Jesus had some strong words about money. Many Christians find his teaching hard to accept. Here are some examples from his challenging teachings.
Woe to the Rich
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus set out his core teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Luke records the version he gave after he had descended to the plain and called the twelve disciples. He covered money in this teaching.
Looking at his disciples, he said:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep
This is fairly straightforward. Jesus had coming to turn the world upside down. Those who have plenty already will be disappointed. Mary had prophesied the same thing before Jesus was born.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53).
Those who are poor will be satisfied and made comfortable.
These prophecies will not be fulfilled by force or through a revolution. They will be fulfilled voluntarily through giving and sharing. They were fulfilled by the early church, but they are not so often fulfilled in the modern world. This is a challenge. If the gospel is working effectively, the poor and hungry should be lifted up and be satisfied.
Seek the Kingdom
Christians should have a different attitude to wealth. We are not to worry about our life and basic things such as what to eat and drink.
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? …. O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them (Matt 6:25,31,32).
For most of Jesus listeners, the daily battle for survival was totally real. Most of their day would be devoted to finding something to eat. Getting new clothing was an ongoing struggle. Jesus teaching was a totally radical outlook on life. How could they stop worrying about food, when starvation was often only a few hours away?
Jesus suggested a totally different approach.
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt 6:33,34).
This message was very clear to Jesus listeners. Most were totally worried about what they would eat tomorrow. By going out to listen to Jesus, they had probably missed an opportunity to earn tomorrow’s food. The idea that they could stop worrying about tomorrow by focusing on the kingdom was absurd.
However, the people who followed Jesus in Acts 2 and 4 saw this become a reality.
There were no needy persons among them (Acts 4:34)
This was not the result of gold dust falling from the sky.
They shared everything they had (Acts 4:32)
Believers no longer had to worry about what they would eat tomorrow.
Most modern Christians do not have to worry about what they will eat tomorrow. We tend to assume that Jesus teaching means that people who seek God’s kingdom will prosper. That is not what he meant at all.
People who follow Jesus have a new King. This is important because a king owns all the property within his Kingdom. He will assign some property to his followers, but they will only hold it while they remain in his favour. People who opposed the king could have their property confiscated without compensation. The name of this practice is “eminent domain”.
When Christians decide to “seek the kingdom”, all their possessions become the property of their new king. Giving a tenth of what they own is not an option. Everything they own now belongs to Jesus, and must be used as he directs. This produced the change of thinking recorded in Acts 2 (cf Luke 12:22).
No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they shared everything they had (Acts 4:32)
This was not unusual behaviour, but the natural outworking of the Kingdom. Nor was this joint ownership of property, but an acknowledgment that their possessions now belonged to Jesus.
For modern Christians, seeking first the Kingdom means surrendering all our income and wealth to the Holy Spirit and using it as he directs. If he tells us to sell our property and give it away, that is what we must do. It no longer belongs to us, but to our king. If the Holy Spirit tells us to share our possessions, then we have not option. From reading Acts, it seems that the Holy Spirit likes telling people to share, so we should not be surprised if that is what he asks us to do.
Counting the Cost
Jesus warned his listeners to count the cost before choosing to follow him. A king who goes into battle without working out if he has enough troops to win is stupid. Jesus illustrated this choice with a reference to money and wealth.
So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned (Luke 14:33-34)?
The cost we have to count is real. To be a disciple of Jesus we must give up all our possessions. The Greek work for “give up” is “apossetai”. It means “renounce” or “say goodbye”. Those who follow Jesus must say goodbye to their possessions. They might still be close by, but they no longer belong to the believer. They belong to Jesus, so the Holy Spirit can use them as he chooses.
That changes our questions. We should not ask, “Can I buy a new television?” Rather we should be asking the Holy Spirit, “What do you want to do the money in the bank account that has my name on it?” “What do you want to do with the wealth that used to belong to me?” If we asked these questions, we might be surprised at what the Sprit tells us to do. If we don’t ask these questions, we will be like salt that has lost its flavor. If we are not willing to say goodbye to our possessions, we cannot expect to influence our culture.
