A major theme found throughout the Bible is God’s concern for the poor and his anger at the rich’s complicity in their oppression and abuse. We see this concern in the laws of Moses (see Leviticus), in the prophets (see Amos), and directly from Jesus in the Gospels.
The simple fact is that wealth can really mess people up.
Multiple studies have shown that those who see themselves as more wealthy or powerful than the average person behave in ways that show a lack of concern or even (in the worst cases) malevolence toward those who are poorer or less powerful than they are. The Bible’s concern for protecting the poor from the rich is merited!
In Luke 6:17-49 Jesus expounds on what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. In Luke 6:20 Jesus begins this teaching by saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This statement comes at the beginning of what is traditionally called “the beatitudes,” a list of blessings Jesus proclaims over those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated because they follow Jesus.
In Luke’s presentation of the beatitudes, Jesus also proclaims a series of corresponding “woes,” saying, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation, woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep,” (Luke 6:24-26).
What is Jesus trying to tell us?
The real issue at hand is not about having wealth. Some of Jesus’ followers certainly had wealth, and some of them were so wealthy they were able to financially support Jesus and his ministry.
It seems the issue has more to do with desiring wealth, or worse, loving wealth (see Paul’s discussion of wealth in 1 Timothy 6). Desiring and loving wealth are bright red, flashing danger signs warning that wealth has become an idol. Jesus’ warnings to the wealthy come from a place of concern and love. He is showing us that idols enslave. Through idolatry, both God and neighbor are forgotten, and even despised. We cannot serve and love God while serving and loving an idol. We cannot not serve and love God while neglecting our neighbor.
Thankfully, Jesus offers hope to those trapped in idolatry.
Luke 18 records a conversation between Jesus and a “rich ruler.” At the end of this conversation, the rich ruler goes away sad, and Jesus makes the comment, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Those nearby asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
For those who have let the idolatry of wealth creep into their hearts, or any other idol for that matter, the sacrifice, humility, and love of Jesus not only saves us from the punishment we deserve but transforms us into a people who look more like Jesus himself. Through his Spirit we are able to love and live as God calls us – as a citizen of his kingdom, no matter where we started.
One of the ways we can show our residency in the kingdom of God is through being generous. This was Jesus’ advice to the rich ruler. Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor.
For Christians today, generosity is a spiritual discipline that keeps us from becoming attached to our wealth and ensures we do not neglect the poor. Generosity as spiritual discipline is part of God’s work of sanctification in our lives.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
— 1 Timothy 6:17-19
Go and be generous!