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Wealth, A Biblical Perspective
The Teachings of Jesus
Can a Christian Have Wealth?
Ralph J. Doudera
Life and Teachings of
Dr. Peter Prosser, Regent University
"God's ownership of
everything also changes the kind of question we ask in giving. Rather
than "How much of my money should I give to God?” we learn to ask "How
much of God's money should I keep for myself?"
One of the
most controversial areas in the Christian community is the teaching on
the subject of money. These teachings range from positions of asceticism
(Christians must not have any) to prosperity preaching (God's children
are all entitled to a Rolls Royce). Both positions can be supported by a
superficial study of the scriptures, and the philosophy that agrees with
one's own thinking can easily be utilized while leaving others to gather
dust. It is the intent of this paper to evaluate all the major teachings
of Jesus in the gospels regarding mammon (money and materialism) and
classify them under four major topics:
1. God or mammon -
choose one, only one
2. Deceitfulness of
3. Judgment of those
4. Kingdom use of
This will be followed
by some practical, transferable suggestions to implement the teachings
of Jesus in our daily lives.
POINT 1: GOD OR MAMMON - CHOOSE ONE,
Central to the focus
of Jesus' ministry was his consistent teaching on the kingdomof God.
There were two major blemishes on the society of that time that were
especially distressing to him due to the fact that they kept people from
entering the kingdom of God. One was the result of religious factors
centering on the scribes and Pharisees and their detail to the Law
without concern for love and justice of their fellow man. Their focus
was supposed to be the kingdomof Godand it was the religious leaders
responsibility to introduce man to it. The other distressing feature
influenced by the first was the drift of the common man toward
materialism. He was too often serving mammon (money and materialism),
imagining that he could give himself to covetousness and still honor God
in passable fashion. Jesus warned muchof the danger of losing one's soul
in the vain attempt to gain the world.
The Ten Commandments begin and end in a similar way - "You shall have no
other gods before me" and "You shall not covet anything that belongs to
your neighbor" (Exodus 20:3, 17).
When Jesus uses the
term "mammon" to refer to wealth, he is giving it a personal and
spiritual character. It is not just a neutral factor or a medium of
exchange. When he declares, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew
6:24), he illustrates a rival god. Mammon can become an entity subject
to our worship and can obtain power that seeks to dominate us. Behind
money there can be a very real spiritual force that becomes energized as
we turn our affections to it. Therefore, it is an entity capable of
It has a seductive power always ready to pull us into its dominating
influence, even shortly after we feel as though we have been delivered
from it. Jesus saw very clearly how this mammon makes a bid for our
hearts. There is no middle of the road position. Jesus said, "he will
hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and
despise the other, you cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke16:13). Jesus
calls people to turn away from the mammon god in order to worship the
one true God.
The rich young ruler
asked Jesus how he could have eternal life and received the unexpected
reply, "go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will
have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). The rich
man went away sorrowful and unable to receive the kingdomof God. Jesus
saw that although he kept some of the commandments, he still had a
covetous heart, and as long as he was unwilling to give away all his
wealth he was unable to enter the kingdomof God. It should be noted that
the fact that he was wealthy was not the issue, but the fact that he
placed his wealth before obedience to God.
response to Zacchaeus was entirely different. Zacchaeus was a chief tax
collector who overtaxed the poor. Collecting money was his very life.
When he came face to face with Jesus he declared, "half of my goods I
give to the poor; and if I defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it
fourfold" (Luke 19:8). Although it implies he still retained some wealth
Jesus' response is worth noting: "Today salvation has come to this
house." (Luke 19:9).
Richard Foster says:
"For Christ money is
an idolatry we must be converted from in order to be converted to him.
The rejection of the god mammon is a necessary precondition to becoming
a disciple of Jesus. And in point of fact, money has many of the
characteristics of deity. It gives us security, can induce guilt, gives
us freedom, gives us power, and seems to be omnipresent. Most sinister
of all, however, is its bid for omnipotence."