The Rich Young Ruler
One person who was unwilling to say goodbye to his wealth was the rich young ruler. He had asked Jesus what he needed to do to obtain eternal life. When Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he said he had kept them all since he was a boy.
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property (Luke 18:22-23).
This man was very rich. The only way you could get rich in Jesus time was to collude with Herod or with the Romans, so the young man was lying when he said he had kept all the commandments. He was living on wealth that had been stolen from its owners. The young man was a ruler. To retain this position, he would have had to collude with the violence of the Roman political and military system.
Riches and rulers go together. For example, Mary prophesied:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones.
but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:54,55).
When rulers fall, the rich suffer, because their riches came from their links with the rulers. That was true in Jesus time, and is often true today.
Mathew records that the young ruler owned much property. The word used for possession is “ktema”, which is not the word generally used for possessions in the New Testament (uparxis). I have wondered why Matthew used a different word for the rich young ruler. I found a possible answer in the Lexicon of Ardnt and Gingrich (B218). They quote a reference which uses this word to mean “acquire in reward for wickedness”. The wealth that this man controlled was probably the rewards of wickedness. He could not retain the fruits of unrighteousness and follow Jesus. We too must get rid of all wealth that is the fruit of unrighteousness behaviour, if we are serious about following Jesus.
Many Christians respond to Jesus teaching by asking, “Can a Christian own property?” The New Testament answer is “No”. Christians cannot own property. The reason we cannot own property is that we have a king. When we commit to Jesus, all our property belongs to him. We cannot own property, because we and everything we hold belongs to him.
Many Christians ask a different question. “Do I have to sell everything I own?” This question does not make sense, because a Christian does not own anything. Everything we owned transferred to Jesus when we surrendered to him. We cannot sell what we do not own.
A different question is more relevant. “Can a Christian hold property”. The answer is yes. We can manage Jesus property on His behalf. We can act as His steward. The key is a shift in attitude. We no longer own property, so we cannot “claim our possessions as our own”. They belong to Jesus, so we must use them as the Holy Spirit directs. That changes everything.
The Holy Spirit will tell some people to sell their property. He told Barnabas to sell his property (Acts 436-37). Barnabas obeyed and it opened up a wonderful ministry as an apostle to Asia Minor. I am sure he had no regrets.
The Holy Spirit may tell other people to use their property for a particular purpose. He told some women to use their property to support Jesus.
Joanna the wife of Cuza Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:3).
These women held their property as stewards, but the Holy Spirit prompted them to use it to support Jesus. In the same way, The Holy Spirit told Joseph of Arimathea to pay for Jesus to be buried (Matt27:57-58).
The answer to every question about property is simple. Jesus ons it all. He may allow us to hold some of his property as stewards, but we cannot call our it own. Good stewards must use his property as the Holy Spirit directs. The answer to all questions about property is to obey the Holy Spirit.
The Tough One
Jesus understood the human heart.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:34).
Humans always focus on the place where our treasure is kept. If our treasure is savings in a bank, our focus will be on work and the bank. Jesus does not want his people to be distracted, so we must store our treasure in heaven.
There are two reasons why people store up wealth. One reason that people store wealth is so they can sit back and enjoy life. The context of Jesus teaching about treasure is the parable of Rich Fool. His farms produced a great crop, so he built new barns to store his crop. He said to himself.
You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:19).
Jesus called the rich man a fool, because the very day that he said these words, he would die. Storing up wealth, so we can take life easy and party is not an option for God’s people. The word for “laid up” is used to describe hoarding. Jesus put this challenge another way when he said,
Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke18:15).
A Christian cannot have a good life by eating and drinking and being merry. We find peace by serving Jesus. We must be careful that greed for possessions does not distract us from serving him. Those who have taken on a spirit of greed might need to give away their possessions to break this spirit.
