Living Into the Life of Jesus
Excerpt from Living into the Life of Jesus By Dr. Klauss Issler
Exemplary Jesus-Practices About Money
PRACTICE 2: TRUSTING GOD’S PROVISION WHILE WISELY USING MONEY ON LOAN FROM GOD
Jesus taught us proper attitudes about money through example and teaching. During Jesus’ forty-day wilderness fast, he waited for God’s provision of food rather than turning stones into bread (Mt 4: 3-4, 11). From his teachings we infer that while Jesus was a builder, he practiced wise stewardship of his material resources. For example, in the parable of the talents, the servants were loaned money (1, 2 or 5 talents) to make a profit for the landowner (Mt 25:14- 30). Jesus portrayed the landowner (representing either our Abba Father or himself as King) as someone who expected more back than what he’d loaned each servant. This required wise risk-taking.
The Sermon on the Mount and money.
The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) is regarded as a summary of Jesus’ major teachings. One of the passages discussed in the next section, Matthew 6:19-34 (parallel in Lk 12:22-34), represents about one-sixth of that sermon, indicating how important to Jesus our attitudes about money are. As you’ll note, most of the biblical study in this section is based on Luke (including parallel teaching in other Gospels) who includes the greatest portion of Jesus’ teaching on money.
According to Walter Pilgrim, “Luke’s extensive discussion of wealth and poverty is addressed primarily to the rich.” Let me summarize Pilgrim’s concept of Luke-Acts on this topic for the poor and the rich: The poor can be assured that God is for them, that hope can arise since all their needs will be bountifully met in the future kingdom, and that, in the present, the renewed Christian community will care for their needs with compassion and justice. The rich need to be alerted to the dangers of the temptations of wealth and also the call to discipleship in using their possessions to “a new standard of giving and sharing.”
Who can be considered “rich”? Perhaps anyone who’s thrown away food he or she didn’t eat? Regardless of which group we fit in, Jesus’ teaching offers important guidance for all.
In the passage on counting the cost of discipleship, Jesus uses the phrase “cannot be my disciple” three times (Lk 14:25-35, emphasis added):
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even life itself — such a person cannot be my disciple (v. 26). And those who do not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples (v. 27; Lk 9:23 adds “daily”). In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you cannot be my disciples (v. 33).
How shocking these strong words “hate father and mother” would be for a communitarian culture! It’s obvious Jesus isn’t literally commanding believers to hate family members, or to carry a large wooden cross for crucifixion around each day, or to divest all possessions. Rather, Jesus uses Semitic hyperbole to punctuate the point that our first priority above all must be Jesus. He believes we can easily become distracted from serious discipleship in these arenas: family, self, money. Yet as believers we must be ready to experience losses within one or more arena to be faithful to Jesus. We are challenged to cultivate a heart attitude of non-attachment about our possessions. What does that look like?
Jesus’ teaching on money and discipleship.
Consider a series of five important themes that emerge from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching in Matthew 6:19-34 (parallel concepts in Lk 12:22-34):
1. Stop letting obsessive worry about material needs overwhelm us; it demonstrates a lack of trust in God (“little faiths,” Mt 6:30; Lk 12:28). Through such paralyzing anxiety we become enslaved to money (Mt 6:24-25) and act like those outside God’s family.
2. Grow our trust in God’s provision for material needs. Nature offers a daily reminder: If God provides food for birds and beauty for flowers, God can provide for his more valuable children (Mt 6:26; Lk 12:26; see the poem at the end of Chapter 4). Trusting in God frees us to pursue God’s kingdom as a number one priority (Mt 6:33; Lk 12:31).
3. Be thankful to God for past provision of material needs. God already knows and cares about our material needs (Mt 6:32; Lk 12:30). Paul’s prayer captures well these three particular themes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7, Paul uses the same Greek word for “anxious/worry” as Jesus does in Mt 6:25-34).
