

Did Jesus Prohibit Saving Money?

Should Christians not have savings accounts and follow savings plans? After all, Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treas¬ures on earth” (Matt. 6: 19).

Yes, He said that. But what exactly did He mean? In the book Real Discipleship, missionary leader Oswald Sanders wrote, “The key words of the passage are, for yourselves. ‘ Jesus does not say, as many wrongly read, ‘Lay not up treasure on earth,’ a general com¬mand to save no money. It would then be wrong to provide for old age, or to put aside for the education of one’s children; but this would be in conflict with such passages as 2 Cor. 12: 14 or 1 Tim. 5:8. The disciple is not to lay up treasure on earth for himself, hoard¬ing money merely for his own indulgence and enjoyment.”

2 Cor. 12: 14, which Sanders refers to, tells us that parents have a responsibility to save up money for their children’s needs. The other verse is quoted below. Here is John Stott’s explanation of Christ’s teaching:

To “lay up treasure on earth” (which Jesus forbids) does not mean to make provision for the future. It means to be covetous, to be a materialist or a miser. Jesus is not prohibiting saving for a rainy day. On the contrary, the Bible says that a man who does not provide for his own family has “disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). You must interpret Scripture with Scripture. What Jesus is prohibiting is the selfish accumulation of treasure. He is prohibiting the foolish fantasy that a man’s life consists in the abundance of what he possesses. He is prohibiting extravagance and luxurious living, the materialism that binds our hearts to this earth, and the hard-heartedness that ignores the colossal need of the underprivileged in this world. (Keswick Week, 1972.)

Another passage related to this subject is Proverbs 6:6-8. “Lazy people should learn a lesson from the way ants live… they store up their food during the summer, getting ready for winter.” (Good News Bible) He’s telling us to copy them.

Here are a couple of present-day applications of those verses in 2 Cor. 12, 1 Tim. 5 and. Prov. 6. It is better to save up [store up] money so you can pay with cash for costly necessities like furniture or a car, instead of paying more money through costly installment buying which overloads your budget with monthly payments and is also far more expensive in the long run due to the interest charged.

Don’t be enslaved by your Credit-Card!

Again, sometimes it is wiser and cheaper in the long run to buy a more expensive, higher-quality product which will last much longer than a cheaper product. For example, a well-to-do Christian man I know bought a very high-priced suit. After wearing it for some years, he gave it still in good shape–to his brother who later handed it down – still in good condition! – to his son, who has worn it for years.

But let’s not explain away or ignore the challenge of this passage. We must remember and personally apply Jesus’ teaching. We should distinguish between necessities and luxuries, and learn to cut back on our spending so as to increase our giving to others who are starving for food and the Gospel. Discriminate between important possessions on the one hand, and an extravagant attitude which must keep up with the Joneses and have the newest, most impressive name-brand clothes, jewelry, appliances, houses, gadgets, cars, boats, toys, sports equipment, computer-games, ipods, iphones, etc. etc.

And remember–our Lord not only said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” but just as importantly told us that we should “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

How Can We Make Deposits in Heaven?

Jesus told the rich young Ruler, and later on told the apostles also: Give to the poor and you’ll have treasure in heaven. (Luke 18:22; 12:33). Again, Paul wrote, “Be rich in good works, willing to share: thus you will lay up treasure for yourself as a firm foundation” for the future age” (1 Tim. 6). That is, we lay up treasures in heaven when we lay down treasures on earth.

In this grossly materialistic era we need to underline and highlight that point, so ponder various other ways the principle has been set forth: “The riches you impart form the only wealth you will always retain.” (Matthew Henry.) “You can’t take it with you.” “Shrouds have no pockets.” “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U¬Haul.” “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead. “

John Stott elaborates: “To lay up treasure in heaven is to do anything on earth whose effect lasts for eternity — temporal activities with eternal consequences. For example, development of Christian character, increasing in faith, hope and love–all of which Paul said ‘abide.’ And the endeavor to introduce others to Christ; and the use of our money for Christian causes. “

Yes, “treasure in heaven” surely is a synonym for the rewards which our Father in heaven offers His children. Christ mentions “reward” nine times in this Sermon on the Mount alone. So those who believe “the health and wealth gospel” or “prosperity teaching” are partly right: God does offer His people incentives, rewards, blessings. But the health/wealth teachers are mainly wrong. For instance, note Matt 5: 11-12, Jesus’ first mention of reward: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and. falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” That’s very different from offering to make His followers healthy, wealthy and successful in this life. I doubt that the prosperity teachers very often quote those verses about persecution, insults and lies.

Our Father in Heaven will reward His children-sometimes in this life, often only in the next, for humbly, sacrificially giving to other people. Such giving includes not only dollars but kind deeds, comforting words, teaching God’s good news, praying, fasting, providing repairs or transportation or calls of encouragement. And Father also will reward all who endure persecution for Jesus’ sake. It Costs to serve Him, but it Pays – and the pay exceeds the cost.

Back to the main subject of these verses: Riches

John Stott has ministered not only in his native England, but very often in poverty-stricken 3rd-world countries as well. He challenges us: “This topic [of wealth] confronts us with fresh urgency in our generation. As the world’s population continues to mushroom and the economic problems of the nations become more complex, the rich are still getting richer and the poor poorer. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the facts. The sleepy social conscience of many [disciples of Jesus] has been stabbed awake. There has been a fresh discovery that the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor and deprived. “

If you doubt that last statement, listen to these scriptures: “Every seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it.” “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” “I command you to be openhanded toward the poor and needy in your land.” (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 19:10; 23:22; Duet. 15: 11.) The book of Proverbs has 19 verses about the poor, most of them related to helping them. Isaiah the prophet speaks of this duty 11 times, often condemning the rich for hardheartedness. In the 9 chapters of the prophet Amos he addresses this issue 6 times, lambasting the rich for mistreating the poor. In the New Covenant scriptures see Acts 10:4,31; 24:17; Rom. 15:26-27; Gal. 2:10.

Oh I know that not all rich people are greedy and selfish. And I know that many (not all) poor people are lazy and abuse the welfare system etc. Obviously we should oppose abuses from both sides, for Scripture also says that if someone can work but won’t, don’t give him food (2 Thes. 3: 10-12). Yet the Lord says in Jer. 5:28-29, “They do not plead the case of the fatherless, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish them for this ?”

Now here is the conclusion to the earlier quotation from Stott, written in 1978: “There has been a fresh discovery that the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor and the deprived. Responsible Christians are uneasy about affluence and are seeking to develop a simple life-style which is appropriate both in face of world need and out of loyalty to their Master’s teaching and example.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

-Alex Wilson is the Editor of “Word and Work,” and is the minister of the Portland Avenue Church of Christ in Louisville, KY