The second reason that people store up wealth is to provide security for the future. We store wealth for a rainy day. We save money, so we can provide for ourselves, if we are sick. We fill a purse, so we can retire at the age of sixty-five. All these actions are done to take care of tomorrow. Jesus ruled them out, when he told us to trust God for the future.
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt 6:34).
Storing wealth for security into the future is pointless, as no earthly store is safe. If thieves do not steal it, corrupt bankers will steal it, or monetary inflation will slowly eat it away. Wealth can never provide security in an uncertain world.
Jesus did not pretend that the future will be free of problems. He knows that we will face trials, but he tells us to prepare by storing up treasures in heaven.
Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys (Luke 12:33).
True security comes from treasure in heaven.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out (Luke 12:33).
The best way to shift wealth to heaven is to give to the poor.
Jesus teaching about security does not make sense in the modern world. Our security is based on treasure on earth. We have superannuation funds for our retirement. We have insurance to protect us against the risk of crisis. We keep a nest egg in the bank for use in an emergency. Not only are these things treasure on earth, but they tie up a resources that could be used for God’s work.
Jesus says that we should not need these things, but we would not feel secure without them.
The reason for this dilemma is that we have not understood what Jesus was saying. He gave the reason why we should not need treasure on earth for our security, why we should not be afraid.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32)
The reason that we should not be afraid is that God has given us the kingdom. The reason that we do not need treasure on earth is that God has given us the kingdom. The reason that we should not need insurance and superannuation is that God has given us the kingdom.
The early church had received the kingdom. The kingdom they received was manifested through giving and sharing.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them (Acts 4:32-33).
These Christians had said goodbye to their property. They had stopped referring to property they held as their own. They were one in unity and love. The Holy Spirit was present with them. Giving and sharing became normal. The result was “no needy persons among them”. They no longer needed life insurance or superannuation, because sharing had made them redundant.
Caring and sharing is the best solution to the problem of security. Resources that were previously tied up in personal security accounts were no longer needed, because individuals trusted the body of Christ instead. The gospel of the kingdom had transformed their lives so much that they felt secure in the love of the Christians around them.
Modern Christians focus on Jesus teaching about treasure in heaven and feel uneasy. The reason is that we have missed the point. We focus on not worrying about tomorrow, and find it too hard. Jesus’ main point was that we have the kingdom. People with the kingdom do not need storehouses on earth.
The Kingdom comes first. Obeying Jesus teaching about wealth is not practical in the modern world because we do not have the Kingdom. We are not “all together in the same place” (Acts 2:44) (Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common.) We still consider our property our own. We do not give to everyone who has need. We do not have the Kingdom, so of course we need insurance and superannuation and money in the bank.
The solution is to “Seek first the Kingdom of God”. When we get serious about the Kingdom, we will sell our property and move close to the other Christians that we are connected with. Once we are together in one place, we will be able to love one another by sharing and caring for each other. When sharing and caring are normal, we will find that we do not need insurance or a nest egg in the bank. Instead, of storing money in case to provide for ourselves in a day of trouble, we will be saving to help others in their day of trouble. Treasure on earth will be irrelevant, because we have the treasure of the Kingdom.
Understanding the Problem
Before applying the New Testament teaching on money, we must understand the nature of the problem we are attempting to solve. The problems with our culture are very different from those faced by the people in Jesus time. In New Testament times, most people already lived in close community. Shopkeepers had their homes and shops on the same street. Trades people tended to live close to people with the same trade. Many people still lived in villages. Lack of community was not the core problem. Being together was easy.
The problem that really made the people miserable was that most land had been accumulated into large estates. The Romans and Herod handed land out to the people who were loyal to them. This land was often confiscated from innocent and ordinary people. As land was the main source of capital in those times, people who lost their land faced persistent poverty.
The other way to gain wealth was to get your nose in the trough of the various temple scams. That option was reserved for those with the right connections. A pilgrimage to the temple made most people worse off. Even those who were poor would have to buy a couple of pigeons. The temple system robbed the ordinary people and did not provide any economic support.
