On Going through the Eye of a Needle

Despite all the efforts of a fairly nasty spring blizzard, I got back from the Episcopal Church Foundation's second Project Resource conference at Camp Allen in Texas. We focused on increasing the capacity of smaller and more (physical) resource-strapped Dioceses to raise and use material resources for ministry. One of thing that has consistently impressed me about ECF conferences is the theological framework they provide for the practical toolkits they provide. I saw this at Vital Teams training and I saw it again at Project Resource where a robust theology of generosity and responsible stewardship moved us from a transactional model of giving in the Church (you have money; you like what the Church provides; the Church needs money to provide those things; give us your money) to a covenantal one (you are committed to the Church's mission of making disciples of Christ and one way you show that commitment and further that mission is by sharing your resources, regardless of whether the Church needs those resources right now).

So this conference occasioned this post insofar as it caused me to reflect more deeply on the accumulation of physical resources, but it is not a refutation of the ideas presented at the conference. While I am profoundly opposed to the misuse (either through prodigality or hording) of physical resources, I am not opposed to capital itself. Understood according to its strict economic definition, capital is never an end in and of itself but is rather a form of power (understood neutrally as the capacity to do work) that can be used to effect good or evil in the world. All things being equal, increasing the Church's access to material resources should increase its power to more fully realize its mission. Naturally greater access to power (whether by an individual or an institution) brings with it a greater capacity for harm if misused. But all this observation seems to imply is that managing resources responsibly demands well developed virtues and systems of transparency and accountability, not that the church should avoid entanglement with physical resources.

So, increasing the Church's access to material resources does not appear contrary to the Gospel so long as it uses them to liberates captives, cast out the demonic, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and in all things proclaim that in the resurrected Christ the Kingdom of God has drawn near.

However, both Jesus Christ and the early Church seem to unequivocally condemn acquiring individual (material) wealth.

First let's define some terms. I'm understanding material wealth as the having and retaining of an abundance of (valuable) stuff for its own sake or for the real or perceived benefits our society confers upon individuals who horde material resources (e.g., physical comfort, consumptive freedom, political influence, ability to bend or ignore the law, etc.). So I am not calling out people who have been gifted with an ability to acquire material resources and who understand themselves to only hold these funds in trust before using them for some other good purpose (so long as the resources are acquired virtuously and are truly going to assist a virtuous cause). I thus agree with John Wesley's principle of gaining and saving all that one can in order to give all that one can (so long, and this is important, that we do not do so "at the expense of life, nor at the expense of our health") (John Wesley, Sermon 50 "The Use of Money"; read it and everything else Wesley said about gaining and using money). 

Likely the pericope (single coherent unit of Scripture) for looking at Jesus' relationship to wealth is his interaction with the "Rich Young Man" or "Rich Young Ruler." Since I'm doing the Good Book Club's reading through Luke and Acts this Lent and Easter, I'll be drawing specifically here on Luke's account, but its worth noting that this episode can't be chalked up to a particular Lukan preoccupation with the materially poor and marginalized: it occurs in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31, and Luke 18:18–30). Here's Luke's account:

18 A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 19 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.” ’ 21 He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26 Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27 He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ 28 Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ 29 And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

The point of this passage seems pretty straight forward: Wealth prevents the young man from being a disciple of Christ; even beginning to follow Jesus requires that he divest himself of his wealth and give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus may put forward a difficult standard for practicing discipleship, but it's not complex: retaining wealth and seeking the Kingdom of God are incompatible goals.

Despite its seeming conceptual simplicity, I can't tell you how often I've heard people try to interpret their way out of this command. The line of argument is almost always some variant of the following: Jesus indeed demanded that this young man give away all his possessions, but he was speaking to this young man's individual spiritual condition. Jesus saw into his heart and saw that this young man loved his wealth more than he loved God. If there's anything universal here, it's not that wealth per se is incompatible with following Jesus, but only the undue love of or attachment to wealth; thus, no conflict exists between following Jesus and acquiring wealth as long as one does not love wealth more than God (i.e., as long as one is not overly attached to that wealth).