4. Manage wisely the finances God entrusts to our care, with an eye on the future. Jesus commands, “store up for ourselves treasures in heaven,” (Mt 6:20), and “make yourselves purses . . . an unfailing treasure in heaven” (Lk 12:33), giving our uppermost attention and ambitions to what lasts for eternity. Jesus commands us to become a “faithful and wise manager” (Lk 12:42, 16:10-12). At death, we’ll give an account for our use of God’s material resources on loan to us, as illustrated in two parables (Mt 25:14-30; Lk 19:11-27; cf. Mt 12:36-37). To give a good account, requires wise planning in this life.
5. Give generously to the needy from the material resources on loan from God. “Sell your possessions and give [alms] to the poor” (Lk 12:33; Mt 6:2-4). Jesus provides a basis for our giving now, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32; Mt 25:34). With such a grand inheritance guaranteed—the new heavens and new earth involving both immaterial and material benefits—we can grow trust in God now for our own material needs and increase our generous sharing with the needy.
Paul’s exhortation to wealthy Christians provides a reflection on these five key themes—worry, trust, thankful, manage, and give—as well as a helpful summary of the apostolic teaching for believers with surplus wealth:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)
We are enjoined to trust God for our material needs, to enjoy creation and to be generous in giving to the needs of others. Believers need not divest themselves of their wealth. Yet, God often uses a precarious financial situation as a reminder to increase our trust in him and not worry about our needs.
The “money is worldly” gap.
I’ve heard Paul’s common saying about money misquoted, that money itself is the root of all evil. Rather, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10, emphasis added). Although I never consciously thought about it, in my underlying core worldview beliefs I think I regarded money to be basically “worldly”—of the material world, which meant someone in “full-time ministry” shouldn’t give much thought to money. As I’ll mention later, that had significant downsides (yet I still worried about money but I wasn’t aware of how anxious I was at the time). This incorrect idea is part of a larger viewpoint that matter is evil and that only the immaterial or spirit is good. Perhaps it was the case that I unknowingly misinterpreted Paul’s exhortation, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:2). David Garland identifies this potential pitfall,
“We need to be careful to avoid injecting any potentially gnostic ideas that the world above is the pure realm and that the earthly dimension of our lives is somehow impure, evil, or useless. . . . Christians are not called to escape the world but to be obedient to God within it, allowing the transcendent dimension where Christ reigns to set the priorities for our lives.”
Gnosticism was a heretical view that “higher knowledge” was only accessible to the enlightened elite (gnosis, Greek for “knowledge”; it is mentioned in 1 Tim 6:20). For this group matter was “intrinsically evil and the source from which all evil has arisen.” Yet in Colossians 3:2, Paul is making a contrast between our former non-Christian lifestyle (where we are oriented by “earthly things”) with our new lifestyle in Christ (where we are oriented by “things above”), similar to the contrast Paul makes elsewhere between living by the “flesh” (living by our own human resources, particularly the Jewish laws and traditions) versus living by the Holy “Spirit” (Rom 8:1-17). And our eternal future is related to a very physical place. Life in the next age involves a material new earth (Rev 21-22), with glorified, resurrected physical bodies living in a physical world. So, within a Christian understanding, spirit is good and so is physical matter, and money is simply an economic tool to use for good or ill.
But this particular money gap had negative consequences. I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought Jesus commanded us not to give much thought to financial planning. I wrongly assumed that were I to set specific financial goals and monitor my progress then I would be necessarily worrying about money. It seems throughout our thirty-five years of married life my wife Beth and I have had various seasons of financial pressure due to this inattention to financial planning. The study of Jesus’ teaching that appears throughout this chapter has given me a better biblical perspective on the subject. Now I’m spending some time setting and monitoring financial goals—without that false guilt—since I’ve realized how important handling finances is in God’s plan.
Helpful resources are available for financial planning.
The need is great. In December 2008, Barna Research reported that, due to the economic downturn, a large percentage of families had cutback giving to their church due to “serious financial debt.” Having considerable debt almost guarantees persistent worry—a distressed gap that often leads to a distracted gap. Perimeter Church in Atlanta began sponsoring Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University seminars to help the congregation get a handle on finances. Two initial test groups took this training in 2009 and 2010 and eventually paid down $3 million in debt! Pastor Randy Pope concluded, “We watched the transformation in those people the way they learned to better steward their money, the way that stresses within marriages were relieved, and we decided to take this to the whole church.” Such a testimony affirms how good financial planning can be an important Christian formation practice.
