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Is Being Rich a Sin?
by Stephen Williamson
2/03/2015 / Bible Studies
We are rich in the United States. We live wealthy lives, often unconcerned with poor countries. We need someone to wake us up to the suffering of the world. Therefore, the author has a question for those who are not awakened by the plain language of the Bible on this matter. Here is the passage that the question is about:
The Rich and the Kingdom of God
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is goodexcept God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
20 'Teacher,' he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
22 At this the mans face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"
27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Here is the question: do we hear Jesus and in astonishment ask "who then can be saved"? Do we hear Jesus threatening our place in heaven, as his disciples did? It seems that most of us assume, even in light of this story, that the rich will go to heaven. Today we marginalize being rich, and Jesus's disciples seem to have lived in a similar world. If this is true, why was the disciples' whole world being turned upside-down? Why did they ask "who then can be saved"? Let us take a closer look.
The passage begins in verse 17, where the rich young man asked how he could inherit eternal life. He was asking how to get to heaven. However, after addressing the man's manner of speaking, Jesus responds in verse 19 by telling him to avoid sin. This is critical to understanding the passage correctly, for most of us think about repentance and accepting Jesus's sacrifice when we think of going to heaven, at least those of us who know the Lord's offer of salvation. However, Jesus began by speaking of avoiding sin. This was the common view at the time; we just have to keep the Law of Moses and we can reach heaven on our own merit. Jesus confirmed this; although no one can do so, if we did, we would reach heaven. He started with the Ten Commandments, and the young man said he had kept them from childhood.
However, after this, something strange happens. We do not know at this point exactly what it is, but Jesus indicates an additional sin that the young man needed to avoid. He said that he could correct it by giving to the poor. It may also be significant to note that he needed to do this before truly following Jesus, but this may have had more to do with that individual rather than salvation.
The young man who had approached Jesus walks away sad, but it is not clear yet how this all applies to the rest of us. Then Jesus looks around and says something that, given their response, must have sounded to his disciples like an explanation of the young man's sin, saying, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!". This shocked his disciples. In fact, it must have turned their whole world upside-down; if they were anything like us, they were secretly wishing that they were rich, not to follow money, or to be engrossed in this world, but simply for its security. Is that so wrong?
Jesus then continues, saying, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.". We usually approach this deliberately graphic statement by trying to understand how it is possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and thus, for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. We tell ourselves that being rich is not really the sin Jesus was trying to reveal, and there are even people who attempt to explain how a camel might have gone through the eye of a needle, making it possible for the rich to go to heaven. However, Jesus's disciples approached the remark more honestly, asking one another what was for them the next logical question: "Who then can be saved?".
At this point we need to stop. It is worth noting why we approach Jesus's remark differently. There is one main way that we are different from Jesus's disciples during this time: we now know that anyone can be saved. This makes the disciples' response seem uninformed, so that we do not realize that we have the same questions. Many who read this passage ask themselves whether being rich is a sin, and this is exactly what Jesus's disciples were doing. Acknowledging this is the key to understanding the teaching, for Jesus's disciples were asking the very same questions. They were simply wondering at the implications, asking themselves, if this is a sin, are we not all guilty of it? "Who then can be saved?"
Having noted this, we see that Jesus actually does answer the question plainly, answering what he thinks his disciples are really asking: whether it is a sin to be rich. He does not say that going to heaven is still possible, as some are saying now, nor does he explain that he is simply trying to point out the young man's attitude, as most experts today claim. Instead, he challenges those of us who want to be rich, saying that in the same way that a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle solely by the effort of men because they are not powerful enough, the person who is rich cannot enter heaven on his own, because he has sinned. "With man this is impossible" (verse 27). Instead of quieting his disciples' fears, he confirms them, boldly and clearly telling them that being rich is a sin.
After all of this came the message of hope which we so often notice above the message of condemnation: "...but not with God; all things are possible with God.". There is hope for the sinner.
What we so often miss in reading the story is that Jesus's disciples were actually shocked. They noticed something that we miss: that it is hard for a person who is rich, something that we all strive to be, to enter heaven. This poses a clear concern: should we strive to be rich? It seems from this passage that pursuing wealth makes it more difficult to enter heaven. In fact, it makes it impossible outside of divine intervention, the same as any other sin. However, if this is all true, should we try to earn money, and if so, what should we do with it? Can we avoid being rich, the way that the young man who approached Jesus was rich?
We must first answer what it means to be rich. The truth may surprise you, and it comes from this very passage. When trying to address the young man's vast wealth, Jesus did not tell him to stop accumulating wealth, he told him to give. Many in the past have taken this passage to mean that we should be destitute, and there have been many monks who have tried to obey his command this way, but listen to what he is really saying: "give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven". This is the real reason he was to sell everything, not to be destitute, but to give. The implications of this are huge. It means that it is not sinful to receive wealth, or even to have it, which the rest of the Bible affirms. Sin enters when we do not give the way the Father wishes this is what makes a person rich.
So, how much should we give, and to whom? Sometimes we are tempted to think that we should give all of our money to our local church. This is neither biblical, nor healthy. Supporting our church organization is what the ten-percent tithe is for. Tithing is an institution created for supporting religious officials. Biblically, we should only give more as an offering prompted by something in our lives, such as atoning for sin or giving thanks. Instead, if we have extra money, our next biblical duty is to the poor. Leviticus 25:35 says that if any countryman becomes poor and unable to sustain himself, we are to sustain him, so that he can continue to live among us. So, these are our priorities, that first we should tithe, then give to the poor. We must do this without endangering our own ability to live, for that would also violate Leviticus 25:35.
In addition, our times have created other considerations for us, many ways of giving to the poor. Some of these ways are food, some of them are education, and others are medicine. We need to consider carefully which kind of giving is most important and desirable.
For example, consider food. There are two ways of providing food for the hungry: sustain them yourself, or help them to sustain themselves. Both have their place, for able-bodied people often fall out of work and need food, and sometimes they do work, but it is not enough for food, especially in poor countries. However, something to consider is that while the methods of helping people to sustain themselves can be more costly, you may only have to do it once.
Every such consideration must be guided by how our giving would affect the mandate stated in Leviticus 25:35, that we are to make sure our countrymen can continue to live among us. The best cause to give to is the one that will have the most profound impact on this mandate. There is no right answer, just pray and try to make a wise and moral decision regarding how your money will be used. Medicine and education can also be important.
Now, how much should we give? Jesus's answer for the young man who approached him was to give all of it. However, the implication seems to have been that if he did, Jesus would provide for his needs. He might not be making the same promise to us, since this appears to have been a call. "Then come, follow me." So, perhaps the best answer is that we should give as much as we can. Again, pray and try to make a wise and moral decision, remembering that we need a certain amount to survive, but that we are also trying to avoid sin in how we use it. This is the message for us today. Giving is the answer to the sin of the rich young man.
By an ordinary writer who wants people to know the truth.
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