Think Jesus sends all rich people straight to hell? Think again
Editor’s note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from Rev. Robert Sirico’s The Economics of the Parables, which is now available to pre-order. The forthcoming book uncovers the enduring financial and moral insights of the biblical parables.
Each of the synoptic Gospels preserves the memory of an occasion when a rich young man (or “ruler”) approaches Jesus for spiritual direction. The potential disciple apparently has a deep desire to live righteously. He asks, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
After reminding the young man of the commandments and being reassured that he has kept them all his life, Jesus seems to read this man’s heart. He calls him to something even deeper than all his previous success and wealth: “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”
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He then gives the same invitation to him that he offered to Peter and Andrew: “Follow me.” I have joked that, had the man responded affirmatively, we might have had a thirteenth apostle.
This encounter sets the stage for Jesus’s teaching on the radical nature and cost of discipleship. Here is where the famous phrase so often recounted in discussions about wealth and economic success arises: “how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 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.” That vivid metaphor, which comes midway through the account, is perhaps its most memorable part.
Jesus’s words are often seen as a denunciation of wealth, or an indication that wealth is incompatible with discipleship. Oddly, people rarely remember the entirety of Jesus’s instruction. In fact, the young man is first told that he should engage in commerce!
Rev. Robert Sirico
Jesus says, “[G]o thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” The rich young man is not told to destroy his possessions nor to simply give away all he has. Yet that is how most people remember this passage. That will come, to be sure, but first he is to sell all his possessions; to liquidate his ownings. To “liquidate” one’s property is to make it more fluid (as the word suggests), that is, useable in a way it was not previously.
When one sells something, one engages in an exchange of values. If this man hopes to maximally help the poor to whom the proceeds of the sale will eventually be given, presumably he will seek to get a good price for his estate. The eventual benefit to those in need would be the result of his profit-making abilities, and this very act of enterprise or exchange would become the way in which he would prove himself faithful to the command of Jesus. His wealth would be a tool—one that cannot be intrinsically evil, because Jesus commanded him to use it. And the same thing is true not only about his wealth, but about his engagement in commercial exchange: the profit that he would realize from the sale would become the means to benefit others.
Of course, none of this ever transpired. The man gave up and went away sad “for he had great possessions.” Jesus sums up the encounter with a sober warning on the cost of discipleship: “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” Discipleship is indeed arduous, if taken seriously, because it will always require a sacrifice, a cross to be borne. And the crosses come in different shapes and sizes, depending on what is most important to each person.
Now comes one of the most memorable metaphors in the whole of the Bible: “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.” You can imagine how often I am asked about this verse. The final line of this pericope, on the other hand—the one that provides the key to understanding the whole encounter—is almost never remembered.
Pause now for a moment without reading further, and see if you recall what it is: What does Jesus tell us is the moral of this story? Jesus’s own disciples are baffled: “And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?”
Now comes the gravamen. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” Humanity, with all its abilities and achievements, cannot purchase an eternal relationship with God. The rich young man (and through him, each of us) is being taught a critical lesson: wealth cannot be the goal of our life.
We must not “trust in riches.” The young man was called to employ his talents—that is, to engage in commerce—but with a higher goal than the bottom line. He, and we, are to see wealth not as an end but as a means to a greater end—discipleship. How can this passage be interpreted to say that commerce or the wealth that it produces, is somehow intrinsically evil when Jesus clearly commands it?
The bigger picture came to me in seminary, on my first day in a course on moral theology. The professor began the class with a thought-provoking question: “Do you believe that the study of morality stands to make you a more moral person?” A debate ensued, pro and con. In the end I concluded that the study of moral theology stood the chance of being dangerous—to the extent that I gained a greater awareness of my moral responsibilities, my obligation to live the moral law was likewise increased.
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While invincible ignorance may get us a pass, knowledge increases obligation. So does wealth. And yet you can read a theologian arguing in a leading “conservative” journal that “the New Testament treats such [enormous] wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil.”
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You would think that theologians, Bible scholars, and clergy would know better. But this misunderstanding is all too common. A real understanding of what wealth is might clear the fog a bit, even if the challenge of how faithful believers ought to use abundant resources would remain. Isn’t wealth simply the total resources or opportunities that people have at their disposal? As these resources and opportunities increase, so does the concomitant responsibility that these opportunities be used well, morally, and responsibly… “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”
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