Permanent employment was rare, so large numbers of landless people faced a hand-to-mouth existence by getting casual work whenever they could. In Jesus parable of the Vineyard workers, so people only got work for a few hours a day (Matt 20:1-8). That was a normal situation. People spent their time standing in the market place hoping some work might turn up. What a precarious existence. No wonder the vineyard owner decided to be generous.
The shrewd steward is another example. Without a job, his choices were sparse.
My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg (Luke 16:3).
The commentators tend to say that he was lazy or proud, but he was actually being very realistic. If he could not get work as a day laborer, he would have to beg.
The actions taken by the early church were an attempt to deal with this problem of persistent poverty and economic insecurity.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:44-45).
They believers sold land to reverse the accumulation of property and to relieve the widespread poverty.
The Modern Problem
Our modern problem is different. Uneven distribution of wealth is still serious, but it is not the “show stopper” it was in Jesus time. Most people in the Western world have escaped subsistence and own some property.
The big problem eating the heart out of our modern culture is the collapse of community. Industrialisation, globalisation and urbanisation have eliminated the links between people that once held society together. Family members can travel all over the world to live and work. People and families live in isolation.
The collapse of community is greatest in modern cities, where migration and urbanisation have broken down traditional community relationships. Social mobility prevents stable relationships from developing and family life is breaking down. People become cogs in the corporate machine and life is often characterised by loneliness and personal insecurity.
Modern suburban culture creates barriers to communication and encourages individualism. As communities are breaking down and fear is rising, high fences are going up between houses isolating people from each other. This isolation means that most people do not belong to the community where they live.
This isolation and dislocation of urban society has been accompanied by the aggregation and accumulation of political power to the modern state. We now face the bizarre situation where needs are concentrated in individuals, but power and money is concentrated at the national level. This leaves families and individuals powerless before a faceless government.
To restore to cohesion of our societies, real community will have to restored to our societies, but it is not clear who will do it. Politicians have an inbuilt tendency to push power and money to the top, which will weaken society.
The church should be strengthening the foundations of society, but this is not happening. Western society has been shaped by the automobile and the church has gone along for the ride. Whereas the early Christians were “all together in one place”, modern Christians drive to church, just as they drive to work and to shop. The church is almost as socially fragmented as the rest of society. This is sad, because Christians are supposed to be experts on fellowship and loving one another. We should be strengthening local communities.
The collapse of community and our fragmented lifestyle prevents us from living out Jesus teaching on money. We have to build up treasures in superannuation and insurance schemes, because we are not part of Christian communities that will support us in time of trouble. We do not have relationships with Christians committed to providing financial support to each other. Isolated Christians have no choice but to fend for themselves by storing up treasure on earth. The most urgent need in our society is the restoration of local community.
Acts 2 provides a solution to our isolation. The early church was altogether in one place, so they sold their possessions and property. In the modern world, the antidote is the same, but the order is the other way around. Our problem is that suburban property prevents us from being together. The solution is
Selling their property and possessions (Acts 2:45).
Once Christians are willing to sell their properties so they will be able to move closer to the other Christians that they relate to.
All the believers were in one place (Acts 2:44)
Our ultimate goal is to love each other, as Jesus loved us. We can only do that if we are Ltogether.
Some of those who sell their houses to move closer to other Christians will be selling down. This will release a surplus that can be used to provide financial support Christians who lack resources.
They were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (v44).
When Christians live closer to each other, serious sharing becomes a practical alternative. Community life will be restored to our neighborhoods, when Christians sell their houses and buy houses together to live in one place.
This radical change will not happen by accident. Locality-based apostles working street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood can change our societies from the bottom up. The process is described in Apostolic Way.
The Shrewd Steward
The parable of the Shrewd Steward contains important teaching on money, but it is often misunderstood, because people assume that the rich man in the parable represents God.
There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”
The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to Beg-I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.”
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,” he replied. The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.”
Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?” “A thousand bushels of wheat,” he replied. He told him, “Take your bill and make it eight hundred.”
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly (Luke 16:1-8).
