Last month, we began to explore the degree of dispossession that Jesus expected of the rich ruler if he was to inherit eternal life. This is of interest to us, as I have shown that Jesus’ words to the rich ruler have undeniable application to every one of us, rather than uniquely to him, as is often thought.
I did my best to prove that Jesus did not expect the rich ruler to dispossess to the degree that he would be naked and homeless, poorer than those who were helped by his charity. But we naturally wonder to what degree Jesus did expect him to dispossess, and that is the primary subject of this e-teaching.
As we explore this topic, it is important to remember that the most dangerous Bible teachers are those who focus solely on one or just a few selected scriptures at the expense of ignoring all the rest. I would go so far as to say that all bad theology stems from that very error. Any time interpreters assign greater importance to one, or select groups, of biblical texts, they are certain to be dead wrong at worst or very unbalanced at best. (Yet even the innocent practice of highlighting certain verses in our Bibles reveals our tendency to judge some scriptures as being more significant than others.)
All of this is to say that Jesus’ conversation with the rich ruler is not the only passage in the Bible that deals with the subject of money, possessions and stewardship. And in light of all that God has said, it is hard to believe that Jesus expected the rich ruler to dispossess to the degree that one who reads only that story might assume.
For example, we cannot help but wonder, if God was opposed to the rich ruler owning any land, why did He give land to every Israelite family during the conquest of Canaan? The fact is, God gave the Israelites land for the express purpose of providing them with the means to create wealth:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper…. But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth (Deut. 8:7-9, 18a).
If it was wrong for the rich ruler to possess land, then it was wrong for the Israelites to possess land. Moreover, God helped the Israelites to “sin” in this regard, since He is the one who gave them their land.
Also, take note that God required the people of Israel to generously care for widows, orphans and the poor. The only way that they would have been able to care for the disadvantaged, however, was if they had some means of creating wealth—thus the need for land. In fact, their obedience to God’s requirement that they leave the gleanings of their fields so that they could be gathered by the poor (see Lev. 19:9-10), for example, required that they have fields and crops.
And this is where I would like to begin my thesis regarding what the Lord was expecting of the rich ruler, and what the Lord is expecting of us. I do not believe that the rich ruler thought, or that we should think, that God expects us to dispossess of those means by which we earn an honest living, produce goods, or create wealth. The rich ruler’s sin was not over-productivity, but self-indulgence coupled with gross negligence of the poor. He had tons of treasure on earth, and little, if any, in heaven. This thesis, I think, squares well with all that the rest of the Bible teaches about godly stewardship.
Support for My Thesis
Supporting my thesis are examples in Scripture of wealthy people whom God apparently approved, and of whom it is never said that God required near-total dispossession of them, or dispossession of all their means of creating wealth. All of those examples of wealthy biblical characters beg the question, If near-total dispossession, including dispossession of all means of creating wealth, is required of wealthy people to inherit eternal life, why was such a requirement not revealed any time prior to Jesus’ conversation with the rich ruler?
Job, perhaps, is the pre-eminent example of a wealthy individual approved by God. By the biblical account, he was extremely wealthy, perhaps a millionaire by modern standards, yet God considered him to be the most righteous person on the planet at the time (see Job 1:8, 2:3).
There are, however, at least two things we need to keep in mind about righteous Job. The first is that, clearly, God did not want Job to serve Him only for the material benefits. Thus Job was rigorously tested, and God permitted Satan to take almost everything he had. Those whom God has so blessed would do well to check their own motives for serving God, and they should be prepared for the possibility of having their motives tested.
The second thing to keep in mind about Job is that he possessed a sincere concern for the poor. He said,
Some remove the landmarks;
They seize and devour flocks.
They drive away the donkeys of the orphans;
They take the widow’s ox for a pledge.
They push the needy aside from the road;
The poor of the land are made to hide themselves altogether.
Behold, as wild donkeys in the wilderness
They go forth seeking food in their activity,
As bread for their children in the desert.
They harvest their fodder in the field
And glean the vineyard of the wicked.
They spend the night naked, without clothing,
And have no covering against the cold.
They are wet with the mountain rains
And hug the rock for want of a shelter.
Others snatch the orphan from the breast,
And against the poor they take a pledge.
They cause the poor to go about naked without clothing,
And they take away the sheaves from the hungry.
Within the walls they produce oil;
They tread wine presses but thirst.
From the city men groan,
And the souls of the wounded cry out….
Have I not wept for the one whose life is hard?
Was not my soul grieved for the needy? (Job 24:2-12, 30:25).
