Last year I listened to a sermon during which a Pastor read out Mark 10:25 from the Bible: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich one to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Without breaking sweat, he then proceeded to “explain” to the congregation with words to the effect that “Well of course that does not mean there will no rich people in heaven……,” and then went on to not just water down Jesus’ words, but but to deny them.
As I sat there in confusion at the Pastors soothing of the rich in congregation and his rebuttal of Mark 10:25, I wondering just what Jesus truly meant, and just what the Bible says about the rich. Interestingly, as I discovered later that afternoon, in Luke 18:25 the Greek word for “needle” used by Luke is ῥαφίς or rhaphis and means a sewing needle – the very type which Luke, as a doctor, would have used to sew closed wounds. Further, ῥαφίς only appears only once in the Bible and this is that single occasion. What Jesus said, and meant to say, was that the rich cannot enter heaven.
To emphasis accuracy of this interpretation of His words, look at the incredulity of those around Jesus. When they heard, they asked aloud “And who can be saved?” After all, they must have thought, “Wow! All the rich here are our community and religious leaders! How on earth can this be so?” Jesus replied to them saying: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”, (Luke 18:26-27)
This condemnation of the rich is not only restricted to Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:26, it extends throughout the whole Bible. But James, the brother of Jesus, also had particularly curt words of condemnation for the rich, saying:
James 1:10-11“… and the rich one rejoice in his humiliation, because he shall pass away as the flower of the grass. For the sun rose with the hot wind and dried up the grass, and its flower fell out, and the beauty of its appearance perished; so also the rich one will fade away in his ways.”
and James 2:5-7“Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to those who love Him? But you dishonoured the poor one. Do not rich men oppress you and draw you before the judgement seats? Do they not blaspheme that worthy Name by which you are called?”
More than that, James also castigates the rich in generalised comments, without directly naming them saying as rich:
“For if there comes a gold-fingered man in fancy clothing into your assembly, and if there also comes in a poor man in shabby clothing, and if you have respect to him who has the fancy clothing and say to him, You sit here in a good place, and say to the poor, You stand there, or sit here under my footstool….” (James 2:2-3) and also in James 4:13.
In none of James’ writings are the rich held in a good light, whether they are Christians, or not. In fact, when we study them, we find that the later James 2:2-3 and James 4:13 texts in which the word “rich” is unstated, are all actually about the Christian community rich; while James’ earlier condemnations naming the rich, were about those who were non-Christians. It seem fairly clear that in the mind of James, being rich and being a Christian, were mutually exclusive. In other words, James and the early Christian church saw it as being simply this: the poor go to heaven, the rich do not. James actually both compares and contrasts the Christians as the “poor” in James 1:9-10 and James 2:2-3,
“For if there comes a gold-fingered man in fancy clothing into your assembly, and if there also comes in a poor man in shabby clothing, and if you have respect to him who has the fancy clothing and say to him, You sit here in a good place, and say to the poor, You stand there, or sit here under my footstool…”
All this aligns with the words of Jesus in Mark 10 and Luke 18 and elsewhere, and as He says specifically in Luke 4:18“the Spirit of the Lord is on Me; because of this He has anointed Me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor....” and Luke 6:20“… Blessed are the poor...” and the warning from Luke 6:24“But woe to you who are rich…”
What is it then, that separates out the rich, in the mind of God? I believe the clue is in Luke 12:34 where Jesus says to his disciples after explaining the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:13-34,
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…”
Jesus explains this for us in Matthew 6:24 as He says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus is saying that if our heart is on our treasures, on our wealth, we will be unable to serve Him. I say “unable”, because as Jesus allows no middle ground in this agreement. Jesus does not mean the rich cannot serve well, or even greatly, but that they are unable to serve. It is not about the quality of the service, but their inability to serve.
Jesus said the greatest commandment was that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). If we are not totally loyal and loving to God, as Matthew 6:24 says, how can we comply with Matthew 22:37? We cannot.
When we read James 5:1-6 we find a practical explanation to the issue regarding the contrasts and comparisons between the rich and the poor as it says:
“Come now, rich ones, weep and howl for your hardships coming on. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their poison will be a witness against you, and will eat your flesh as fire. You heaped treasure in the last days.
Behold, the hire of the labourers reaping your fields cry out, being kept back by you. And the cries of those who have reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the earth, and lived wantonly. You have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
We can read here in the words of James, echoes of the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:19-20 as He said:
“Do not lay up treasures on earth for yourselves, where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay-up treasures in Heaven for yourselves, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
The rich were seen by Jesus and James as those who saved up their earthy blessings, not sharing them with the needy in society; those who stole and extorted from the poor and needy, taking advantage of them, rather than granting them grace and mercy. Jesus’ parable regarding the rich man and Lazarus, a beggar who lay at his gate (Luke 16:19-31) exemplifies this position. Though the rich man to whom Jesus referred was undoubtedly not focussed on God, his characterisation would have been understood by those around as being that of one of the ruling elite of the town, in a culture where piety and wealth seemed to have been commonly seen as one and the same.
James makes reference to the hired labourers who suffered under rich land owners and bosses. The rich contravened the employment requirement of Deuteronomy 24:14-15 and delaying paying the wages of those who lived from hand to mouth. That James mentions it here, implies it was a common cruelty which the rich imposed on the poor of those days, a sin clearly contrary to the written law of God.
As we look at the contrasts between the times and culture for the first century Christians and us today, we can see in both the Old and the New Testament that there is a constant theme against indulgence by the rich, at the expense of poor. The reason is simple, in the Biblical times, there were not that many things to go around. Each artefact and each possession was hard to come by. If the rich hoarded, there would be none available for the poor. Today in richer countries, we have a gross over-abundance of indulgences available to us. The supply of new things to possess, is virtually unlimited.
However, the underlying truths of God are unchanged; and the way God looks at the rich and their treatment of the poor, certainly remains unchanged.
James 2:5-7 noted how the rich used their position of wealth and power to impose their will on the poor, taking them to court to extract vengeance and obtain land and property in the process. The technical aspects of much of James’ teachings against the rich are still true and can still be seen in operation today, whether it be a rich individual, a rich company or corporation, or a rich government, there are still those who exploit the poor, the needy, the lowest classes of society. Yes, they still persecute those whom Jesus said He came for, those whom Jesus blessed in the Beatitudes.
Without doubt, any study of the books of James reveals that he was against the rich; not for having money, or wealth or power, but that they did not use it, no, could not use it, in a godly way. Could not, because their heart was not with God.
While the bible constantly condemns the rich, this does not mean that God does not love the rich. God demonstrated this when he sent Jonah to Nineveh to prophesy calamity on them; and as the Ninevites repented meaningfully, God forgave them.
What should the Christian response be to the rich? We should stand on our Godly and Biblical principles and as James 5:8 says, we should be patient with them as we ourselves establish our hearts. We are not called to condemn, but to build up in love and understanding and bring them to belief in Christ Jesus. The best way we can do that is to be a mirror of the life which Jesus led on earth; such that when people see us, they see a demonstration and a living out of the life and the character of Jesus. By the way we live, Christians must demonstrate the virtues of a Christ centred life, and none of the vices of the world. Let’s remember that Jesus has told us, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Rich or poor, it is God intention that none may perish. It is our Christian duty to reach out to all, to make disciples of them for Christ. Jesus does the hard work, we just need to lead the correct life for Him, so that He can use us in His plans.
Colossians 3:17 tells us how we must live, whether we are blessed with wealth or not, saying “And everything, whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.”