And what about . . .?
The topic of money raises various questions. I will briefly address five key issues. First, there’s a common belief about a direct cause-effect relation between wealth and poverty: as the rich get richer, the poor necessarily get poorer. This belief is usually portrayed as the proverbial pie. There are a limited number of pieces, so that if my piece is bigger, then necessarily other pieces must be smaller–winners imply losers. The underlying assumption is what is called a zero-sum or win-lose view of economics. This arrangement may have been the case prior to the Industrial Revolution, when wealth was largely based on owning land, and there were limited ways to acquire land—mostly through illegal and oppressive means. Yet today people can create wealth through a variety of good paths apart from owning land. The pie analogy doesn’t represent the economics of today.
Despite evidence for this, sadly, many of those around the world still hold the pie analogy as a core belief. This limiting perspective has debilitating effects on the community in two respects. Lawrence Harrison, a former USAID officer, clarifies that “The zero-sum worldview discourages initiative since anyone’s gain is someone else’s loss. [Furthermore] in many traditional societies . . . people who ‘get ahead’ are pulled back with a variety of sanctions, including redistribution of their wealth to the community.” Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-20) and the minas (Lk 19:11-27) actually challenges this limited resources/zero-sum perspective—two servants doubled the master’s money—and affirms some form of risk-taking and market exchange.
Contemporary economics includes the greatest potential of a win-win arrangement for all, as economist Charles Wheelan notes, “In theory, a world in which every individual was educated, healthy, and productive would be a world in which every person lived comfortably. . . . Economics tells us that there is no theoretical limit to how well we can live or how widely our wealth can spread.”
Theologian John Schneider affirms this optimistic note. Based on a study of the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, the messianic banquet, and Jesus’ life, he argues that “it is a fundamental biblical theme that material prosperity (rightly understood) is the condition that God envisions for all human beings. . . . [Conditions of affluence in advanced societies] are good in the potential they have for human flourishing and, through it, the flourishing of the cosmos as God wills it to be.”
Surely Jesus’ lifestyle evidences enjoyment of life. Note the criticism, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19, Lk 7:34). Walter Pilgrim comments, “The Gospels as a whole recognize that possessions are both necessary and good gifts of God, a view that emerges in [Luke’s] portrait of Jesus as well. . . . Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ life depicts a person who rejoices in life and accepts the goodness of God’s creation, including some of the things that only money can buy.”
Second, a related misconception is that earning a profit is itself an evil. Is it a background presumption that any for-profit venture is only about chasing “filthy lucre,” the King James Version’s term used to convey “dishonest gain” (1 Tim 3:3; Tit 1:7,11; 1 Pet 5:2)? Yet this term became associated in some Christian circles to apply to any profit, dishonest or not. But without the possibility of earning some profit, there would be no motivation to launch a business, create more jobs, or expand one’s business to serve more people. Co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, Dave Packard explains,
I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so that they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not separately—they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.”
In the parable of the talents Jesus has the master praising the profits earned and rebukes the one not earning a profit (Mt 25: 21, 23, 26; Lk 19:13, 15; see also Prov 14:23, 31:18; Jas 4:13). We can imagine that Jesus, as a builder in Nazareth, earned a profit—an amount of money or bartered goods beyond costs of materials and other overhead—to contribute to meeting family needs.
Third, what about the inequality of possessions? Some scholars argue that the Greek term isotes in 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 should be interpreted as “equality of possessions.” Yet most commentators regard the two occurrences in these verses as identifying a principle of “fairness” (see Col 4:1) or doing one’s “fair share,” which becomes the motivation and ground of generous giving. Furthermore, within a win-win economic framework, inequalities will be normal and not necessarily evil. Jesus’ parable of the talents implies that inequality is an ordinary aspect of life.
