What was Jesus view of wealth? I want begin in what may not seem to be the most obvious place for discussion: The discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24-25), especially the stories of the talents and the story of the sheep and goats in chapter 25.
Matthew presents Mount of Olives discourse as Jesus final teaching before the Passion Week. Jesus talks about what the end of time will be like. In 24:36-44, Jesus calls for watchfulness where the evil ones will be “swept away” and the righteous “left behind” as in the day of Noah. He then turns to the story of the unfaithful steward in 45-51.
The story of the unfaithful steward draws on the image of the large landholder who would often leave for months at a time to deal with various matters. Households in the ancient world were businesses and in this case the image of large villa is in mind. He had a household manager (usually a free member of the household but sometimes a trusted slave) who was to run the household exactly as the owner would have run it had he been there. The manager was called the oikonomos in Greek and it is the word from which we get “economics.” This manager was responsible for running the business well but also for taking care of the needs of the household members. In this story Jesus has the master return only to discover that his oikonomos has not managed the estate according to the master’s heart and mind and he exercises judgment on the unfaithful steward.
After a story about ten bridesmaids and the need for watchfulness (25:1-23), Jesus gives another story set within the context of household management. Three servants are given talents by their master: Five to one servant, two to another, and one to yet another. He tells them to invest them in his absence. The master leaves for a long time and then returns to settle accounts. The first two servants doubled their holdings but the third hid his talent and presented it when the master returned. We are so familiar with this story that we fail to pay close attention to the dialog between the master and this last servant.
The servant clearly knows that he is in trouble. Why does he insult his master?:
24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' (NRSV)
Kenneth Bailey points out that in Palestinian culture there were two types of men that become wealthy. One was the great nobleman of the plans. The other was the chieftain of the hill country marauders. These tribes prided themselves on their ruthless ability to live off the land; to steal grain and livestock from the people of the valley. The words of the servant in verse 24 would be high praise to one of these marauder chieftains. The problem is that the master in the story is clearly a nobleman of the plains. This servant has totally misjudged the character, heart, and mind of his master. This has led him to act contrary to his master’s wishes. He did not have the heart and mind of his master. Jesus warns us not to make the same mistake.
The final story is the separation of the sheep and the goats. The Son of Man commends the sheep:
… 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
This list of works was used by the Jews to symbolize all good works. These were the things that the Son of Man wanted done. The sheep did them. They had the heart and mind of the Son of Man without even knowing who the Son of Man was. It was instinctive. When it comes to the goats, we get the distinct impression that had they known it was the Son of Man they were ignoring that they would have behaved differently. That is to say, had they known something was in it for them they would have behaved differently. But in either case, they did not have the heart and mind of the Son of Man. The key to Jesus final instruction appears to be simplicity: We are to have our minds singularly focused on his return and to have his very heart and mind in all we do.
As I look through the gospels and read where Jesus talks about the poor, I’m unaware of any where Jesus attributes the poverty of some to the wealth of others. Nor does Jesus advocate closing the gap between the rich and the poor. Jesus does draw on the imagery of the jubilee in Luke 4 when he announces his ministry at Nazareth, but as we have seen, the jubilee was primarily about insuring that everyone received and kept an ownership stake in God’s Israel project.
When it comes to wealth, Jesus usually expresses his concern in terms of the impact that wealth has on those who own it. In the parable of the Rich Young Man in Matthew 19, Jesus tells the Young Ruler he can inherit eternal life by doing the following:
You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (19:18-19)
These are the “horizontal” commands (human relationships) of the Ten Commandments and if you look closely you will find one is missing: You shall not covet. When the man says he has kept all of these, Jesus says all the man lacks is to sell all he has and give to the poor. The issue is not that the poor need his money so much as this man is trapped in covetousness.
Jesus tells the story of the man who tears down his barns to build bigger barns in Luke 12. Kenneth Bailey notes the man in deliberating to himself instead of with others. This man has cut himself off from others and has become obsessed with his wealth to the point of his own destruction.
Negatively, Jesus warns that we can’t serve both God and mammon and that it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Positively, he tells us not to worry for as God takes care of the flowers, so will he take care of us. There is the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, which many use as a condemnation of wealth. Yet the Rich Man calls out to Abraham in heaven to relieve him. Abraham had extravagant wealth in his lifetime. One rich man is calling out to another. Is this a condemnation of wealth or of the rich man’s devotion to his wealth apart from other priorities?
The common theme in so much of Jesus teaching is rectifying misaligned priorities. Simplicity (singleness of focus) has been lost. The call is to simply focus on God and seek his heart and mind. That will reshape every aspect of our lives including how we use our wealth. The poor have less problem keeping this focus because they have no other choice. It is the wealthy who are in peril.
Next we will take a quick look at what the rest of the New Testament has to say about wealth.