'Jesus proclaimed a word of hope to the poor and oppressed and a warning of judgment to the rich and powerful. The effort to spiritualize Christ’s words waters down his radical gospel. But a watered-down gospel is not only less offensive but is also less powerful. Such a gospel cannot offer any comfort to the oppressed in their struggles or give them hope in the God who prefers small and little things of this world over the high and mighty. The God of the gospel is the one who rescued Israel from oppression, raised Christ from the dead, and today sides with the powerless against unjust exploitation and misery.'
-Stephen D. Morrison 'All Riches Come From Injustice'
Jesus proclaimed and enacted the Kingdom of God; a new day has dawned, God's liberating future is breaking into the present, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand!’.
In a world marked by economic oppression and destitution, where 68% of the population lived at or below the subsistence level, Jesus articulated a social and economic vision in which hoarded wealth was to be redistributed.
The rich are rich because they take wealth from the poor, they hoard and accumulate wealth whilst the poor get poorer. One scholar puts it this way,
Antipas and the Herodian élite first of all claimed the so-called surplus of the harvest; to this was added tribute and taxes. This left the peasantry in Galilee in a situation where their level of subsistence functioned in a very narrow margin. The only way to survive was to borrow from the élite, and the élite were always willing to invest in these loans (with interest rates of up to 48%) – they knew that their debtors would not be able to repay their debts which in turn gave them the opportunity to foreclose and add that peasants land onto their own estates . Peasants therefore lost their land, and in a downward spiral became tenants, day labourers and beggars.-Ernest van Eck 'Interpreting the parables of the Galilean Jesus'
Long before Marx, Jesus declared 'Blessed are the poor' and 'Woe to you who are rich.' In his Nazareth Manifesto, he announced a jubilee economic revolution whereby land which had accumulated into the hands of the few- 1-3% of the population hoarded most of the wealth and power- would be returned to the family, the grassroots community. I have begun to explore this in a previous post 'Jesus and Hoarders of Wealth: Part One
In this blog post, I want us to look at two of Jesus’ teachings which offer a critique of those who hoard wealth, and then via some supportive comments from the church fathers, we will look at contemporary inequality from a Christocentric perspective.
The Parable of the Rich Fool
Luke 12:13–21 (ESV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Jesus tells this parable in response to a question about 'inheritance.' Although Jesus doesn't seek to judge on this particular matter - the division of inheritance after someone has died - he does tell those around him that 'life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,' or we may say, in the ‘unfettered accumulation of wealth.'
Amongst the wealthy and elite, 'possessions' and the acquiring of them become a telos, an ultimate aim. Jesus is seeking to relativize this claim by telling a story about a rich fool, a man who is rich and prosperous but who does not say 'enough’ or commit himself to sharing this wealth with those who are destitute. Instead, this rich man is motivated by economic self-interest. Notice how he says 'my barns,' 'my grain,' and 'my goods.'
In the book of Genesis, Joseph stores grain for the service of others (Gen 41:49), but for this man, the bigger barns mean he can indulge in individual hedonism - eat, drink, and be merry - rather than utilising his wealth for others.
However wise and powerful this fictional character may seem in the eyes of the world, God describes him as a fool who will not be able to take his wealth beyond the grave. For Jesus, the way of the kingdom lies not in hoarding and accumulating wealth, but in acquiring and storing up treasure for the age to come. For some, though, the talk of 'bigger barns' has to do with whether one chooses financial gain over the kingdom, but in my opinion, this view is not strong enough. Jesus isn't just speaking about the 'spiritual' but about wealth accumulation and greed. In order for Jesus listeners to partake in the kingdom and not be fools, they are, according to the next unit of text in Luke to not worry about the accumulation of wealth, for this is the way of the anti-kingdom.
Luke 12:29–34 (ESV)
29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Those who have more than they need, the hoarders of wealth, the greedy, are commanded to redistribute their wealth.
Luke 12:33–34 (ESV)
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16:19–31 (ESV)**
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus addresses the Pharisees who are described as 'lovers of money,' those who pay lip service to God but rather choose the accumulation of wealth over the way of the kingdom.
Luke 16:13–14 (ESV)
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.
In this parable, we see that 'the way of the world,' the way of mammon—prestige and honor to those who accumulate wealth and power—is overturned. The way of the Kingdom is not through the unfettered accumulation of wealth, nor is it to dress oneself in rich clothes and feast daily while the poor are at the gates and desire to be fed with crumbs from the rich man's table. To accumulate vast amounts of wealth for self-interest while others starve is a sin against both God and humanity. Clement of Alexandria, writing within a generation or two after the closure of the NT, states,
'And it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want. How much more glorious is it to do good to many than to live sumptuously! How much wiser to spend money on human beings than on jewels and gold!'
This is not a new teaching from Jesus but draws on the texts of old.
Deuteronomy 15:4 (ESV)
But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—
As Stephen Morrison puts it, 'The law condemned those who hoarded luxuries while others lacked essentials.' Morrison continues, 'Today, it is supposed that the rich "earned" their luxuries while the poor equally "earned" their misery. But that is blasphemy against the God who created this earth for the benefit of all, rich and poor alike. By hoarding the resources of the earth, the rich steal from the poor, and ultimately, they steal from the Lord to whom the earth belongs. They sin by failing to help the needy.'
The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man speaks of an eschatological judgment but in doing so offers a challenge to life before the grave. The kingdom of God is at hand, the future is breaking into the present; those who accumulate vast amounts of wealth had better repent—Woe to you who are rich! And those destitute and downtrodden, be blessed for the Kingdom of God is yours!
Yet the Jesus of history, found in the gospels, is also the King who brings the Kingdom to our own world, and in doing so, his message offers a damning indictment on the accumulation of wealth in our own generation. The Global Wealth Report of 2023 recently published by Credit Suisse and UBS lays bare the inequality of our day. The report shows the following:
- 59 million people out of a total of 5.4 billion adults in the world have half of the world's wealth. That is 1.1% of the world's population having 50% of global wealth. Wealth that has been accumulated and hoarded while millions live in poverty.**
- At the same time, 2.8 billion adults, 53% of the total world population, have just 1.2% of wealth.**
We may also add.
- In the UK, we also see huge amounts of inequality, or we may say the hoarding of wealth as the richest 50 families in the UK hold more wealth than 33.5 million of the UK population.
Given this inequality, both globally and nationally, it is high time that we listened afresh to the teaching of Jesus. We have too often spiritualised his message, and in doing so, it has lost its power to hold to account the minority who hoard wealth and to redistribute this wealth to those globally and locally who are malnourished and live on or below the poverty line. We are called to live simply, so that others may simply live. We cannot serve both God and Mammon.
‘We need to ask ourselves: Do the rich feel challenged by us? Do the poor and hungry find comfort? Are their material needs met? Our goal should be to proclaim loudly with Christ: “Woe to you who are rich!” “Blessed are the poor!” The day when the rich are uncomfortable in our midst—while the poor are comforted and blessed in spirit and body—will be a day we have moved closer to Christ’s message.’- Stephen D. Morrison
Readers of this blog post may be interested in the Just Money Movement.
JustMoney Movement aims to be the go-to organisation for Christians and churches who want to connect faith, money and justice. They educate, campaign and advocate, resourcing a movement of Christians and churches to act differently with our own money and speak out about money. Just Money
believe such a movement can lead to changes in the way businesses and banks behave, in the policies set by government, and in people’s attitudes, all of which can help shape a fairer, greener world.'