Theologian Wayne Grudem is more blunt, “God has never had a goal of producing equality of possessions among people, and he will never do so. In the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), agricultural land returned to its previous owner and debts were cancelled, but there was no equalizing of money or jewels or cattle or sheep, and houses inside walled cities did not revert to the previous owner (v.30).”
Fourth, what about the Old Testament prohibition against usury, charging interest on loaned money (Ex 22:5, Lev 25:35-37, Deut 23:19-20)? The main issue is abusive practice, particularly against the poor regarding their basic necessities of life. Business loans that don’t impose such hardships are a different matter. In two parables Jesus affirms the use of such interest, when he has the master scold the lazy servant, “Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’ (Lk 19:23; also Mt 25:27).
Regarding the Old Testament passages, Grudem explains, “if we look at those passages [and related ones] in detail, and understand them in their proper historical context, they seem only to prohibit taking advantage of the poor in their poverty.” Jay Richards agrees, “The church didn’t decide that usury was OK, however. Rather, it became much more precise in defining usury. Usury isn’t charging interest on a loan to offset the risk of the loan and the cost of forgoing other uses for the money; it’s unjustly charging someone for a loan by exploiting them when they’re in dire straits. That’s the work of loan sharks, not banks.” The final issue is addressed under the next header.
What about Jesus’ command to sell all?
Money is something we may feel guilty about, especially if we have more than what is necessary for basic living. Isn’t Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler the normative lifestyle model for all Christians, to give it all away (“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” Mt 19:21, Lk 18:22).
Imagine Joe Christian giving up all he possesses and never again owning anything. To simplify the case, we’ll assume he’s single without dependents. Once all assets are distributed, what does Joe do next? How does he pay for food? Where does he go to sleep? One option is to arrange life as some homeless persons do and regularly cobble together leftover items from others for food, clothing, and shelter. Or one could become attached to a wealthy patron who supplies all necessities in exchange for some good service as has been done in the past by artists, or teachers of the patron’s children.
Another option might be to join a covenant community in which Joe exchanges his labor for food, clothing, and shelter. Of course, the community, or persons in the community, will need to have access to (own/rent) a location for sleeping and living, and a means for earning regular income to sustain the community. The problem is that the matter of “possession” is just transferred from the individual to the community. Why shouldn’t the command about giving up all possessions also apply to that community as well? I think it becomes obvious that giving up all one’s possessions can only work for a few, if these few without possessions can rely on others who have possessions to help sustain their living. It’s not an option for the majority.
What does Jesus intend with such absolutist statements? He wants to shock us into becoming aware of our worldview gaps. Jesus reminds us that we own nothing, that we have no genuine possessions, since all is on loan from God for us to manage wisely. The rich young ruler was not aware of his gap of idolatry, of putting his trust in wealth rather than in God. His negative response pointed out he was not yet willing to change. When we’re confronted about our gaps, are we willing to be willing to change? Imagine you’re the rich young ruler. How would you have responded to Jesus’ challenge? Let’s consider the following hypothetical positive response, although it may have taken some time to process this jarring challenge by Jesus.
You’re right, my money is my security. I’m ashamed. I’ve been an idolater. Oh Lord God, will you forgive me? Ok, Lord Jesus, I’m willing to do what you’ve commanded. It’s going to take some time to liquidate all my assets, and it needs to be done very carefully. I’ve got a number of families who work for me and count on me for their livelihood. I want to make sure this process does no harm to them. I’ll need to find them other employment.
Now there’s room for wise guidance to take the next steps. Based on the tenor of Jesus’ teaching about money, I suspect Jesus’ purpose was to open up the young man’s heart, not necessarily to give up all his money permanently. Continuing this hypothetical scenario, perhaps Jesus would have counseled him to become a wiser manager and generous giver of his possessions. Later, Jesus might have encouraged him to connect with Zaccheus, another rich person who was experimenting with how to handle money entrusted to him (both probably lived in Judea, Mt 19:1, Lk 19:1). Jesus’ absolutist statements jar us out of our complacency to awaken us to our gaps and help move us toward greater freedom and kingdom living.
