Like a prophet of doom the disciple James – brother of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – cries out his jeremiad against rich disciples in his own day. Surely what he has to say would not be received well by those Christians who were well off. However, James is fearless because he only echoes the words of his brother spoken decades before:
“Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your full consolation now.” [Luke 6:24 NCMM]
Was Jesus a hypocrite who asked his disciples to do one thing while he did another? Hardly! For the Nazarene Master was poor by choice. He told one would-be follower: “I have no home and no place to sleep.” One of his most famous disciples says of him:
“For you are aware of the charitable kindness of our Master Jesus Christ, that in your behalf he became poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich through that One’s poverty. [2 Corinthians 8:9 NCMM]
Indeed, no one in human history ever made a greater sacrifice of his riches than God’s Son. He “emptied himself” of all his heavenly honors, privileges and powers to become an obedient human slave who surrendered his own life in a torturous death. [Philippians 2:5-7]
Paul himself imitated the life-style of Jesus. He declares in his on defense as a minister of Christ when he says:
“Until this present hour we both hunger and thirst – are without proper clothing, are beaten, and homeless. … in labor and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger, in thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” [1 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Corinthians 11:27 NCMM]
Given the above, has the modern Christian Church with all is multitudes of sects – non-denominational and otherwise – organizations and church groups [high and low] – abandoned the original teachings of the Nazarene Master regarding God and Riches? Have so-called “born again” Christians, evangelical, charismatic, non-denominational, and any other self-styled group followed a path very different than the one followed by the carpenter from Galilee?
Any sincere Bible student – or, any Christian who claims the Nazarene as his or her master – or, anyone who professes to be a believer and follower of Jesus Christ – must admit that they are duty bound to follow the teachings of the Master as well as those of his inspired disciples. Some claim to follow the teachings of Jesus – and this may even be true regarding certain formal doctrines – but do they follow his Sayings when it comes to God and Riches?
What do we mean? If you, O Christian, have the courage, now remove your wallet or purse and look at it. Open it. Are you aware that how your Master will judge you will be largely dependent on your wallet or purse and how you use its contents? Look at your credit cards? Look at your savings deposit book? Look at the value of your property. Look at your total worth? Based on this standard, is it possible that these will have a strong bearing on how the Master judges you in that Day?
This is not a notion well received in these days. It is particularly not well received in the capitalist West in the United States and Europe where Christians are rich and well-off. By far the majority of Christians who read this material will either stop reading, or destroy the information, or condemn it. For the rich are much like an alcoholic who denies he is such. Many will argue they are not “rich.” It is true that what is rich is something of a comparison. That is, what is rich to one person, is poverty to another. What is rich or wealthy by Christians in one community may be considered poverty by Oprah or Bill Gates.
The difference between one category of rich and another might be compared as follows. A mother in one community spends $4 to buy a pair of running shoes, while in another community another mother spends $120. In comparison to some in India both are rich. So we must admit that what is “rich” in one area is not so in another. How can we understand the true Christian position on these matters?
Our Master compared a widow in the Temple area who contributed the smallest of coins as the total of her income and subsistence with those of the Jewish hierarchy who gave out of their “surplus.” [See Luke 21:1ff.] This example shows that the word “rich” is defined as those who – after caring for everyday needs – have a surplus. While the poor barely survive and must often depend on the charity of others to barely subsist.
What separates the rich and poor is the matter of leisure-time and luxury-items. In other words, in some countries a worker must spend 80% of his or her income to just pay for shelter and food, leaving them little for leisure or luxury. In the wealthy western capitalist world the opposite is true. The rich have considerable time left for leisure and plenty of surplus for luxuries. So one Christian man was observed tipping a matrade in a prestige restaurant $100 just for a prime table. Another paid $100 for a “corking-fee” just to remove the cork from a $1000 bottle of wine at a $3,000 French meal. Another Christian couple spent $5,000 for a two week luxury cruise. Another Christian couple spent $50,000 for a luxury SUV.