I've heard this line of argument most frequently among self-identified Evangelicals (Rachel Held Evans has a blog post from 2008 where she affirms the prevalence of this way of thinking in the Evangelical community). I've also know mainline Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians who've heard basically the same argument preached and talked about in bible studies, and I'm sure it happens in Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles. Its understandable why this interpretation is so prevalent: it's really, really old. We already see Clement of Alexandria interpreting the story of the Rich Young Man in this spirit in the 2nd Century CE: "He [Jesus] does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life." (Shout out to Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, for pointing this out).

So the interpretation is common and old, but it is good? Unfortunately (if you're looking for a way to stay rich and follow Jesus), I don't see a way that the text, to say nothing of the larger message of Jesus' ministry and the practice of the early Church, can in good faith be made to bear this reconciliation between individual wealth and discipleship. Let's begin with what's actually contained in the pericope itself. Yes, the three Evangelists use an incident of Jesus speaking to an individual, but in every instance Jesus then interprets the incident in a universalizing way. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus explains the difficulty of entering the Kingdom of God (Heaven) in relationship to wealth: "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Mark)/Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew)/How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Luke). Furthermore each of the Gospels has Jesus contrasting the rich young  man's decision to keep his wealth with praise for the disciples because they have given up family, livelihood, and wealth for the sake of the Gospel.

And you can't claim that Jesus was just "looking at this individual man's heart." I'm not calling into question the Incarnate Son's ability to perceive the intentions and desires of the people with whom he came into contact. To the contrary, the Gospels speak explicitly about Jesus' ability to do this (for instance in Matthew 9:4 or John 2:24). But it's precisely the Evangelists's explicit invocation of this ability at other times that takes away from this ability in this instance: the Evangelists make clear that they new and could report on Jesus seeing into the intentions of particular individuals's hearts at other times. If this was an essential part of the interaction with the Rich Young Man, why do none of the synoptic Gospels record that Jesus did it in this instance?

Let's stop for a quick but important sidebar. Skip over this next paragraph if you don't want my (admittedly informed) political slant. Seriously. I'm warning you now.

So one thing I've seen quite a bit is the strong overlap between the people who want to argue the conciliatory position on discipleship and wealth and who also interpret Luke 22:36 as a warrant to own firearms for self-defense. Now, I do own guns and I think people should learn to defend themselves, but it seems that if there's a passage that's explicitly particular (i.e., non-universalizable), it's Luke 22:36 (which appears almost exclusively about Jesus ensuring that prophesy is fulfilled). Either way, if you're the kind of person who thinks that Jesus is telling you to buy a gun to defend yourself because of Luke 22:36, you better be turning around and unloading all of your wealth because of Luke 18:18-36 (which probably means selling your gun(s) too).

OK, sidebar over.

If we pull the camera back a bit and look at the episode of the Rich Young Man in the context of Jesus' life and teaching as recorded in the Gospels, the case seems to get even stronger that Jesus didn't think personal wealth was compatible with following him (and the early Church seemed to have taken that seriously). First, the story of the Rich Young Man is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels. So yes it may be about an individual encounter with Jesus, but the early Christian tradition seems to have resonated with it nearly universally. Second, in the context of Luke's Gospel, it's hard to miss the relationship between the Rich Young Man and Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). Luke is the only Evangelist to include the Zacchaeus incident and he does so almost immediately after the incident of the Rich Young Ruler likely to intentionally juxtapose these two incidents. Zacchaeus, it is true, offers only half of his possessions to the poor, but this is only because he also offers to pay back four times what he defrauded people; my sense is he may be setting himself up for giving away all (or even more than all) of his possessions. And for this he is told that salvation has come to his house.