Regarding Zaccheus, without a specific command from Jesus, this chief tax collector volunteers to give away half of his wealth to the poor and to make a four-fold restitution for any fraud—an announcement Jesus praises as evidence of genuine salvation (Lk 19:8-10). Walter Pilgrim “regards the story of Zaccheus as the most important . . . text [in Luke] on the subject of the right use of possessions. Luke intends this text as the paradigm par excellence for wealthy Christians in his community.”
Although Jesus required his own twelve disciples to travel without purse or extra clothes, yet at the Last Supper Jesus told them they’ll need to return to their previous financial lifestyle. “‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:35-36, emphasis added). Bock explains this change, “Disciples are to engage the world, but [now] they will have to take care of themselves. . . . [in a manner of] readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge,” (the sword being a symbol of basic protection in that day). In its early stages the Christian church was able to care spontaneously for the needs of the poor (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32). But as the church grew, caring for the needy required more intentionality and coordination on the part of leadership (Acts 6:1-6, 11:27-30).
Jesus’ point in his shock teaching on giving up all is for his followers to develop kingdom priorities and a view of themselves as stewards responsible for faithful use of the King’s possessions. That’s a life-long challenge for us all.
More financial lifestyle options.
Is it inherently evil to own much surplus wealth? Some have relied on the parable of the rich fool and Amos’ judgment as biblical support for an affirmative response. I suspect that an underlying zero-sum economic framework plays an important role in that interpretation. The parable of the rich fool is not a condemnation of surplus wealth per se, but a judgment of a life which “is not rich toward God” with no compassion for the needy (Lk 12: 21). Nolland clarifies, “The verse does not directly criticize the accumulation of wealth (though elsewhere Luke is insistent upon its dangers) but is content to emphasize the need to be rich in a Godward direction.”
We see this view in Paul’s advice to pastor Timothy for wealthy Christians: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world . . . to put their hope in God . . . to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim 6:17-18). Amos’ prophetic judgment on the rich of his day conveys a similar point. “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion. . . . You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:1, 6; see also Rev 3:17). Schneider notes, “Their whole spirituality expresses a lack of proper, sacred grief for the suffering around and about them.”
Can we affirm that there is a wide spectrum of financial lifestyles in which Christians can please God? Some may choose to retain and use more surplus wealth for kingdom purposes, others may retain some surplus, some may chose for a season to live dependently on other’s financial support, and still others may choose to live with a minimum of surplus wealth. For an example of this last option, consider Christian author Evan Howard’s and wife Cheri’s testimony.
After a season of study and exploration, we decided to commit ourselves to a standard of living resembling the United States official definition of "poverty." We’ve kept to this standard pretty much all of our 33 years of marriage thus far. While some thought we’re depriving ourselves, we’ve found it a wonderful life indeed. We have few financial obligations and no debt. We spend little on clothing and entertainment and enjoy a life of making music, reading stories, and growing food. Our two daughters were raised within this lifestyle and have chosen similar values for their own lives as adults. Over time we’ve grown to appreciate not only the strictly economic dimension of a life of simplicity, but also to seek to live into a life of humility and harmony with the earth. For us the choice to live simply has been a choice to live the richest life we could conceive.
Believers, with the support of their Christian community, can discern what appropriate financial lifestyle to adopt, fitting their occupational calling—and being rich in serving God and caring for the needy. Furthermore, there are sufficient good role models from church history and contemporary life who have chosen differing financial lifestyle patterns along this continuum. Let’s extend grace to each other to make voluntary choices about the matter, without being judgmental. Why assume we know best how others should use their material resources on loan to them from God?
Money prayer projects.
Consider the following prayer projects to ponder further our attitudes about money.
a. Reread the section above regarding the five themes emerging from Jesus’ teaching about money and meditate on Matthew 6:19-34 and Luke 12:22-34. Restate the five key themes in your own words as you journal and talk with God. Then meditate on 1 Timothy 6:17-19. Reflect on what comes to mind and any movements in your heart.
b. Meditate on Philippians 4:6-7 and bring to mind some recent worries about finances. Take each before the Lord. Become more intentional about reciting Philippians 4:6-7 as a prayer response when worry arises; attend to the resulting peace.