Jesus' teaching on
the gospels seems to indicate that to the extent that one gives up
mammon, to that extent he inherits God’s kingdom. He teaches that the
kingdom of heaven is inherited by one who exchanges all his mammon for
it. "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a
man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he
had and bought that field" (Matthew 13:44). "Again the kingdom of heaven
is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great
value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (Matthew
13:45-46). Jesus suggests quite consistently that by giving away
possessions to the poor we will be much better off. "Sell your
possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that
will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted,
where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also." A person's heart (the real spiritual
man) determines whether or not he lives in the kingdom of heaven or not,
for he resides wherever the affections of his heart are.
As in any kingdom,
the king that is served determines the kingdom in which one resides.
Money then, as well as now, was a consuming, all possessive problem that
became a god, demanding all-inclusive allegiance. This is why Jesus'
cleansing of the temple was so important. It was a deliberate act to
symbolize that in the coming of the Messiah the religion of Israelwas to
be purged of its mammon worship. The religious leaders at the time were
covetous money lovers, not spiritual leaders (Luke 16:14).
Mammon, as a master,
results in possession and ultimately slavery. God, as a master, brings
fulfillment and freedom.
POINT 2: DECEITFULNESS OF WEALTH
The "lure" of wealth
is just exactly that. A fish lure is something that looks like something
a fish wants until he gets it in his mouth and finds out it isn't what
he expected, but by then it is too late. In Matthew 13 Jesus uses the
word deceitful to describe riches in the parable of the sower who sows
the seed (the Word of God). Since mammon exercises its power in the
realm of materialism or the realm under Satan's authority, it could be
presented in a way which seems to be attractive, but is a lie, since
Satan has no truth in him. Everyone thinks they want more money until
they get it, and then it doesn't satisfy. Solomon, the richest man who
ever lived, said, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever
loves wealth is never satisfied with his income" (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
Not only does Jesus say that riches are deceitful, but he says that
wealth causes a person to be unfruitful in the kingdom of heaven. "What
was sown among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries
of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it
unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). This seems to suggest quite strongly that
if a person has wealth, he will be drawn into its abuse. Better not to
have any wealth. "Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your
consolation" (Luke 6:24).
"This is not quite as
simplistic as anti-Christians would have it: “God punishes people for
being happy on earth” No, but the rich have no need for God's aid or
consolation or love. The power of their money is enough help for them".
them, just the opposite is true.
After the rich young
ruler deserted Jesus, he said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth,
it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell
you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for
a rich man to enter the kingdomof God" (Matthew 19:23-4). This doesn't
say it is impossible, but it seems to enhance a recurring theme that it
is better to not have wealth. For a camel to get through a narrow
passageway, its possessions must be dropped.
Jesus also advises
not placing security in deceptive wealth but faith in his Father to
provide for all needs. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on
earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and
steal" (Matthew 6:19). "If that is how God clothes the grass of the
field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he
not clothe you, o you of little faith" (Matthew 6:30)? When Jesus sent
the twelve out to teach from the village he also instructed them to take
no money (Mark 6:8). They were to look to God for security, not to
One of the most
revealing attributes of Jesus' teaching on money involves not so much
what he taught, but how he supported what seems on the surface to be
unjust use of mammon.
The first example
involves Judas, the treasurer of the disciples. Judas was a thief and
regularly stole from the money bag (John 12:6). Yet Jesus knew and
continued to allow him to be the treasurer and take the funds. Could
this be because Jesus looked to his Father for support and not to the
bag? Could he be trying to show everyone that money itself has no value
for those in obedience to the Father?
Another example is
the brother who came to Jesus who was not given the inheritance he was
legally entitled to and asked Jesus to be the judge. Jesus placed no
value on the inequity of the situation, but only rebuked the man for his
own greedy nature (Luke 12:14-15). He went after the important, not the
obvious. This kind of response is not common among those in the
Christian community who seek fairness from man's point of view but do
not point out sin from God's perspective.