Is there anything wrong with this? Opinions will vary. What would our Master say? We do not have to guess for Luke records his teachings on a mountain plain in ancient Palestine. When speaking to a crowd so large that it was described as people walking over one another, someone raised a question to Jesus. The response will not settle well wit modern Christians no more than it did with the one who raised the question. Note the Nazarene Master’s response:
LK12:13 Now someone in the crowd called out: "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!" LK12:14 But Jesus told him: "Man, who appointed me a judge or arbitrator over you?" [Exodus 2:14] LK12:15 Then Jesus said to the crowd: "Look out and be on guard against all kinds of greed, because even if someone is wealthy life does not result from one’s possessions." LK12:16 So Jesus told them all a parable: "A certain rich person’s farm produced a good crop. LK12:17 So he began to say to himself: ‘What should I do, because I have no place to gather in all my produce? LK12:18 So the farmer said, ‘This is what I will do. I will tear down my barns and I will build larger ones. Then I will gather into them all the grain and my goods things. LK12:19 Then I will tell my soul, ‘Soul, you have many good things stored up for many years. Rest now, eat, drink and be merry!’ [Ecclesiastes 2:24] LK12:20 But then the God said to him: ‘Fool, during this very night they will demand your soul from you. Now to whom will all you prepared belong?’ [Ecclesiastes 2:18, 19] LK12:21 So it happens to the person who saves for self but is not rich with regard to God." [Luke 12:12-21 NCMM]
Of course, Jesus anticipates the response of his “little flock” of intimate disciples, so he says to them:
LK12:22 Now Jesus turned to his disciples and said: "And so I tell you [disciples], do not be anxious regarding your souls as to what you will eat, nor regarding your body as to what you will wear. LK12:23 For the soul is more than food and the body more than clothing. LK12:24 You [disciples], consider the ravens how they do not sow or reap. They have neither barn or storehouse, and yet the God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than these birds? LK12:25 But which one of you [disciples] is able to add but a cubit to his life-span by anxiety? LK12:26 If you cannot do such a small thing, then why are you anxious about the rest? LK12:27 You [disciples], consider how the lilies grow. It does not labor or spin. But I tell you that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of these. LK12:28 So if these are in the field of a meadow today and tomorrow thrown into an over, how much more the God clothes you of little faith. LK12:29 So, all of you [disciples] do not keep seeking what you will eat or what you will drink, and do not continue to be anxious. LK12:30 For these things the non-Jews of the world of humanity continue to strive after, because your Father is aware you need these things. LK12:31 Instead, all of you [disciples] continue to seek His Kingdom and everything else will be provided to you. LK12:32 Do not be afraid, little flock, your Father was well pleased to give to you [disciples] the Kingdom. LK12:33 Sell your possessions and give to charity. Make for yourselves purses that never wear out – an inexhaustible celestial treasure – where a thief can never get close and moths never consume. LK12:34 For where your treasures are there also will be your hearts. [Luke 12:22-34 NCMM]
The Nazarene Master instructs his “little flock” to “sell your possessions and give to charity.” Did they do this? Or, did they rationalize and justify the whole matter so that the result was they gave but a token [one-tenth] to the poor and needy? We only have to turn to the historical account in Acts chapters 2-6 to see that they took Jesus quite literally.
There is no question that it is a controversial issue on how much a Christian ought to give to charity. It is not so much of a question that most Christians throughout the wealthy West in no wise make any sacrifice to their personal well-being in the matter of giving to charity. How can the matter be determined? There are a few things modern rich Christians may courageously consider.
First, though not counseling the rejection of their riches, the apostle Paul tells Timothy to “give orders to the rich.” What are these apostolic “orders”? Read the following in 1 Timothy 6:17-19,
“Command the rich in the present age not to be high minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but [trust] in God – the One granting us richly everything for our enjoyment – to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, saving for themselves a good foundation for the Future, that they may lay hold on the Real Life.” [NCMM]
Second, the matter of how “generous” to be may be characterized by the following. Let us suppose that a rich Christian wishes to purchase one of those large televisions with a screen four by five feet? Can that Christian sincerely say to the Master that he or she has given the same amount to the needy and the care of the poor? Suppose a Christian couple takes a “luxury cruise” with first class amenities? Have they given an equal amount in charity to the poor and needy Christians in their fellowship?