In Jesus time, the easiest way to could get rich was through theft or political collusion. When Moses led the children of Israel into Canaan, the land was divided evenly among the families, but by Romans times, that had all changed. Most of the land had been accumulated into large estates. The Romans handed out land to the people who were loyal to them. Herod did the same. This land was often confiscated from innocent and ordinary people.
Some of the people who lost their land were forced into a miserable life as tenant farmers. In return for the use of the land, they would have to give the rich owner, a proportion of their crops. The land owner held all the power in this relationship, so they could demand a large share of the crops. If the crop was good, the land owner would get most of it. If the crop was bad, the land owner would still take their due, and the tenant farmer would be left to starve. If the tenant could not produce enough to meet the land owners share, the balance would be added as a debt against the next year’s production.
This setup worked in the favour of the land owner. The tenant carried all of the risk, but got very little in return. The land owner gained a good return, but carried very little risk. He could easily replace a troublesome tenant farmer with another, because the countryside was full of landless peasants. The only risk for the owner was that he might fall out of favour with the political powers and have his land confiscated. This is why the Sadducees and the Herodians were so afraid of upsetting the Romans. They were big land owners with a lot to lose.
Jesus listeners would know that the rich man in the parable had accumulated land by political collusion. This could not be God. The rich man was too cowardly to deal with his tenants, so he employed a tough steward to do his dirty work. The steward’s task was to squeeze as much as possible out of the rich man’s tenants. The wheat and olive oil owed by the other men would be unpaid rent and debts from the previous year. The bills referred to in the parable had been written by the steward. The steward probably knew that the amounts owed were unfair, but his job depended on his getting as much as possible for his employer.
The rich man treated the steward badly. He had done deals that favored his employer, but when he heard rumor against the steward, he acted on it without giving the steward a chance to explain. He terminated the steward’s position and demanded a full account (he did not know what he was owed). When the steward changed the bills, the rich man praised his behaviour.
He had gained his wealth by unscrupulously, so he respected the unscrupulous behaviour of his steward. One crook recognised another.
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly (Luke 16:8).
The rich man and the steward were dishonest men. That is why the rich man cannot represent God.
Jesus explained the meaning of the parable. His first point was that the people of the world handle worldly people better than Christians do.
For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light (Luke 16:8).
This is a challenging word. The people of the Spirit should be experts at dealing with worldly people.
Jesus then described what we should do with unrighteous mammon.
I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home (Luke 16:9).
The first thing to note is that the usual translation of these verses is misleading, as the last three words are turned into a reference to everlasting life (eternal home). The word translated “everlasting” is “aionos”. It can mean “eternal”, but in the previous verse, it is the word translated as “their generation”, literally “sons of the age”. Jesus is talking about how Christians deal with worldly people, so this is not a reference to eternal life, but to the worldly generation. The context is making friends with the current generation, not eternal life. A more consistent translation of the verse would be as follows.
I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, you will be received into the homes of this worldly generation.
When Jesus sent out the seventy-two a couple of chapters earlier, he told them to take no money, but stay with a person of peace (Luke 10:1-7). A man who had accumulated wealth like this rich man would not be able to go and stay in another person’s home, because he would be run out of town. Jesus is saying the Christians who deal with their unrighteous wealth wisely will be welcome in the homes of the worldly people of their generation.
Righteous and Unrighteous Wealth
Jesus speaks of unrighteous mammon. Mammon is a Syriac word for money and the idol of wealth. The wealth of the rich man was unrighteous mammon, because it had been gained by unrighteous means. The corollary of this is that there must be righteous wealth as well. Wealth that is earned by working hard to meet the needs of other people is righteous wealth. Any honestly earned money that is saved is righteous wealth. Any capital goods that have been paid with honestly saved money are righteous wealth.
In Jesus time, there was not much righteous wealth, because the only way to obtain wealth was to do deals with political and religious powers. There is plenty of unrighteous wealth in the modern world too, but it is possible to gain wealth righteously as well. People who work hard for their wages can gain righteous wealth. The owners of businesses that provide reliable goods and services that people need can gain righteous wealth.
