Americans in heaven

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)

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13 Responses to Americans in heaven

  1. A Catholic church down the road from me has a beautiful statue in a courtyard area, with benches to sit on and obviously meditate on the work of art. It is a statue with the Beattitudes carved in it. It stunned me when I saw it the first time. How strikingly different from having the 10 Commandments in a similar form. It is it’s own sermon, right there, for anyone parking and heading up to the building, to experience.

  2. Peter Leenheer says:

    All the financial blessings we have is God’s money. Money to be spent to promote the Kingdom of God, and yes that includes our needs and not our wants. It is best to leave it to God to give us our financial wants, that way He can surprise you.when you least expect it.

    It seems to me that the greatest trial God places us in is material prosperity. Sad to say that history is filled with nations and empires who today barely exist because their prosperity was allowed to forget where their help actually came from. America needs a spiritual revival and it begins with realized that hoarding God’s blessings in huge homes and other toys is not what he had in mind. ‘ Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.’

    It wasn’t until Job lost everything that he himself actually knew what was in his mind. Thankfully God has kept me ‘poor’ yet I always have what I need.. Occasionally God takes some of it away just to see what is in my heart. I really appreciate the reality check.

    Thanks for the post John, I too get it. Unfortunately I forget it, so thank you for the reminder.

  3. Gary says:

    What we might see to be a blessing may not be how the Lord intends us to see it. It is so important to, as you do so well John, Seek the truth in God’s Word to see it His way. I think, though we”re created in His image, we can be so twisted in our knowledge. Keep us thinking John, Thanks

  4. Well, the Pope addressed that issue. I’d say he’s a pretty good pastor.

    It’s interesting that the two groups Jesus spent the most time with were the poor and the rich. He didn’t seem to spend a lot of time with the middle class, such as it was in His day. I think it is because He saw those two groups as having the most obvious need, and therefore as being the most willing to listen to Him. The middle class is easily lulled into thinking they’re okay. But the rich, if they’re honest, have realized that their riches haven’t brought them happiness, and in that there is hope for them. The hope for the rich is in their generosity – “Go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me.” But the hope for the poor is the same – the widow put her very last penny into the collection box. Giving and generosity is the responsibility of us ALL, not just the rich.

  5. Jerry D. Ross says:

    John, you are the first blogger with such a wide readership to show the courage to comment on these two versions. I congratulate you! How we Americans can read the N. T., participate in Bible studies, and for those who preach, never mention these truths is beyond understanding! If we really press these truths home, someone is going to politicize it and accuse us of “communism” and thus miss the point altogether. Unfortunately, the media has convinced even the majority of Christians that the acquiring of riches through “the American dream” is a sign of God’s blessings and approval. Agreed: God does not condemn hard work and the benefits that may accrue from it, but unfortunately we often do not see them as a means to become a greater blessing to others by sharing. Paul made it clear to the Ephesian elders that “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (NIV) (Also in Eph. 4:28). We like the sentiment of these verses, but to apply them practically is another story.
    God bless you brother!
    Don Ross

  6. Hans says:

    Hi John,
    Can you stop that Communist talk now already? (sorry, just joking).

    I’ve also always liked the Luke version of the Beatitudes. They’re good to use in the streets, among the (financially) poor people.

    I also like this one from James (Jesus’ brother):

    “(…) Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5).


  7. Lisa in Sunland says:

    I would say that wealth of any sort is both… it’s a blessing, and a responsibility. With the responbility of sharing it and doing God’s work, should come joy in being able to share, and that giving in joy is such a blessing. I choose to think that Jesus’ talking about a rich man having a hard time getting through the needle’s eye and into heaven has to do with those who are rich and don’t take responsiblity for the richness and share. Like with the young rich man whom Jesus admonished to sell everything and give it to the poor to follow Him, He knew that young man worshipped his money more than God. If money is your tool to use for God and not your god itself, then things will be okay. And actually, I’m not sure that those who are poor and downtrodden can always come more easily to God. Some probably feel their earthly needs so much it can overshadow feeling their spiritual needs! With a good job, health, and other things most people consider blessings can come a consciousness of and great gratitude for those blessings. Love of money is the root of evil, not the money itself. Almost everyone in America is rich by the world’s standards – enough food, shoes, a roof, a blanket… wow!

    • jwfisch says:

      Yes. You made some good points and I think are stating what the Proverb is stating…
      “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)

  8. I always say if the prosperity gospel doesn’t work for the Ethiopians, don’t preach it to me.

  9. Rick G. says:

    How timely that our Homily today at Mass was about serving God or mammon but not being able to serve both. I guess I am wrong to consider our gifts of health, employment, heat, food on the table…as blessings from the Lord but I do. It didn’t come from my brilliance or power. I believe that for those given much, much is expected. I know all we have is His, and His to take as freely as He has given it. I don’t know the answer to why there is poverty or wealth, only that by the grace of God and the gift of our savior Jesus there is hope for anyone. Even a blessed sinner like me.

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