It is in the nature of the rich and wealthy Christian to immediately rationalize this away as having no bearing on their faith and God’s love for them? But are they being Scripturally realistic? Have they considered what James says about “pure religion” and “living faith”? Listen to the one who calls on the rich Christian to howl:
“Pure and undefiled worship before The God, even the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, [and] to keep oneself unspotted from the worldly social order. … My brothers, what is the profit if anyone says, "I have conviction," but does not have works? Is just his conviction able to save him? [For example], if a brother or sister is living without adequate clothing and lacks daily food, and anyone of you says, "Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed" – but do not give them their bodily necessities – what is the profit? Just so, conviction without works is dead by itself.” [James 1:27; 2:14-17 NCMM]
Could anything be more clear than the principle here stated? The person with faith who fails to care for the need of the poor is practicing a dead religion. His or her outward veneer of piety is nothing but a hypocritical mask.
The beloved apostle and relative of Jesus, John, also states the same thing. He compares the lack of charity to hate and manslaughter. Note his words:
“My brothers and sisters, do not worry about why the world hates you. We realize we have stepped over the gulf between death and life because we continue to love our fellowship. The individual who is unloving in their disposition continues under the condemnation of death. Anybody who hates a fellow is guilty of manslaughter. You realize that anyone guilty of manslaughter does not have everlasting life remaining within. Here is how we really understand what love is: our Lord sacrificed his very existence for us. For this reason we are obligated to sacrifice ourselves for our fellowship. For example: ‘if any of us has this world’s resources for maintaining life and is aware that another Christian is in need and yet slams shut the doors of his tender affections’ – how is it possible that God still loves that person? My little children, make it your habit to always show loving concern, not in speech or words only, but in positive and real action.” [1 John 3:13-18 NCMM]
Thus, the Christian who ignores his or her poor and needy brother and sister, providing nothing for their sustenance – no longer can claim to be loved by God. So the persons described by James and John are like those modern Christians who have enough funds to take a luxury cruise costing what some poor families do not earn in a year or two. Such pseudo-christians may contribute a token amount to ease their conscience, but nothing they give comes even close to be any kind of personal sacrifice.
The rich always have the funds to do or buy anything they want. They may expend a year’s wages on a single vacation and then think they have done their duty with a pittance given to a poor beggar with his or her hand out pleading for some kind of charity.
It is true that some very wealthy persons contribute in large amounts to causes, charities, hospitals or trust funds. However, no matter how much they give it never causes them the slightest inconvenience. To a Christian with millions of dollars in real estate, stock dividends or trust funds what seems a large contribution is nothing compared to their true value. Their charity is but a show and they do nothing to approach what might be a Christ-like sacrifice.
To be a true Christian means the disciple must imitate their master and teacher. He lived a simple life-style and devoted his talents and energies to the truly needy. The reason most Christians will never follow this Nazarene role-model is simple. It is a matter of FEAR, or a dread of insecurity. Jesus knew this and he spoke about the matter at least on two occasions. If the modern rich Christian will read Matthew chapters 5-7 and Luke chapter 6 and 12 they will easily see the Master’s warnings regarding greed and covetousness.
Jesus even sacrificed any leisure time he might have had in order to care for the material and spiritual needs of the crowds. In this regard Mark 6:31 records,
“Then Jesus said to them: ‘All of you come way [with me] to a private spot in a place of solitude and then get a little rest.’ For there were many people coming and going and they had no leisure time to even eat.” [NCMM]
The Nazarene was a dedicated man who lived a simple life-style so he would be in a position to devote his waking hours to the needs of others.
In the prophetic context of the end-times just prior to the Parousia of the King, Jesus warned Christians of the following on two different occasions.