Righteous wealth is not an obstacle to the gospel. Unrighteous wealth creates hostility, so it hinders the gospel. It can distract a Christian from God.
Leaving Unrighteous Mammon
Jesus warned that unrighteous mammon can prevent us from serving God.
No servant 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 (Luke 16:13).
We are servants of God. We cannot serve God and mammon. This creates a problem for wealthy people who become Christians. If their wealth has been gained righteously, it should not have a hold on them. If they are the owners of wealth that has been gained unrighteously, they have a serious problem, because they will be partly controlled by the spirit of mammon.
A new Christian is required to repent from all “dead works” (Heb 6:1). Repentance means turning around and going in a new direction. The old unrighteous life must be left behind. This means that the owners of unrighteous mammon must turn from their unrighteous wealth and leave it behind.
When rich people Christians repent and follow Jesus, they need to get rid of their unrighteous wealth. They cannot be servants of unrighteous mammon and a servant of Jesus.
Identifying Unrighteous Wealth
How do we distinguish righteous from unrighteous wealth? The key is in the way it was acquired. Unrighteous wealth will have been obtained through deception, theft, manipulation or dishonesty. In Jesus time, it was often acquired through collusion with the political and religious powers. That problem has not changed, but the form will be different. Today the government will often give a group of people a monopoly power over an aspect of the economy that enables them to become wealthy.
Most unrighteous wealth will be obvious. If it is not obvious, we can leave it to the Holy Spirit. He will convict the new Christian, if his wealth is unrighteous and needs to be “got shot of”. We can trust the Spirit to do this task. Christian elders must not get into the business of forcing new Christians to give away their wealth, whether it unrighteous or not. (The Ananias and Saphira incident probably occurred because people were coming under inappropriate pressure to give wealth away (Acts 5:1-10)).
Repenting from Unrighteous Wealth
To repent is to turn and leave something behind. There are four ways to repent from unrighteous wealth.
1. Restore Capital
The best way to deal with unrighteous wealth is to return the capital to the people from whom it was extorted. The shrewd steward is a good example. He had previously squeezed the rich man’s tenants hard by enforcing exorbitant rents that made their lives miserable. He put things right by letting the tenants change their written tenancy agreements to a more reasonable rental. By halving the payment to 500 bushels of wheat, the steward made the tenants wheat farming economic. By halving the payment of olive oil to 400 gallons, the steward was making the farming of the olive grove economic for the tenant farmer.
The best option for the repentant owner of unrighteous wealth is to return some wealth to the people that were de-capitalized when the unrighteous wealth was acquired from them. If the asset cannot be returned, the rent should be reduced. This has the effect of re-capitalizing the strugglers.
- Make Restitution
If the unrighteous wealth has been stolen from innocent people, the repentant owner should make fourfold restitution.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex 22:1).
Zachhaeus the tax collector promised Jesus that he would fulfil this command.
Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold (Luke 19:8).
He promised to make restitution for everything that was stolen. He could not identify all the people that he had stolen from, so he gave half his possessions to the poor as an alternative.
- Give to the Poor
Sometimes the new Christian will not be able to return their unrighteous wealth to the people from whom it was acquired. The owners may have gone away, or died, or simply be unknown.
In this situation, the unrighteous wealth should be given away to the poor and needy.
Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to give all his wealth away, because it was unrighteous wealth that had been acquired by unrighteousness.
Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (Luke 18:22).
The book of Acts records examples of new Christians selling their unrighteous wealth and giving it to the poor.
Sometimes the repentant rich person will give the money away themselves. In most situations, they will work with deacons they trust. Deacons will have relationships with a many people in need, so they can help the person give their unrighteous wealth to deserving people.
Deacons will provide advice to new Christians. They will know about needs that could be met. They will handle money that is entrusted to them, but they must not tell new Christians what to do
- Even Up Capital
The reason for the uneven distribution of wealth in the modern world is that capital is unevenly distributed. Yet Paul says that equality is an important goal.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality (2 Cor 8:13)
This is a dilemma. Everyone thinks equality is a good idea, but no one knows how it can be achieved. Robin Hood tried to achieve it, by robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Socialists try and achieve it by taxing the rich and giving benefits to the poor. Neither of these methods has worked.
