Anyone familiar with the teachings of Jesus knows that he often spoke harshly about those who had wealth. One of his more critical statements illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.
First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.
Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.
Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule. In his mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice.
One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.
What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself. This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort.
His words and his actions express the dangers of wealth that Jesus consistently attacked, for in his desire for wealth he has failed to consider God’s kingdom of economic justice and he has failed to recognize the plight of his neighbors. Instead of giving his wealth to those around him who were suffering, he planned to tear down his storage barns in order to build bigger ones to stockpile his plenty.
In recent days we have all heard the tragic news of a financial crisis hitting our nation. While economists will debate the cause of this crisis as well as the possible solutions, I wonder what Jesus might say to those on Wall Street and others who have spent their lives gaining wealth at the expense of the poor. If I understand Jesus’ thoughts about wealth correctly, I would say that Jesus would indeed speak very harshly to those wealthy who have created a crisis that will have a tragic impact on millions.
Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, instead of seeking economic justice for all, these rich have sought to build bigger barns in which to store their abundance. And yet, what we will find in the near future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. The richer will be richer and the poor will be poorer.
Yes, our governmental leaders can and must seek a solution to this crisis. But such a solution cannot be effective if the rich are not confronted with their sin. Any permanent solution to this tragic situation must begin with the rich confessing their sin of greed that leads to the oppression and neglect of the poor, and must be followed by authentic and tangible acts of repentance that seek to create a more economically just society.