LK17:26-30 – "And just as it was in Noah’s days, so it will be also in the Days of the Son of Humankind. They were eating, drinking, marrying, and being given in marriage, until that day Noah entered into the Ark. And then the Cataclysm arrived and destroyed every one of them. [Genesis 6-8] Likewise, just as it was in Lot’s days – they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building. But, on that day when Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from the sky and destroyed every one of them. [Genesis 19] Just so it will be the same on the Day of the revelation of the Son of Humankind. [Isaiah 11:10; Daniel 7:13; 12:1]” [NCMM]
People, including Christians, would be so busy with the material pursuits of life that they would push God and spiritual matters more and more into the backgrounds of their lives.
Luke 21:34-36 – "Continue paying strict attention to yourselves lest your hearts become burdened in overeating and drunkenness and life’s anxieties, for that Day will arrive upon you suddenly like a trap. For that Day will come upon all those dwelling upon the face of all the earth. Continue to remain awake, supplicating in every season of time so that you might be strong enough to ‘escape’ [Daniel 12:2] all these things destined to occur and [finally] to stand in the very presence of the Son of Humankind." [NCMM]
Here Jesus describes the dangers of leisure time for the Christian who may have too much to eat, too much to drink, and all of this compounding “life’s anxiety”. Or, as some versions out it, “anxieties over livelihood.”
Each Christian has the same amount of time – 720 hours a month. Of course about one-third is used in sleep and another third in secular work. This leaves one-third for other matters of life. In many western Christian countries such as the United States, even many disciples of Christ live for the “weekend” when millions breakaway for leisure time. Often this involves sports or recreational activities. If one considers for a moment the billions upon billions of dollars Christians expend on leisure activities it is something of a shame that befalls the Church.
It is not a question of a certain leisure or recreational activity being wrong in itself. It is more a question of the squandering of so much money while people around the world – many including Christians – are either starving or living on the barest of subsistence. How can Christians stand before the judgment seat of Christ [2 Corinthians 5:10] with that burden resting on their shoulders? In one of his most well-known parables it is precisely on the “goats” failure to provide charity and hospitality to the sheep that they end up being driven into everlasting extinction. So it is a most serious matter to contemplate.
Often leisure is associated with luxury. Luxury is defined as “1. The use and enjoyment of the best and most costly things that offer the most physical comfort and satisfaction. 2. Anything contributing to such enjoyment, usually something considered unnecessary to life and health.” [Websters] Examples of such luxuries abound for in some countries there is a “luxury tax.” While some would argue that a watch is a necessity to modern function, the cost of such a watch may indicate what kind of “luxury” is involved. As someone once said: “A person only needs so much money and the rest is just for show.”
It is interesting that in the Bible in a variety of translations the word “luxury” often occurs in a religious or spiritual context and this usually in a bad light. For example, consider the words used in the prophetic context of the desolation of what the Bible’s last book calls “Babylon the Great.” Revelation 18:3, 19 in several versions associates luxury with this Great City and the merchants who do business with her. These verses read when judgment is passed on such a spiritual city which some believe is a symbol of the Church:
“The traveling merchants of the earth became rich from the power of her uncontrolled luxury.
… They threw dust on their heads and they cried out weeping and mourning’, saying: ‘Woe, woe, the Great City, by which ‘all those having boats at sea became rich from her preciousness’.” [NCMM]
That is her “luxury.” [Weymouth Translation]
There can be no question that today at the beginning of the Third Millennium certain portions of the Church of Christ is getting richer and richer. Often this includes priests, ministers, clergy, evangelists and others closely involved with church business. Also, those Christians who as merchants do business with this “Great City” are getting rich on what one version calls her “shameless luxury.”
Indeed, the theme of many television evangelists has become what is called “the prosperity gospel.” Essentially, this is a concerted effort to convince Christians that Christ was wrong when he said you “cannot serve God and Riches.” [Matthew 6:24] This message affirms that God wants each Christian to become wealthy and that such wealth will be an outward sign, almost like a miracle, that such a person is blessed by God. A main feature of the “prosperity gospel” is that if one gives generously to an evangelist who already owns a prestige residence, a luxury automobile, and a corporate jet, then God will in turn bless such with similar abundance.