Its also hard to avoid the fact that Jesus consistently has explicit teachings and parables that warn against hording material goods (e.g., Matthew 6:19-20, Luke 12:13-21) and about the incompatibility of wealth and truly serving God (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). Likewise Jesus draws a connection between the Pharisees's love of money and their inability to believe or accept his teaching or authority (Luke 16:14). Jesus finally makes clear that following him will mean material hardship (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58). That this rejection of material comfort or security seems essential rather than accidental to following Jesus comes through in two places. In addition to the story in question about the Rich Young Man, Jesus praises a widow for giving all that she had rather than simply giving from her excess wealth (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). Similarly, when Jesus sends the Twelve out to proclaim the coming Kingdom, he instructs them to do so not only without signs of wealth, but even without signs of prudent self-sufficiency (cf. Matthew 10. Mark 6, Luke 10).

Finally, if the rejection of wealth proclaimed by Jesus was only for his followers before his crucifixion and resurrection, that point was clearly lost on the early Church. Chapter five of the Epistle of James excoriates the wealthy. It's true that James calls out the rich for defrauding laborers in order to live lives of luxury, but this makes the condemnation all that much more damning. James does not condemn the rich if they act this way; he condemns them because they act this way. In other words, James seems to think that wealth is intimately linked with an oppressive and indulgent lifestyle. And let's not forget the portrayal of the early Church in Acts. Not once, but twice, the Acts of the Apostles describes how the early Church had no private possessions and held all things in common to be distributed only as members had need (Acts 2:44 and 4:32). Furthermore, Acts has an entire episode dedicated to how attempting to hold on to private property led to members of the early Church being struck dead. So there's that.

I think I have a pretty good case that the story of the Rich Young Man cannot support any attempt to make the pursuit of wealth and following Jesus Christ reconcilable goals and that, moreover, neither does the witness of the entirety of the New Testament.

But OK, lets say you're still not sold. Let's say you still think that Jesus was just calling out the Rich Young Man's attachment to wealth but not his wealth itself. Maybe you're convinced that Jesus was opposed to the Pharisees because they were lovers of money, but not because they had lots of it. Maybe you still think that main problem with Ananias and Sapphira was because they lied to the Church about the money they kept back and not because they kept back money.

I'm game. I'll humor the possibility that having wealth is not incompatible with the Gospel if you're not attached to your wealth.

But if that's the case, I have a question for all those people who seem to go to such lengths to defend the right to be a Christian and pursue or maintain a horde of money or other material assets: are you sure you're not attached to your wealth? If you have to go to such lengths to make sure you don't have to give away your riches, how are you different from the Rich Young Man who went away despondent "because he had many possessions?"

Here's the thing though: You probably don't have to worry about whether its theoretically possible to have wealth but not be attached to it because there were and still are poor folks out there. In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist says "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Just as Jesus never refutes John's call for repentance (and this is part of it), he never refutes this call to give to those who lack basic necessities. So, I don't think its too much of a stretch to say that as long as there are poor folks (and Jesus says there always will be), you have to provide for them if you have more than for your needs. If you don't do everything to live into this, how are you not overly attached to your wealth or attached to your wealth more than to the demands of the Gospel?

So, I think that if we say that it is possible to horde material resources for our own use (or sense of security, or power, or creature comforts) and live fully as disciples of Jesus Christ, we deceive ourselves. So from now on, I'm not going to even entertain the question of whether being wealthy (as I understand it) is compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, I think the real question Christians must ask themselves, especially those of us who live with access to significantly more material resources than the rest of the contemporary world or most people throughout history, is this:

Have I become wealth, and, if I have, how can I give away this wealth and begin following Christ?


  1. I find I am in the camp that sees the Rich Young Ruler as being possessed by his wealth and Jesus calling him to sell all he has and follow him as a way to gain eternal life. Nicodemus is told he must be born from above or born again, but not told he must rid himself of wealth. What separated Nicodemus from a right relationship was not his wealth but his need for a change of heart and mind. I would agree that the majority of Jesus' disciples gave up everything to follow him, but we are also led to understand that they depended on the generosity of those who still had resources to sustain their ministry. Total redistribution of wealth in the early Church appears to have worked for only a short time. I'm not sure what the answer is, finding prosperity theology totally objectionable but self-imposed poverty unsustainable. Maybe the answer lies in the passage that says "Where your heart is, there your treasure will be as well." Thanks for bringing up some very good thoughts and propositions about this. It will cause me to give the subject a new look.


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