The story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the premiere examples of repentance for Evangelicals. We stress a change in lifestyle as a requisite for truly following Jesus, for truly loving God, for truly being welcome into the Kingdom of God.
But they’ll usually put an asterisk around this story.
Evangelical preachers tend to say, “Jesus didn’t mean that you should really give up all your wealth.” “There’s nothing wrong with being rich.” “Wealth can be a false god, but only if…”
This is a means of ignoring much of the rest of the text, as well as the socio-cultural context. Jesus and most of his people were poor. They did not own land. They lived on it. They worked on it. But for others, always owing them. Always in danger of debtor’s prison. That’s the socio-cultural-economic situation that Jesus and much of his crowd found themselves in. But others lived among the better off, and they wanted to be have their cake and eat it too – in a sort of Marie Antoinette way. Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, they wanted to either follow Jesus or have some of what he had. Some of them, like Levi/Matthew, gave it all away and made good on their promises to follow God rather than follow money. Wealth, they understand, isn’t just a possible god, it is a god.
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.“
I’m noticing a few things here.
One) Typically when this passage, the parable of the harsh landowner, is preached, the emphasis is on the talents as being gifts or money that doesn’t belong to the person possessing it, but ultimately belongs to God. While this has an element of theological truth to it, it puts the handling of the property as a private affair between the property holder and God. But Jesus says to use it to “gain friends”. And he says here – like he did to the Rich Young Ruler, give it away so you may be welcomed into the Kingdom. Not manage it. Give it away to earn friends.
Two) “True riches” is distinct here from “worldly wealth”. Why is that? I propose that he’s talking about the Coming Age, the Kingdom that his hearers were expecting, the eschalon. To the landed, those who thought that their property belonged to them, he says it doesn’t – it belongs to someone else, they won’t receive actual riches until the Next Age, if they do at all.
Three) That someone else are the neighbors. The poor, those with disabilities, the outcasts, the working man, the hungry child, the nursing mother, the woman forced into prostitution. The property doesn’t really belong to the rich young ruler. It belongs to the community, via God. You’re just watching over it.
Four) We must choose between two gods. Jesus’ God and the god of wealth are at odds with each other. If, Jesus makes clear here, you love wealth/mammon/riches, then you hate God. It’s that simple. There is very little room for capitalism in God’s Kingdom, according to Jesus. He, in fact, doesn’t seem to think very highly of the systems that concentrate wealth. Especially at the expense of the poor.
Five) This wasn’t the first or only time the gospels show Jesus contrasting God with wealth. Meditate on what the darkness and evil is in this passage in Matthew 6.
Six) Notice who was tsk-tsking Jesus here? “Oh, that’s not really what you mean, is it? That’s so simple. You’re being a communist, Jesus. How can you reward laziness and punish success?” Yeah, the Pharisees. But at least they were honest about their disdain for Jesus. Now, they proclaim the Name of Jesus, but they don’t care for his message. But they are similar in that they both justify their evil in the sight of others.
Seven) This wealth hoarding is detestable to God. Why? Because it’s stealing from God by stealing from the community – from the poor, which Jesus was, and from the outcasts, whom Jesus actively worked to include into full community participation (which, oddly, many Christians still seem to actively oppose).
With all that, and with so much more biblical evidence (for example) against greed and envy (it’s not what you think), you’d think that Evangelicals would be the first in line to protest tax cuts for the rich at the cost of food for poor children.
House Republicans recently proposed cuts to nutrition assistance that will kick 280,000 low-income children off automatic enrollment in the Free School Lunch and Breakfast Program. Those same kids and 1.5 million other people will also lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamp benefits) that help them afford food at home.
Ten years’ worth of these nutrition cuts could be prevented for the price of one year of tax cuts on 3,340 multimillion dollar estates that House Republicans are protecting in their budget.
Yeah, so Christians have to decide which god they’re going to follow. And then repent.