But Job did more than lament over the plight of the poor. He served them with his wealth. He had no need, like the rich young ruler, to repent and liquidate those personal possessions that testified of his selfishness and lack of love for his neighbor. Job continually liquidated his personal wealth to meet pressing needs, as he served orphans, widows, the handicapped and strangers. In his final defense before his judges, he testified of himself:
When I went out to the gate of the city,
When I took my seat in the square,
The young men saw me and hid themselves,
And the old men arose and stood.
The princes stopped talking
And put their hands on their mouths;
The voice of the nobles was hushed,
And their tongue stuck to their palate.
For when the ear heard, it called me blessed,
And when the eye saw, it gave witness of me,
Because I delivered the poor who cried for help,
And the orphan who had no helper.
The blessing of the one ready to perish came upon me,
And I made the widow’s heart sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
My justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind
And feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
And I investigated the case which I did not know.
I broke the jaws of the wicked
And snatched the prey from his teeth (Job 29:7-17).
If I have kept the poor from their desire,
Or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
Or have eaten my morsel alone,
And the orphan has not shared it
(But from my youth he grew up with me as with a father,
And from infancy I guided her),
If I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
Or that the needy had no covering,
If his loins have not thanked me,
And if he has not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep,
If I have lifted up my hand against the orphan,
Because I saw I had support in the gate,
Let my shoulder fall from the socket,
And my arm be broken off at the elbow.
For calamity from God is a terror to me,
And because of His majesty I can do nothing…. (Job 31:16-23).
Have the men of my tent not said,
“Who can find one who has not been satisfied with his meat”?
The alien has not lodged outside,
For I have opened my doors to the traveler (Job 31:31-32).
May I mention in passing that Job assisted those who were truly poor, the “biblically poor” as I prefer to call them, the “least of these” as Jesus called them. They are those who lack basic necessities and opportunities to help themselves, not the “lazy poor,” whom Scripture condemns because they shun opportunity and expect handouts, greedy of what others, who do work, possess (see 2 Thes. 3:10).
May I also mention that Job gained his personal wealth through his business capital, which apparently consisted mostly of livestock. Without that means of creating wealth, he would have had no means to continue to help the poor.
Job’s Optimal Charity
I cannot resist also mentioning something Job didn’t mention but that is worth mentioning!
Job no doubt employed scores of people to take care of his livestock, a virtuous thing. Employed people don’t have to beg; employed people produce goods and services; employed people buy goods and services from others (providing income for them); and employed people have potential discretionary income that they can give to the truly poor who lack opportunity.
Poverty is cured and prevented through opportunities to earn income through work. Poverty is preserved and strengthened, however, through handouts, because handouts destroy initiative, create dependency, and reward neediness. Thus employers, like Job, hold the best cure for poverty.
Who would not agree that it would be best if economic parasites could become economic participants—people who earn incomes and enjoy self-sufficiency—by using their skills to produce goods and services that benefit others? Participants have opportunity to love their neighbors, first by simply not being a burden to them as parasites are, second by providing goods and services for them, and third, by caring for those who cannot care for themselves.
All this being so, some say that the best way to eliminate poverty is to purchase goods and services, which rewards work and economically lifts those who work. And those folks are partly right! When you purchase a good or service for your own benefit, you also benefit others. The standard of living of millions of people has been increasing in China, for example, because people in wealthier nations purchase what Chinese workers produce. Unfortunately, the economic benefits don’t trickle down all the way to the bottom as we might wish. And that is why, for example, Heaven’s Family is funding fish ponds in isolated leprosy communities in China. Even then, we’re not giving a never-ending stream of handouts, but providing a way for those afflicted with leprosy to provide for themselves.
While I’m on this topic, please allow me to go one step further and briefly answer another related question that readers have recently asked me: Is it wrong to save money?
Of course, when you save money, you are actually lending it, which is why your bank pays you a little interest. Your bank invests your loan, hoping to make a profit, which ultimately contributes to a functioning economy that employs people and keeps them out of poverty. So your savings help others besides yourself.
If you take a little more risk and bypass the bank, directly investing your money in stocks, bonds, or some business, you also contribute to a functioning economy, which again creates employment opportunities and keeps people—all over the world in our global economy—out of poverty. All of that is a good thing (as long as you avoid investing in what God hates).
As I’m writing this, I happen to be on a United Airlines flight to Albuquerque, where I’ll be serving the Lord for a couple of days. I’m so glad I’m not making this journey in a covered wagon, as so many have in the past. Of course, someone owns this jet. Actually, thousands of people each own a little piece of this jet. They are United’s shareholders. Most likely, the majority of those people worked hard to produce more than they consume, which enabled them to purchase shares in United Airlines. I’m thankful for those investors, because without them, I’d be wasting a lot of travel time. A functioning economy requires the savings and investment of those who produce more than they consume.
Part of my ticket price will make its way into those investors’ hands via United dividends, and part of it will be distributed to all of United’s thousands of employees. I’m helping to keep people out of poverty while I save myself months of travel time! It’s a win-win transaction, the hallmark of capitalism.
