Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What does the New Testament Say About Wealth?

Check out today's episode

pic found at acting-man.com
I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Wealth. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy

One of the most often cited verses from the bible about money is Matthew 6:19, which say that you should lay up your treasures in heaven rather than on earth, generally considered to be an anti-greed message. I think this is generally a good message, focusing too much on material things can lead people to wasting their life acquiring things rather than enjoying what they have, and missing out on many important things in life such as friends and family. This leads us to Hebrews 13:5 which says to be free from the love of money, and instead be content with what you have. This is also a great message, whether you are poor or rich, it is so easy to focus on the things we don't have and miss out on enjoying the things we do. But the New Testament doesn't only focus on our own wealth, it also acknowledges that it is easy for us to evaluate other people based on how much money they have, and James 2:3-4 warns us not to treat poor people worse than rich people. It says that those who treat poor people worse than rich people are evil. Again, this seems like a good message.

But is James 2 telling us that all people are the same? Just reading verses 3 and 4 might lead you to believe it is trying to say everyone is equal, that rich and poor alike have the possibility to be good or bad, and you shouldn't prejudge. This would indeed be a good message, unfortunately that is not what is being said here. If you continue on, James 2:7 casts rich people in a negative light saying they are blasphemers. The goal is not to set everyone on equal footing, it is to turn the tables and see poor people as good and rich people as bad. This is not the only place we see this message, in James 5:4-6 rich people are accused of fraud because they get rich on the work of their laborers. While this may be true for some rich people, the problem here is all rich people are being cast in the same light, the message is that if you are rich you are automatically evil. This message is exemplified in Luke 18:25 which says that rich people can't get into heaven. This is probably the most often cited verse about wealth, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich people to enter heaven.

But in one example, not getting into heaven wasn't even enough. Acts 5:1-11 tells the story of a husband and wife who tried to save some money for themselves that they were supposed to give to the church leaders. This was a story of the earliest Christians who were supposed to pool their money with their spiritual leaders who would use it to take care of everyone. Apparently the first Christians were communists, try telling that to modern Christians in America! Anyway, when the church leaders found out this one couple had held some of the money back, they killed them. Well, actually the story says that they questioned them and they suddenly breathed their last breath. I'm not sure how much I believe that story, but so be it, God killed them.

But this last story really betrays what this is all about, the church wants you to give them your money. They want you to think that being wealthy is bad so you will give them your money. Granted, there are verses that try to combat this idea, 1 Corinthians 9:11-12 tells of a story where disciples went to Corinth and were more interested in saving souls than making money from them. Which sounds like a good story, except that even here they made it clear that they actually deserved money from the people, but they were passing it by in favor of saving their souls instead. Is this generosity, or just a long term investment? Perhaps they just needed more time to get the people on their side so they could take their money later. Which is exactly what we see later in 1 Corinthians 16:2. But does the church stop there? Nope! In 2 Corinthians 8:2-4 we see poor people being praised for giving money to the church "beyond their means". We also see this in the parable of the widow in Luke 21:1-4 and Mark 12:41-44, the woman is praised for giving "all she had to live on" to the church even though she was in poverty. What kind of person could take that woman's money? Greed seems to be written into the very fabric of the church.


  1. As I read this two thoughts came into my head. First, you are spot on with the notion that the Church isn't against wealth...rather, they are against your wealth and for their own. Churches have played this card to its fullest since day one. Just look at the real estate and other assets that most sects possess. It really is stunning.

    Second, this provides us with a great example of "cherry picking". The Christian Right in this country completely ignores all of the points that you made above. It is as if they do not exist. Instead, they focus on the parts of the bible that support their social agenda. It really shows how hypocritical they truly are. The bible is only useful when it suits their needs.

    1. Completely agree about the cherry picking. It's why it is so bad that there are conflicting messages in the bible, no matter what message they want to put forward, they have justification in the bible for it as long as they ignore the other part. So if the bible has a good position and a bad position on a topic, we win. That's obviously not how it plays out, but it's how it should. Gives me an idea for a post "why I can cherry pick your bible and you can't"

  2. Great summary, Hausdorff. In your paragraph beginning "But in one example...," did you mean that to be a reference of Acts 5:1-11?

    One think I've heard Christians ask was what could have been the motivation of these early church fathers to spread a false religion. And, when you look at many of the good verses, it's hard to argue against the intent of that question. But then there are the several verses you've cited here, where obviously the church leaders were already on the path of demanding money from their constituency, or at least persuading them to give it up. In fact, I wonder if the blasting of the rich in the epistles was really used as a way of making the people in the congregation who had some wealth feel guilty enough to offer it up.

    As RB points out, the hypocrisy in the face of the modern church against these verses is rather rank. But I think the church had to come to this evolutionary stage, because they realized that there was no guarantee of Jesus coming back anytime soon, so having a little wealth was probably a good thing.

    1. Yes I did, thanks TWF, I actually noticed that when I was recording the podcast episode, but apparently I forgot to edit the post, fixed now.

      I always find that particular question from Christians quite curious. While there certainly is evidence that there was some possibility for greed and manipulation, I'm much quicker to think that people are generally duped. I would guess most church leaders just bought in to the whole thing. Seriously, how hard do you think it would be for a true believer in charge of the church to think "I'm saving their soul, the least they could do is give me a little money so I can go save more souls", over time a small portion grows to a little bigger portion.

      It's certainly possible there was someone there at the beginning who knew it was all BS but was setting all of this up out of greed, but I don't think that is necessary at all. All of this could have grown out of well-meaning but ultimately self-interested people.

  3. This post and the comments on it strike me as excellent. I can't think of anything to add except thank you for it! I've learned some things I didn't know before.


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