A third instance is
the Lord allowing a lavish expenditure of perfume worth approximately a
year's wages to be poured over his head while the disciples grumbled
about the needs of the poor (Matthew 26:6-12). Jesus rebuked them. What
we discover from the gospels is "the combination of a penetrating
criticism of wealth with a carefree, almost lighthearted attitude toward
We are advised to "Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who
takes away your goods do not ask them again" (Luke 6:35). "If someone
takes your outer cloak you are to surrender your coat as well" (Luke
Jesus commended the
widow who put her last two pennies into the church treasury. It seems
ironic that the church was supposed to be taking care of widows, not the
other way around, but Jesus said that she had given more than anyone
else (Luke 21:2-4).
Jesus Himself knew of
the deceitfulness of wealth, and his obedience to the Father and
knowledge of scripture kept him from falling when tempted by Satan in
the wilderness. Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world in a
moment's time if he would worship him (Luke 4:5). The thought probably
passed through his mind of what a good job he could do to help humanity
if he owned the world.
Why then would anyone
want to accumulate wealth if it chokes the fruit of his spiritual growth
and causes him to fall into sin? The primary reason is lack of knowledge
in what the scriptures teach about wealth and exposure to other
Christians with similar philosophies of subtle mammon worship.
POINT 3: JUDGMENT OF THOSE WHO HOARD
Jesus also teaches
without reservation concerning the coming judgment of all those who
hoard wealth for themselves. He tells a story about a rich landowner
whose harvest yielded more than his storage barns could hold. He
couldn't let his crops rot in the field or give them away, so he had
to tear down the existing barns and build new, larger ones (Luke
12:16). Then he could sit back and relax after everything was stored -
"to eat, drink and be merry. But God said to him, you fool, tonight your
soul will be required. And this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?
So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making
himself rich in the sight of God" (Luke 12:19-21). This affluent
person's life was only material. He went from affluence to luxury. He
did not stop to think that perhaps the reason God made him affluent was
so he could pass something on to the less fortunate. "In that way, God
can feed and clothe everyone. When the affluent fail to share, they
thwart God's plan.''
God called him a fool and will judge him on his actions. A businessman
might call him prudent.
The parable of the
talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is not concerned with the poor, but tells of
the coming judgment of mankind. He uses a monetary symbol, not because
he is teaching about money, but because people could easily understand
the example due to all the mammon in the culture of that time. We know
the parable is not actually talking about mammon because of his numerous
other teachings concerning wealth exhorting those who have it to give it
away. In the parable, the steward who returned only the coin he was
entrusted with had the coin taken away and he was dismissed as steward.
People will be judged not on how much they have, but on how well they
have developed what gifts they have been given. We will be judged
according to how we have used our affluence. If we misuse it by storing
it up in bigger barns (bank accounts, material possessions), we will be
judged harshly. If we use it well (sell what you have and give it to the
poor), we will be invited into God's sight.
Another story Jesus
told was about a rich man who dressed well and feasted every night (Luke
16:19-31). Outside his house a beggar named Lazarus lay in the road. He
was diseased and crippled, and all he wanted was some of the crumbs from
the rich man's feast. The two men died the same day and the rich man
found himself tormented in hell. Lazarus was at peace in heaven. The
rich man now begged for a drop of water from Lazarus, but there was a
gulf separating heaven and hell, and the rich man must live in eternity
in torment - irrevocable judgment based on his own actions on earth.
Ellul states it this way:
"Now if the rich do
not need God's love on earth, they will not find it in heaven
either...on earth, when people offer themselves to money, there is
always the possibility that they will change their course and open
themselves to God. Nothing is yet final. But with death, the situation
that people want becomes definitive. This is how it is a devouring fire:
people stay eternally, with no possibility of change, with the comforter
they have chosen. They are thus outside the kingdomof God".
James later picks up
the same theme, "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that
are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are
moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be
evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire" (James 5:1-3).
Jesus says, "Whosoever shall fall on that stone shall be broken; but on
whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder" (Luke 20:18).
Repent now and allow Jesus Christ to deliver us from our sin, or be
judged by him later by his same word, but be unable to repent for
The problem of having
wealth is that a Christian will be faced with many circumstances where
his wealth can spread God's kingdom, avoid starvation, or heal disease.