The Christian answer to the dilemma of equality in an unequal world is radical sharing, particularly sharing of capital. Those who have plenty of capital should give to those who don’t have much. This was Jesus solution to the problems cause by inequality of capital.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12;33)
Sometimes people will give food and clothing to the poor, but in many situations, providing the poor with capital (land, fishing boats, nets, tools) will help them more.
When helping people to give away unrighteous wealth, deacons should channel gifts of capital to poor people who have the capability to use it responsibly to be more productive. They would need to training in conserving capital and using it wisely. Transferring capital to the poor by giving and sharing will move the world closer to equality.
Christians should not hand out capital carelessly, as this would lead to serious waste. They should train up potential recipients, so they know how to care for capital and not dissipate it in pointless consumption.
Poverty and Work
When dealing with unrighteous wealth, there are several traps that must be avoided. The person who gives away all their unrighteous wealth might end up in poverty. The Christians around them will have to ensure that they have financial support. This will be quite humbling for the new Christian. They will go from a position of power and independence to a place of dependence on others. This will be had to deal with, but will be good for their character.
In the past, they have will have gained wealth by manipulation and control. They need to be taught how to earn their living by honest work.
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need (Eph 4:28).
Making this change will be very difficult, so the new Christian will need strong support from Christian elders and friends.
Whoever is faithful with very little is faithful with much, and whoever is unrighteous with very little will also be unrighteous with much. (Luke 16:10)
If the person has been unrighteous with much, they will need to learn to be faithful with a little for a while.
A common temptation is for the new Christian to say, “I will hang onto my unrighteous wealth, but I will use it for God’s purpose”. Christian leaders will often agree with this temptation, because they have some works that need financial support. This temptation is wrong for two reasons.
- The gospels say that unrighteous wealth should be given to the poor. This is just because the wealth was taken from the poor. The gospels never say that unrighteous wealth should be used to support Christian ministries. Support for Christian ministries should come through relationships, not through channeling unrighteous wealth.
- Unrighteous wealth is not neutral. It carries a spirit of greed and avarice. The new Christian needs to get free from these spirits that have controlled their lives. If they hang onto their unrighteous wealth, they will remain vulnerable to those spirits. They will be caught in an endless power struggle between their new master and their old master.
The unrighteous wealth is of no value to God, but it is can be a big burden for a new Christian. They must deal with it, before they can receive the true gifts that Jesus has for them. Some of the listeners could not accept Jesus teaching and it cost them.
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus (Luke 16:14).
Refusing to deal with unrighteous wealth is dangerous.
Belongs to Someone Else
Parallelism is a poetic form that is common in Hebrew poetry. An idea is repeated in a slightly different form with the same message. Jesus used this method when interpreting the parable of the Shrewd Steward.
Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?
And if you have not been faithful with another man’s wealth,
who will give you what is your own (Luke 16:11-12)?
The message of these two verses is the same. If we have not been faithful with unrighteous wealth, God will not trust us with true wealth.
The important thing is how Jesus described unrighteous wealth. In verse 11, he called it “unrighteous mammon”. In verse 12, he referred to it as “another man’s wealth”. Jesus is saying that “unrighteous wealth” really belongs to another person. The person with unrighteous wealth actually controls something that belongs to someone else.
The only faithful solution is to return that wealth to that other person. Often the “other person” will be unknown. However, if the other person has lost his wealth, he will most likely be poor. Therefore, the second best solution is to return the unrighteous wealth to the poor. This might not hit the right person, but at least it would go to “another person” who may have lost their wealth to someone else.
Capital is Important
When Deacons are assisting new Christian to give away their unrighteous wealth, they must be careful that they do not de-capitalize the Christian community. Deacons must understand the importance of capital. Capital goods are important, because they make humans more productive. Capital and trade are the keys to escaping subsistence (see Capital for more on this topic).