There were such religious persons in ancient Israel during the time of the prophets. For Habakkuk 1:16 cries out,
“Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.” [NIV]
The same attitude existed in the days of Jesus Christ. Note how the Jewish religious hierarchy are described in Luke 16:14, 15, 19,
“Now the Pharisees who were lovers of money heard all these things and they began to sneer at Jesus. So Jesus said to them: ‘Now there was a certain rich man who dressed in purple and linen, and every day he ate in merriment and eminence’.” [NCMM]
Jesus had earliest chastised the same group in Luke 7:25,
“But what did you go out to see? A man wearing luxurious clothes? People who are gorgeously dressed and live in luxury are found in palaces.” [Weymouth Translation]
Not only Jesus, but also one of his most intimate disciples condemned religious teachers who lived in luxury. Note what Saint Peter says at 2 Peter 2:13,
“These false teachers feast with you, indulging in luxuries of the day.” [NCMM]
In the opening verse to this article when James called on rich [Christians] to howl, he continues in his condemnation: “You lived indulgently and luxuriously upon the earth.” [NCMM] In particularly, James chastises the rich for withholding proper payment due to the laborers that worked for them:
“Behold, the earnings of the laborers who mowed your fields has been withheld by you.” [James 5:4 NCMM]
Such Christians exist today, for one was known to tell his employees that money was short and they would have to wait until Monday. Meanwhile he and his family went off on an expensive holiday, evidently using the money that rightfully belonged to those who had to struggle over the weekend without pay. No wonder James asks such rich religious folk:
“Does [the Master] not oppose you?” [James 5:6 NCMM]
Paul specifically cautions Christian women regarding the luxury of their dress and jewelry. Most modern Christian women may be irritated by this exhortation but no Bible student can side step it. The apostle writes:
“In addition, women: to adorn themselves with appropriate dress, soundness of mind, adorning themselves modestly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls, nor costly clothing.” [1 Timothy 2:9 NCMM]
Peter does the same thing in a similar context:
“Now, let not your adornment be the exterior show of hair-braiding – or the wearing of gold.” [1 Peter 3:3 NCMM]
Even a young Christian widow is caution by Paul on matters of leisure and luxury. For example, he writes to such:
“She who is given to luxury, living-hath died; and these things charge, that [these Christian women] may be blameless; and if any one for [their] own-and especially for those of the household-doth not provide, the faith he [she] hath denied, and than an unbeliever he [she] is worse.” [1 Timothy 5:6-8 Young’s Literal Translation]
In other words, if a young Christian widow does not care for her own – but lives a life of luxury – such a professing believer is worse than an infidel.
Looking at the “Christian” world in the West it cannot be denied that many women in the Church have succumbed to leisure and luxury. It is not unusual for a Christian woman to own more shoes or jewelry than she could possibly wear. Just as Christian men should, does it seem right that such Christian sisters think upon this matter. Have they spent more money on leisure and luxury than their charity to the poor? How many sets of ear-rings does a sister need? How many pairs of shoes? How many dresses? Should a Christian woman spend more on these luxuries than she gives to those in need? How any Christian – man or woman – justify the expense of a luxury cruise in first class accommodations while failing to donate charity to the poor? Can such a person stand before Christ – who taught, “Do not treasure up for yourselves earthly riches.” – with a head held high? Will not such a rich Christian become ashamed and embarrassed for so much riches and wealth squandered on leisure and luxury? [Proverbs 22:2]
No one can argue that there have not been periods of time throughout history when leisure and luxury vanished. For example, between the years 66-70 AD those who lived in Jerusalem – including no doubt rich Jews and some Christians – lost all their wealth. Indeed, some became so desperate they boiled and ate their own children! Wars and natural disasters and the vagaries of life can turn a wealthy person’s life topsy-turvy.
