The perils of prosperity

Throughout history people seem to have had the idea that those who were rich would get to heaven and those who were poor would struggle to get there. This seems to have been backed by this idea: the wealth of the rich was evidence that God was blessing them; the poverty of the poor was proof that God was not with them. As attractive as that philosophy has been, it doesn’t take much reading in the Bible to discover that, more often than not, it is the poor who are faithful to God.

This brings us to the young man who came to Jesus who was quite rich. He asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 NET). He had the idea that if he did something good he would be given eternal life. And since he was wealthy, he could afford to do whatever it was that this teacher asked of him.

I am sure he was a bit surprised at the answer he was given. Jesus told him, “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). The commandments? He knew what those were, the list of do’s and don’ts that God had given Israel at Mount Sinai. Surely there was more to it than this! So he asked another question: “Which ones?”

Jesus responded by listing a number of what we know as the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:18). Again, that wasn’t the answer this young man was expecting, so he probed further.

“The young man said to him, ‘I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich” (Matthew 19:20-22).

And there was the problem. Although he had, in his mind, “wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws” he seems to have realized that there was something lacking. Jesus told him what the problem was: it was his wealth. If he wanted to be “perfect” he needed to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor so he could have real treasure – “treasure in heaven.” He could then follow Jesus.

The man went away very sad. The problem was that he was very rich. It seems his security was in his abundance. I’m sure he thought that what he had was real treasure. Jesus said to get treasure that would last for eternity he needed to sell and use his earthly treasure. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 19:23-24).

Does Jesus’ teaching here make us uncomfortable? Do we feel that our wealth gives us security? What would Jesus tell us if we came to him with the same question? I am confident that he would tell us the same thing: we need to use our riches to gain treasure that will be stored up in heaven.

“But this is too hard!” we might object. Notice how the disciples reacted: “The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and replied, ‘This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:25-26).

We need to learn to put our faith and trust in God and not in the riches of this world.

Readings for next week:
17 July – Matthew 20
18 July – Matthew 21
19 July – Matthew 22:1-22
20 July – Matthew 22:23-46
21 July – Matthew 23

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