Now can I say something that might shock you? In light of the numerous charity-created fiascos around the world, I suspect that people’s hard work, their marketplace participation, and their savings and investments have done much more to lift people out of poverty than have many of their contributions to humanitarian organizations. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that many of those contributions have ultimately hurt, rather than helped, the poor.
Case in point: Give money to a charity that dumps a million tons of free rice in a poor country. That sounds wonderful until you learn that this seemingly wonderful act of charity is putting hundreds of regional rice growers and distributors out of business, because people don’t buy rice when they can get it for free. Everyone connected with the region’s rice industry is negatively affected. Jobs are lost, which cripples every aspect of the local economy. Only when the free rice runs out does the economy have a chance to slowly recover…until another boatload of free rice arrives in the port. The donors whose generosity made that free rice possible would have done better to invest in something that would create jobs and wealth rather than destroy them both.
All of this being so, clearly, the portion of our incomes that are devoted to helping the poor should be given wisely. If at all possible, it should help the poor to help themselves so that they no longer need our charity and can ultimately produce more than they consume. Then they can become savers, investors and givers. Only those who have no current hope of providing for themselves, such as orphan children, elderly widows lacking income, recent victims of natural disasters, refugees, and so on, should be given handouts (until such time as they can, when possible, become self-sufficient).
Back to the Rich Ruler
I ask again: Did God expect the rich ruler to do something that He never required, as far as we know, of anyone else before him? Did God expect him to liquidate everything, including all business capital, so that he would have no way of contributing to the health of the local economy, no way of hiring employees, no way of investing into profitable ventures, and no way to earn an income that he could share with the poor? Did God want to reduce him to a beggar and parasite, dependent on the charity of others (who incidentally could only help him if they had not already liquidated everything)? That seems unlikely to the point of impossibility.
So, although it is clear that Jesus expected the rich ruler to significantly dispossess of his personal possessions, I don’t believe that Jesus was requiring of him, as a requirement to inherit eternal life, something far beyond what God ever expected of any other wealthy person before him who also desired eternal life, people like Job, Abraham or David, or something far beyond what was ever required of anyone under the Old Covenant, under which the rich ruler was living.
Certainly, under the Old Covenant, God expected the people of Israel to care for the poor (see, for example, Ex. 22:21-27; 23:11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; 25:35-43; Deut. 14:28-29; 16:9-15; 24:10-15, 19-22; 26:12-13; Ps. 37:21, 25-26; 41:1-3, 112:5, 9; Prov. 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 29:7; 31:20; Is. 1:16-17, 23; 10:1-3; 32:5-7; 58:6-10; Jer. 5:27-29; 22:13-17; Ezek. 16:49; 18:7-17; 22:12-13, 25, 27, 29; Dan. 4:27; Amos 2:6; 5:11-12; Zech. 7:8-10; Mal. 3:5). The rich ruler would have heard these verses read in the synagogue all of his life. He surely knew that those whom God considers righteous not only avoid murder, theft and adultery, but that they also care for the poor. But it would have never entered his mind, or the mind of any Jew knowledgeable of Scripture, that God required near-total dispossession, or dispossession of their God-given means of creating wealth, on behalf of the poor.
Surely the rich ruler had plenty of opportunities to use his wealth to benefit the poor, but he apparently hadn’t seized those opportunities. And so there was only one remedy—he needed to deny himself, dispossess of a significant percentage of his personal possessions, and give to the poor. Of course, one such act of dispossession followed by a return to hoarding and self-indulgence was not what Jesus had in mind, but rather, following the example of Job, an on-going self-denial and dispossession on behalf of the poor for the rest of his life.
Two Stories That Support My Thesis
Looking at the wider context of all of Jesus’ words about the wealthy, we recall His condemnation of a rich man in a parable who, after an exceptional harvest, decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones in order to hoard his grain and goods, so that he could take it easy for the rest of his life, eating, drinking and being merry. He died on the night of his selfish decision. Jesus called him a fool who “stored up treasure for himself” (see Luke 12:16-21).
Was Jesus condemning his productivity? Was He trying to communicate that the rich man should have sold his farm, given all the proceeds to charity, and then lived as a beggar or searched for a job as a day laborer?
I think it is more likely that Jesus was condemning his selfish decision to hoard His God-given blessing—which demonstrated his lack of concern for the poor—along with his selfish decision to become unproductive and live a life of ease. I think God expected the man to give to the poor as much as he could from his abundance, yet preserve what capital he needed to continue being productive, by which he could have continued to lay up treasure in heaven and continue doing his part in the local economy that helped others stay out of poverty.
