In our culture, and even in our churches, we often associate wealth and riches with greed and corruption. And we have no trouble finding Bible verses to support disdain for, or condemnation of, the rich.
But are we right to assume that riches are incompatible with following Jesus? Is it possible that Christians can be rich?
Christians may be rich, poor, or anywhere in between. Being rich does not disqualify anyone from being a Christian. But all Christians, rich and poor, are called to trust God over material wealth.
Biblical Teachings About Wealth
When we consider what the Bible has to say about riches our minds most likely go first to a catalog of well-known admonitions against wealth:
· For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:20)
· No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
· 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. (Matthew 19:24)
These sayings have been so ingrained in our culture that they are well-known even outside of Christian circles. But if we ignore their Biblical context, we might dismiss a whole cross-section of the population unfairly, and unbiblically!
So in addition to asking, “Can Christians be rich?” let’s consider how Christians can be rich. Or, more accurately, how rich people can be Christians.
The Rich Young Ruler
The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the conversation that Jesus had with a young man that ultimately prompted Jesus’ famous pronouncement about the camel (above). Let’s examine the interaction a little more closely.
When the young man asked how to gain eternal life, Jesus answered, “Keep the commandments.”
When asked which ones, Jesus replied, ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 19:18-19)
The young man said that he had done this and asked if there was anything else. Jesus then challenged him by saying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v 21). This prompted the young man to walk away sad.
If we examine Jesus’ words closely, we see that he initially cited only the commandments that address our interpersonal relationships. Jesus did not mention the first four commandments, which speak of our conduct toward God.
Presumably, Jesus knew that the young man’s heart was not right with God and that He had made his wealth an idol, in violation of the first two commandments.
In summary, Jesus was telling the young man to put God in his rightful place but knew that his wealth was such a barrier that he had to demolish the idol completely.
The young man was conflicted because he served money as his master. But can a person serve God as master and still have wealth? Yes. Scripture offers several examples of people whose wealth did not impede their faith.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithful
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.Job 1:1-3
The opening verses of Job reveal that he was both blameless and wealthy. After itemizing Job’s fortune, the writer calls Job the greatest, that is, wealthiest, man in the East.
It was Job’s fortune that led Satan to challenge his faithfulness and posit that without his wealth, Job would renounce and curse God.
Job lost all of his possessions, children, and servants (along with his health), but he endured his suffering while still trusting God. Ultimately, God restored Job’s health and doubled his fortune because he remained faithful.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.Mathew 9:9-10
As a tax collector, Matthew was not only wealthy but his wealth was likely gained dishonorably. Still, when Jesus called him, he walked away from his livelihood to follow Jesus. He honored Jesus by throwing an expensive feast, and after that traveled as a disciple of Jesus.
Mary, mother of John Mark
He [Peter] went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door.Acts 12:12-13
John Mark was a companion of the disciples who is best known for writing the earliest of the four gospels. When Peter was rescued from prison, he took refuge in the home of John Mark’s family. From this account, we see that the family was wealthy enough to employ servants.
Tradition tells us that the ‘upper room’ where the disciples met was part of this family’s estate. Some traditions even suggest that the garden of Gethsemane was a portion of the family’s olive farm.
Despite the personal and political risk of doing so, the family of Mary and John Mark used their resources to serve God’s kingdom and support the disciples.
One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.Acts 16:14-15
In Philippi, Paul was welcomed by a wealthy merchant named Lydia, who helped to establish the church in Philippi. As a dealer in purple cloth, which was expensive to produce and sold to the wealthy, Lydia was a merchant to the rich. Later, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we learn that the wealth of the local church led by Lydia would be used to support Paul’s missionary work and sustain him during his imprisonment.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker… and to the church that meets in your home.Philemon 1:1-2
Like Lydia, Philemon was a leader in a local church (in Colossae), and his home served as their meeting place. Paul’s brief letter to Philemon was prompted by his meeting of Onesimus, a slave who had stolen from Philemon and fled.
As a slaveholder, Philemon was among the upper class of his culture. In his letter, Paul encourages Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave, while offering to pay Onesimus’ debt to Philemon. Even while appealing for a slave’s freedom, Paul honored Philemon’s right to his personal wealth.
A Biblical Perspective of Riches
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.Ecclesiastes 5:12
A common thread in all of the examples we’ve explored is that each of these people understood their riches as gifts from God that were meant to be subservient to God.
By contrast, the rich man in Ecclesiastes loses sleep because all of his trust is tied up in his wealth, and he knows that it can be gone tomorrow. But the person who trusts in the Lord understands that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ (Psalm 24:1).
Jesus affirms this in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In this parable, Jesus describes a master who entrusts different quantities of wealth to each of his servants. The servants who use the master’s wealth for gain are rewarded. And the servant who fearfully hides his master’s wealth has his portion removed.
It is ironic, and not unintentional, that in Jesus’ tale, the person who is given the least is the most fearful.
So whether we are rich or poor, the expectation is the same. We are to trust God above all things, including our wealth, and use whatever resources he has given us – whether they are plenty or few, to glorify Him and advance His kingdom.