If he knowingly fails to use his wealth for this and keeps it for
himself, he will eventually be judged for each occurrence. The man with
wealth must continually make the decision to remain rich, turning away
from the needy. However, the man without wealth, while he does not come
under this dilemma, may be judged for spending unwisely.
The opposite of this
judgment is also spoken of in the gospels. It is the reward in heaven
"Give and it will be given to you; good measure pressed down, shaken
together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you
give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38). "Every dollar that
we spend on ourselves here on this earth perishes as we spend it.
However, every dollar that we give to God while we are on this earth is
deposited to our accounts in the Bank of Heaven -accounts which can be
used while we are on this earth and accounts which also will be
available to all Christians for eternity.
Scripture indicates that our reward may be monetary or may be in heaven,
but we will receive a reward. The principles of the kingdom show example
after example of producing rewards, or bearing fruit both now and later.
"But he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and
brothers and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with
persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life" (Mark 10:30). Jesus
was explaining that the hundredfold return is available only to those
who have "left everything" to follow him. Only if Jesus Christ is put
first can this provision be made. Those who think they can give money
and gain a hundredfold return only for the sake of selfish investment
return may be disappointed.
We should also
exercise caution in giving to others in that if we give to an unworthy
cause, or to an irresponsible person who then abuses the gift, they will
be judged and we can also be indirectly responsible. This is where
prayer and guidance of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
POINT 4: KINGDOM USE OF UNRIGHTEOUS
In Luke 16, Jesus
tells a parable quite different from all others mentioned in the
gospels. A wealthy man discovers that his business manager has been
mishandling his funds and promptly fires him. But before his termination
becomes final, the steward devises a plan to insure his future. He
contacts his employer's creditors and writes off 20 to 50 percent of
their debts. These people will now be indebted to him so that when he is
out of a job they will be obligated to help him later. Even though
dishonest, when the master found out what the business manager had done,
he was so impressed with the man's cleverness that he commended him.
Jesus is not teaching
dishonesty here but is illustrating an important spiritual truth. He
highlights his shrewdness in using economic resources for non-economic
goals - using money to make friends for a later time.
Jesus' next comments
say, "The sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the
sons of light" (Luke 16:8). Then he says, "And I tell you, make friends
for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails
they may receive you into eternal habitations" (Luke16:9). Jesus is
telling us to use money in such a way that when it fails -and it will
fail - we have prepared for our future.
Two things are
indicated in Jesus' words: first, that mammon is unrighteous, and
second, that we are to use it to make friends. It is obvious that we
cannot take it with us, so we can only use it while we are here on earth
before we die (being discharged from our job as stated in the parable).
When Jesus spoke of
"unrighteous mammon" he was underscoring the inherent fallenness of
money. Unrighteousness is a necessary attribute of mammon. It is issued
and enforced under the authority of a man made government. By putting
the descriptive adjective "unrighteous" on mammon, Jesus forbids us from
ever taking a naive view of wealth. Money is poison and its power is
virtually unlimited. Money can buy people or eliminate people. It can
buy prestige, honor or allegiance. It can get things done and can get
children of the world to work on behalf of advancing the kingdomof God.
By making friends by
means of "unrighteous mammon" we are to take it - evil as it is - and
use it for God’s purposes. We must not be overcome by its evil bias, but
rather than reject it we should conquer it and use it for non-economic
purposes, namely advancing the kingdomof God.
This is also the
"greater use" that Jesus refers to in Matthew 6. He warns against
building treasures on earth because they are insecure and corrupt.
Rather, we are to lay up for ourselves "treasures in heaven" (Matthew
6:19). This does two things - it provides a reward of eternal nature and
it also draws our affections into the kingdomof God: "Where your
treasure is there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:20-21).
It seems that this is
the only justification for being a wealthy Christian. Those who are
called to this ministry had better be obedient to God's calling in this
area since it is a dangerous place to be. It is like being behind enemy
lines during a war.