The Jerusalem Church
When the Holy Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost, land was the main form of capital in Jerusalem. Many people responded to the preaching of the apostles by selling their land and using the money to support those in need.
For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:34-35).
This was an amazing transition.
There were good reasons for Christians in Jerusalem to sell their capital goods.
- Many of Jesus disciples had heard him prophesy that Jerusalem would be destroyed.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down (Luke 21:5-6).
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you Look, your house is left to you desolate (Matt 23:37-38).
Jesus had given a set of signs that would warn when this was about to happen. Jerusalem would be surrounded by the Roman armies and totally destroyed. This prophecy was fulfilled in AD70.
The believers in Jerusalem understood that once the prophecy was fulfilled, property in the city and its surrounds would be worthless. It made sense for them to sell their property while it still had value. This is the reason why, so many Christians in Jerusalem sold their property.
- The rich people who had become Christians had gained their wealth through their place in the Roman political system. It was unrighteous wealth. These people had chosen a new King: Jesus. They could not retain land and property that represented loyalty to King Herod or Caesar, so they sold it. They would probably have lost their property anyway, once their new loyalty became clear.
- Some of the new Christians had obtained their wealth illegally.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37).
Barnabas was a Levite and Levites were not entitled to own land in Israel (Num 26:62). When he came to faith in Jesus, the illegal ownership of land would have weighed on his conscious. He probably could not return the land to its rightful owner (Lev 25:13), so he sold the land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to those in need.
- The word used for possessions in Acts 2:45, 4:34 and Acts 5:1 is “ktema” or “ktetor” This is not the word generally used for possessions in the New Testament (uparxis). These nouns are derived from the verb “ktaomai”. It means “acquire” or “gain control over”. It refers to property that has been acquired, not bought. “Ktema” refers to unrighteous wealth that has been acquired by wickedness. The property sold by Christians like Barnabas and Ananias may have been acquired as a reward for wickedness.
- Much of the land in New Testament Israel was owned by absentee landlords. Some of these might have come Back to Jerusalem for the Passover and received the gospel. Barnabas lived in Cyprus, but he owned land near Jerusalem. Many of these absentee landlords would have sold their land when they received the gospel.
In each of these circumstances, the decision to sell the property was wise and good. However, the widespread sale of property created a problem for the Jerusalem. Selling capital goods and consuming the money is useful in the short term, but in the long term it leads to poverty. Without capital goods to make them more productive, people are forced into subsistence living.
The church in Jerusalem de-capitalized quickly by the rapid sale of land and property. This
produced an unintended consequence for the large numbers of Christians who had sold their property, but decided to continue living in Jerusalem. They remained in poverty until the city was eventually destroyed. By getting rid of their capital, but remaining in the city, they had consigned themselves to poverty.
Some of the Christians in Jerusalem may have misunderstood the timing of Jesus prophecy. He had given clear signs that would warn when the collapse of the city was close (Luke 21:7-24). This meant that that the disciples did not need to rush to sell their properties. They could wait until the destruction of the city was closer. The poverty in Jerusalem might have been the result of too many Christians selling their property too soon.
When Deacons are assisting new Christians to give away their unrighteous wealth, they must be careful that they do not de-capitalize the Christian community.
Hold Capital Lightly
Nothing in this world is certain. We never know what the future will bring. The capital of Christians can be taken from them at any time. If Christians work hard and consume frugally, they will gradually build up their capital. This may cause the enemies of the gospel to become envious. If persecution takes hold, their righteous wealth might be confiscated. If this happens, Christians should rejoice that they are able to share in the sufferings of Jesus.
You joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions (Heb 10:34).
The Christians referred to in this letter had lost their property. They rejoiced because they knew that God had given them the kingdom.
All our property belongs to Jesus, so if it is confiscated, he is the only one who has the right to be upset. We have not lost anything, so we cannot complain. We still have the Kingdom of God, so we have riches far beyond what we deserve. We can rejoice in the privilege of being part of the Kingdom.