I recently saw a conversation on Facebook that saddened me. It started with a post that linked to an article which gloated about how a very prominent pastor was being sued over book royalties and the non-profit status of the church he leads.
I get that there are people out there who want to see prominent Christian leaders taken down a notch. But what really troubled me is that the person posting the article on his Facebook account was a believer too.
Some people believe that those who have a different theological perspective should be condemned, torn down and are destined for Hell because they don’t see things the same way. That’s very different from Paul’s approach. Here’s what he had to say about people who were preaching Jesus in his day for their own personal gain.
It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice. For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance. — Philippians 1:15-19
Paul was gracious even to people who were attacking him personally. Yet the prominent preachers that believers tear down today most likely don’t even know who those individual believers are, much less attack them individually.
Wealth and Godliness
Then there’s the whole mistaken idea that wealthy people are ungodly by definition. For some people this connection/accusation is much easier to make against those who have a different theological perspective than their own.
For example here’s one of the comments from that Facebook thread.
“Jesus said that rich people usually don’t go to heaven without a great miracle from God. It would be the best thing that ever happened to him to lose everything. Might be God’s discipline on him…a sign that [the pastor] is a son in whom He delights.”
That perspective completely misses the point of what Jesus was getting at when the rich young man came to him.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the same incident of a young wealthy guy coming to Jesus and asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the guy that he needs to keep the law because Jesus knows that it is impossible for people to keep the law. The law is there to make us see the futility of our own self-effort and personal holiness. It is meant to break us of our pride as we see that it creates an impossible standard so that we recognize our need for a savior.
Unfortunately in this case the young man missed the point.
So Jesus stepped it up a notch and told him to divest of all his wealth, give it to the poor and then he would be on the right track. The guy still didn’t get the point. The Bible says he left Jesus sad because, “he was very rich.”
Then Jesus says something that confounded his disciples.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” — Matthew 19:24-25
The point that Jesus was making was not that it would take a miracle for a rich person to get to heaven. What he was getting at is that people who rely on their outward appearance of personal holiness won’t make it into heaven.
When Jesus was preaching people believed they were blessed because of their personal holiness. They understood that wealth is one of the ways that God blesses folks. And it is (read through Deuteronomy 28:1-14 if you don’t believe that). So the people Jesus was talking to at that time therefore believed that wealthy people were godly and holy by definition.
Their thinking went something like this. If all the blessings of God result from our personal holiness and wealth is one of the most visible signs of God’s blessing, then the more wealth someone has must mean they are more holy because they are obviously more blessed.
Jesus was shattering the concept that personal holiness was the cause of God’s blessing and used the most visible, attention-getting example he could find to get his make his point.
Then he went on to say that God can do what people can’t do on their own, meaning trust in Jesus and you can enter the Kingdom of God regardless of your own personal holiness status.
Rich people aren’t any more ungodly by definition than poor people. The whole point Jesus was making is that it’s not about money one way or another. The issue isn’t how much money we have, but rather the attitude of our hearts.
We are blessed because God is good and because as believers we get credit for the holiness and purity of Jesus. Our blessings are not a result of our own personal holiness. Instead we draw on the “blessing account” of Jesus. He paid the price for all of our blessings and then some!
The Rest of the Story
The rich guy is never named in the three Gospel accounts. Some Bible scholars theorize that he might have been John Mark. He kind of fits the profile. He was young, impulsive, and wealthy.
It was his family’s house that Peter went to when he was freed from prison, which implies he had some wealth because the house was a big place where all the believers could meet. His impulsiveness was likely the cause of the rift that came between Barnabas and Paul in Acts chapter 15. Then, near the end of Paul’s life John Mark is the one Paul asks Timothy to send to him in 2 Timothy chapter 4 because John Mark had been helpful in Paul’s ministry.
If the rich young ruler really was John Mark, then he actually did learn the lesson from that first encounter with Jesus. It just took him a while. And apparently the lesson he learned was not that he had to get rid of all of his wealth but rather that he had to stop trusting in it and put his faith in God through Jesus.
Wealthy people are not ungodly by definition.