Jesus warns of this in one of his famous parables on the subject of greed or covetousness. The Nazarene Master describes a rich farmer who is doing quite well. Without thinking of God or the poor, this self-absorbed farmer decides to expand his farming business with the aim of finding more leisure for himself in later years. In the parable at the moment of this ego-centric dream, God speaks to the farmer:
“But then the God said to him: ‘Fool, during this very night they will demand your soul from you. Now to whom will all you prepared belong?’ [Ecclesiastes 2:18, 19]” [Luke 12:20 NCMM]
The conclusion drawn by Christ is:
“So it happens to the person who saves for self but is not rich with regard to God." [Luke 12:21 NCMM; compare Ecclesiastes 5:13, 14]
The prophet Zephaniah warned the Jews of his day of some future moment when wealth with its leisure time and luxury would vanish. The prophet trumpets:
“On the day of Yehowah’s sacrificial offering, Howl! … I will punish the princely elders and those who dress in outlandish foreign clothing. … For the merchants are finished and all their money-bags wiped out! … For their wealth will become booty and their houses destroyed. They will build their homes but never dwell in them. They will plant their vineyards but never drink their wine. … Neither their gold or their silver will be able to rescue them!” [Zephaniah 1:8, 11, 13, 18; compare Isaiah 2:18-20; Proverbs 11:4]
Surely something similar befell that Jerusalem of Jesus’ own generation.
There yet awaits the greatest holocaust of all time to befall upon Christians throughout the world. [Daniel 7:21-25; Revelation 11:2, 3; 12:17; 13:5-7] Such a great oppression without parallel in human history will come upon the Christian Church. This violent three and a half year period of persecution will happen just prior to the Return of Christ. Obviously any accumulated riches stored up as savings – along with the security, leisure and luxury they can buy – will become useless. Though literal or electronic savings will vanish the value of the use they could have served will not be forgotten. For the Judge of all the earth will remember these accounts. Were they used for selfish purposes out of some sense of security? Or, were they used to relieve the distress and need of the poor and afflicted? Each Christian will have to answer those piercing questions. For then we will all be stripped naked and exposed before Him with Whom we have an accounting. [1 Corinthians 4:5; Hebrews 4:13] It may come as a frightening shock that our wallet, savings account book or purse will become one the basis for our judgment. [Luke 16:9] The parable of the sheep and goats does not minimize the Master’s criteria of judgment based on a Christian’s empathy and compassion as characterized in their hospitality and charity. An everlasting inheritance in God’s Kingdom or eternal extinction are in the balance! [Matthew 25:31-46]
In this context our Master describes the reaction of some of his disciples at the Parousia-Judgment. Note Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the Heavenly Realm but the one doing the will of my heavenly Father. Many will say to me in The Day: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? And, in your name cast out demons? And, in your name did many miracles?’ And then I shall confess to them: ‘I never knew you! Get away from me, those working unlawfully!’” [NCMM]
Notice that these “Lord, Lord” Christians did not point to any works of charity! Notice they pointed to certain religious efforts, but omitted any spiritual use of their resources to care for the poor.
In a time of riches and wealth in the Christian [and capitalist] West – without parallel in human history – the genuine disciple of the Nazarene Master must be willing to think deeply and prayerfully on this matter. Mighty prayer and mediation are called for on some of the following Biblical texts.
Psalm 10:3 – “The wicked boasts about his heart’s desire, and the person greedy for dishonest gain curses and spurns Yehowah.”
Psalm 37:16 – “The poverty of the righteous person is better than the abundant riches of the wicked.”
Psalm 112:5 – “All will turn out well for the person who is generous and lends freely, as well as the one honest and fair in business.”
Proverbs 3:9 – “Honor Yehowah with your riches and with the best of your produce.”
Proverbs 11:28 – “The person who trusts in riches will come to nothing.”
Proverbs 16:8 – “It is better to have little earned honestly than great wealth achieved dishonestly.”
Proverbs 23:4 – “Do not labor to become rich. Surrender that personal ambition. One minute your eyes behold it and in another it vanishes. Riches are like a bird flying way to the sky.”
Surely, genuine disciples of the Nazarene Master will never end up “howling” because of either ill-gotten gain or a failure to be charitable to the poor and needy. Surely the genuine disciple will listen carefully to the Master’s teaching:
“You cannot slave for God and Riches. … For where your heart is you will find your treasure.” [Matthew 6:21, 24]
[20 July 2001]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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