"This path is fraught
with great frustrations and temptations, and those who walk it have to
face perplexing decisions and tragic moral choices that most people will
never have to consider. In many ways our life will be immensely more
complex, though it does not need to be complicated. We will need the
prayer and support of the people of God who must stand by us, counsel
us, guide us. We will be living close to hell for the sake of heaven."
What should we invest
in when building treasures in heaven? People will certainly be there, so
money invested in people may be one of the best possible investments -
particularly people who are there as a result, directly or indirectly,
of our giving. How can our giving be used to fulfill its highest and
most effective use for the kingdomof God? Consider the rate of return on
each invested dollar just as you would for any secular investment. Will
one dollar invested in the church building program yield as high a
return as gospel brochures to Chinawhere every piece of paper imported
is studied by several people? Meaningful kingdom opportunities may also
include contributing to famine relief, or helping a needy neighbor,
bible student, or evangelist.
The Christian is
given the high calling of using mammon without serving it. “We are using
mammon when we allow God to determine our economic decisions. We are
serving mammon when we allow mammon to determine our economic
Whether we have the
money or not should not influence any of our decisions. We should not
feel free to spend money any way we choose just because we have some. We
need to recognize whose it is and then decide who we will serve - God or
What additional steps
then should Christians take to understand and act on these issues?
Understanding of the scriptures is essential. By searching the
scriptures and evaluating them continually, we receive insight and
wisdom. We must learn what aspects of mammon affect us - fear, security,
greed, or pride, as well as our relationship to the sociological issues
such as what our responsibility is toward Third Worldpoverty.
As these areas become
formulated, we must consciously manage the funds entrusted to us by
budgeting, eliminating frivolous purchases, investing until instructed
to give, and estate planning. Proper estate planning may be a grossly
overlooked method of providing treasures in heaven and may save heirs
from falling into temptation.
As the hoarding
workaholic begins to understand these scriptures his life takes on new
perspective. He realizes that he is now working overtime for someone
else and his life may become more balanced.
In order to be
effective in our struggle with the negative bias of mammon, we must be
part of a larger, overall group to be held accountable. This could be as
few as one other mature Christian or a larger group in which one could
share issues in complete confidence. This group could review business
and spiritual goals as well as giving goals. This should involve prayer
for each other not only for a vision, but to protect against greed and
freedom from money's power.
The most important of
all is to begin to give money away. Keep in mind that it should not be
done openly for the wrong reasons, but in secret. "Be careful not to
give gifts to the poor and needy before men, to be seen by them. If you
do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).
As we begin to give, we begin to see the bondages of money broken. The
power that energizes the negative force of money cannot exist with the
unnatural act of giving - it makes money lose all its value and
therefore the power that goes with it. This is the reason why no matter
how little we have, we are instructed to give. There is no single right
answer for the person who wants to know "how much" or "to whom." The
body of Christ is perfectly formed in such a way that all have a
different function. We must be obedient to the instruction God gives
each of us under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Only then will we
find fulfillment and contentment in the kingdom of heaven.
Breig, James. Wave
Good-bye to the Joneses, The Christian Use of Wealth. Fides/Claretian,
Chicago, Illinois, c.
William. The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire. Edwin
Millen Press, New
York, c. 1980.
Ellul, Jacques. Money
and Power. Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, c. 1984.
Foster, Richard J.
Freedom of Simplicity. Harper & Row, San Francisco, California, c. 1981.
Foster, Richard J.
Money, Sex and Power. Harper & Row, San Francisco, California, c.
Hartman, Jack. Trust
God for Your Finances. Lamplight Publications, Manchester, New
Hampshire, c. 1983.
Hill, Harold. The
Money Book for Kings Kids. Power Books, Fleming H. Revell Co., Old
Tappan, New Jersey,
Encyclopedia, Vol. I. Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, c. 1975.
J. Foster, Money, Sex and Power (San Francisco, California:
Harper & Row, 1985), p. 42.
Bible Encyclopedia Vol. 1 (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1975), p.
Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, p. 129.