We recall another story Jesus told about a rich man who found himself in hell after doing nothing to help a starving and sickly beggar named Lazarus who had been laid at his gate. Jesus described the rich man as one who “habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day” (Luke 16:19).
There is no hint in Jesus’ narrative that the rich man was guilty for earning wealth. It is quite clear, however, that Jesus condemned him because he, like the rich man who built bigger barns, only cared for himself, and lived luxuriously, having no concern for the “least of these.” His self-denial score, like so many professing Christians, was zero.
Paul Adds Support
I can’t think of any instructions to believers in any of the epistles to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. I can find, however, some words that Paul addressed to employers. He instructed them to treat their employees fairly, but he never told those employers to dispossess of their business assets. All of this implies that there is nothing wrong with owning business assets (see Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:2).
Moreover, Paul did give specific instructions to the rich, and he did not tell them to totally dispossess or relinquish themselves of their means of making money. Rather, he told them:
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
First, note that Paul said that God “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (v. 17). If it is a sin to have some things to enjoy, then God is helping us sin by supplying us with those enjoyable things.
Second, Paul clearly implies that those who are rich in this present world are not necessarily rich in the future world, but that they can become eternally rich by generous giving and laying up treasure in heaven.
Third, Paul indicates that those who are rich in this present world but who are not rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, will not “take hold of that which is life indeed,” undoubtedly meaning “eternal life,” which is perhaps why the King James Version translates it, “that they may lay hold on eternal life” (v. 19). That agrees perfectly with what I have been trying to communicate in my e-teachings since April!
So How Much?
So what portion of our incomes should we give to charity?
That depends on numerous factors, and so there is no set amount or percentage that can be set as the universal standard. For example, everyone faces different circumstances during the course of their lives that dictate varying degrees of need. If, for example, you are just getting started in life and need to gain vocational training or higher education, or get a business started, your needs may well be greater than those who are past that stage. I do not believe that God is expecting you to forgo what will help you earn an income that will ultimately enable you to lay up maximum treasure in heaven. Everyone needs some kind of capital to get started earning an income, whether it be physical (muscle and/or tools) intellectual (skills or knowledge), or material (money to invest or start a business). And most folks have to take some start-up risk by borrowing someone else’s capital in order to gain some capital of their own.
And, of course, how much one can give depends on one’s current assets and income. It wasn’t until the farmer in Jesus’ Luke 14 parable realized his bumper harvest that he was faced with a decision of what to do with his windfall—and when God held him accountable for it. If you find yourself afflicted, like him, with “Bigger Barn Syndrome,” you need to re-read his tragic story.
The wisest people, of course, are those who lay up as much treasure as possible in heaven, because only there will it not perish. And even though our purchases of goods and services, as well as our investments, do help lift and keep people from poverty, Jesus never told us that those are means to lay up treasure in heaven. The reason is because purchasers and investors benefit by their purchases and investments. They make no sacrifice. It is not until they dispossess of their purchases and investments, and give the proceeds, that love is expressed.
Laying up heavenly treasure is accomplished by selfless giving to the “biblically poor.” So our goal should be to give to them the greatest percentage of our assets and income that we possibly can, and in every case, if possible, to help them ultimately become self-sufficient. Remember, the Good Samaritan did not enroll his victimized beneficiary in a never-ending welfare plan.
We can only give, however, what we earn and don’t consume. So, as John Wesley taught, “Earn all you can, save all you can [that is, consume as little as possible], give all you can.” If we use our God-given talents and opportunities to reach our highest earning potential, and if we live as frugally and simply as we can within the unique circumstances of our lives, then we can effectively lay up the maximum amount of treasure in heaven.
And the person who “gives all he can” will find that God gives back to him abundantly, enabling him to continue giving (see 2 Cor. 9:6-11).
Finally, What About Luke 14:33?
Finally, it would seem that Jesus’ statement that no one can be His disciple who does not give up all his possessions (Luke 14:33) should be similarly understood as His words to the rich ruler. Note that Jesus’ Luke 14 requirement to give up all of one’s possessions is found at the end of a list of three requirements for those that would be His disciples. The first two requirements were surely not meant to be taken literally, namely, Jesus’ requirement to hate one’s parents, spouse, children and siblings and His requirement to carry a cross. For that reason—and other reasons that I’ve already mentioned in relationship to Jesus’ words to the rich ruler—it seems doubtful that Jesus’ words in Luke 14:33 should be taken in their most literal sense. But just like His words to the rich ruler, they obviously indicate some degree of actual dispossession, rather than nothing more than a “mental relinquishment” that requires no actual relinquishment (what is often taught in Christian circles).
OK, I’ve done my best to interpret honestly Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler and address all the good questions I’ve received from my readers. I hope it has helped you as you journey along the narrow way that leads to life (Matt. 7:13-14)! — David