A young man approached Jesus and asked him how to inherit eternal life. Instead of a spiritual answer Jesus gave an economic reply. He instructed the young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.
Jesus’ response would surprise almost anyone, but it was especially stunning for a very wealthy person. And this man was very wealthy.
Was Jesus endorsing income redistribution? Was he telling the man that he should give up his elite financial status and become part of the 99 percent? Was he saying that economic justice should be top priority? Is that not advice that Marx would appreciate?
What would the man do? Apparently he was so attached to his great wealth that he could not bring himself to obey Jesus. So he turned and went away sad.
The man’s love for his wealth is no surprise. What is remarkable is that Jesus had nothing more to say to him. He merely allowed the rich young man to choose his own gloomy destiny.
If Jesus believed in redistributing wealth, he certainly had a strange way of showing it. He did not insist on passing a law that forced the man to give up his riches. He did not start a revolutionary uprising among workers to take back what was rightfully theirs. He did not even put up tents in the park and organize a protest against the injustice of economic disparity.
So Jesus agreed that the man had a right to own property, lots of property, when others were in desperate need, even though it could not bring him true happiness. Jesus must be a capitalist.
But why did Jesus urge the man to sell all his property and give the money to the poor? It was his wealth, after all. Why not just give a generous donation and stay rich? He could do more for the downtrodden by maintaining a healthy income stream, right?
As the rich young man walked away, Jesus turned to his followers and uttered one of his best-known sayings. “Easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” That sounds bad for rich people.
On another occasion Jesus told about a wealthy man who ignored a dirty beggar named Lazarus. But a great reversal took place in the presence of God. The rich man found himself in torment while the poor man was comforted.
Is that a fair outcome? The beggar was just a welfare case who refused to work, right? Apparently the Lord expected the rich man to do more than trickle down on the poor man.
Jesus taught that nobody can serve both God and money. He warned about the riches of this world, pointing out that material wealth is prone to theft and decay. He told his followers to give, and if someone takes what belongs to them, do not demand it back. Does that sound like capitalism?
Change the terminology to socialism instead of communism or to free markets instead of capitalism if you wish. The point is the same. Jesus cannot be recruited to promote our popular systems of macro-economics, unless he is severely edited. And editing Jesus is difficult because, as he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words (all of them) will never pass away.”
How are we to understand Jesus on wealth? He did more than instruct that rich young man to give his riches to the poor. Jesus urged the man to come and follow him. Wealth was not the issue; it was a distraction from the issue. The issue was, and is, following Jesus.
If we could undo all the economic injustice in this harsh world, but we did not become followers of Jesus, then our efforts would be of no lasting value. If we could produce a great fortune that creates jobs and income for millions, but we did not become followers of Jesus, then our accomplishments would be trivial.
The rich young man did not like what Jesus had to say about wealth so he walked away. He elevated his ideas and feelings about wealth above Jesus. If we elevate our ideas about wealth above Jesus, whatever they may be, then we, too, have missed the point.
Instead of hearing only the words of Jesus that seem to support our preconceived ideas about wealth, let us hear all that he has to say. When we do, we will find that Jesus Christ has much more to offer than economic freedom or fairness. Jesus is more than a reformer. Jesus is Redeemer.
– Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, Camden, AR, January 2012
Printed January 2012; Camden News; Camden, AR.