There is a very common notion among Christians and churches in America that wealth is a blessing from God. I would be more inclined to say that wealth is much more of a responsibility than it is a blessing.
Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)
In all the sermons I have heard and books I have read on the Sermon on the Mount, or what is commonly called the Beatitudes, all of them have come from the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, it was some time even as a student of the Bible, before I discovered there was another version of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke that is noticeably different. The difference is most clearly seen in its lack of spiritual application. In Matthew, it is the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who are blessed. In Luke it is just the poor and the hungry who are blessed. Period. And not only that, there are curses placed on the rich and the well-fed. Is it any wonder that growing up in America I would hear the spiritualized version only. It’s as if Jesus never said the Luke version, or Luke forgot to put the spiritual part in because the Matthew version is what He really meant.
Find me one pastor in America with the guts to teach “woe to the rich” in his/her congregation and you’ll find someone out of a job.
I’m a pastor in America, and of course I’m going to choose the Matthew version. After all, I’ve got two to choose from; might as well choose the easier one. Except that if this is the word of God, then both of these accounts are true, and there is something we need to learn from both of them. Luke didn’t just slip up. The Spirit of God compelled him to write this, which should compel us to figure out why. Most likely, Jesus gave it both ways at different times or we wouldn’t have two versions.
The Luke version goes over well in third world countries, but not here in America. Why? Because here in America, we believe the opposite, that wealth is a blessing from God. Unfortunately you would have a big argument about that from Jesus. Jesus said it was harder for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than anybody. Something about passing through the eye of a needle… That doesn’t sound like a blessing to me. And what about the rich young ruler whose possessions were too much to part with in order to follow Jesus? Jesus let him go. We would have probably adjusted the requirements a bit just to get this guy on the discipleship board. He could have funded the whole thing.
These are hard words to swallow, but they are not condemnatory; I would hold that they are simply fact. Jesus is not condemning the rich; He’s only being honest about how hard it is going to be for them to keep the right perspective. Jesus said these things not because he hates rich people, but because He knows that it is through our need and our poverty of soul that we find God. A rich man is deluded by his wealth into not realizing his real need.
Jesus literally means the poor are blessed because they get it faster than anyone. Just like the passage above from Luke, it is the poor and hungry who are blessed, and conversely, the rich who are not. They don’t get it because their stomachs are full. It’s not the “spiritual merit” of the poor that’s being talked about, but their ability to see and understand the real truth about their situation.
Way before wealth is anything close to a blessing, biblically speaking, it is a responsibility. If it’s a blessing, then we can Praise God and use it up on ourselves. If it is a responsibility, then we have an obligation to go before God and find out how to use our wealth for His kingdom. If America is the wealthiest nation in the world, then we must conclude that it is harder for Americans to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
But right after Jesus made that comment, the disciples immediately said, well then, it’s going to be impossible for anyone (especially those from the wealthiest nation in the world) to get into heaven. To which Jesus thankfully replied that with God all things are possible.
Yes, even Americans can get into heaven.
Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)