John shook his head in what surely looked like bewilderment mixed with disappointment. How come he had never seen this before? He had grown up with the Scriptures, being born in a family of devout Christians. He knew the Bible well. He happened to be highly educated too—had a Ph.D. in science. But he was not ready for what he was now reading in his Bible. Did Jesus really say that?
John was one of those who chose to spend a bright Saturday morning to attend this Gospel Seminar. His surprise was in response to a few questions the leader had posed to this small but sincere group. Did Jesus ever say: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”’? Almost everyone answered immediately and in the affirmative for they were familiar with the text in Matthew 5:3.
The next question: Did Jesus ever say, “Blessed are you who are poor”? received a slower-yet-sure answer in the negative from all those who ventured to answer. The third question: Did Jesus ever say, “Woe unto you who are rich”? received a quicker, almost vehement answer from most people in the group, “Of course, not!”
With playful pleasure, the teacher asked them to turn in their Bibles to a passage in Luke 6, reading from verse 17: “Jesus went down with them and stood on a level place.” He explained that the following teaching (Luke 6:20-49) is sometimes called The Sermon on the Plain to set it in tandem with the better known The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7).
John was now reading Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Further, it read, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (6:24). And he had never noticed that nor had anyone ever brought that to his attention!
Who Then Can Be Saved?
The questions that immediately followed in the group were like the ones addressed to Jesus by his disciples, who blurted out, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26).
Now you can check out the interaction of Jesus with his confused disciples and the apparently-earnest rich man in Mark 10:17-31. The tragic story of a rich man desiring to secure eternal life for himself now becomes the springboard for Jesus to give a challenging teaching to his disciples. Jesus throws a bombshell: “How hard it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of God!”
The disciples are helplessly perplexed. Jesus repeats himself, this time tenderly calling them, “Children,” but adding to their confusion by a brilliant hyperbole from peasant humour. What could be more impossible than a camel going through the eye of the needle? Nothing! No wonder the disciples—whether those with Jesus that day or we today—are astounded!
Why is this so? The bewilderment of those disciples arose from a popular theological foundation that basically interpreted worldly wealth as a sign of divine pleasure and the reward of a godly life. This piety-prosperity equation could easily be supported by recourse to biblical figures like the Patriarchs, Solomon, and Job. But Jesus obviously questioned the absolute validity of a worldview that essentially said, “Blessed are the rich!”
Is More Always Better?
Some have tried to soften the punch of Jesus’ words by suggesting that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Gate” through which one could manage to push a camel through, on its knees and without a load! The point being, a rich man could be saved if he repents and does not put his trust in wealth.
However, there never was such a gate in Jerusalem. (The first person to suggest this “gate” was a certain Theophylact in the eleventh century!) You see, Jesus was using a popular hyperbole to teach a serious truth: Worldly wealth is not a measure of one’s spirituality or being a recipient of God’s favour.
However, reading the Gospels carefully shows that Jesus did not (then or now) expect every disciple to abandon all material possessions. But the disciples must see money and possessions in a radical kingdom perspective. The reward of following Jesus is becoming part of a community of disciples where they graciously share with each other according to their needs (Mark 10:29-31).
Don’t we need that reminder in a world that essentially says “More is better.” In the words of a popular advertisement, “Yeh Dil Maange More” (This heart seeks more!). There is also a popular perversion of the gospel that offers increasing material blessings as a sure reward for serving God.
Wealth is a thorny issue—for the thorns in the parable of the soils represent “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:18-19).
So was Jesus against the rich? Again, the answer is obvious. There were comparatively rich people in the early church (like Philemon and Barnabas) who would have used their material resources to serve kingdom purposes. Money is not the root of all kinds of evil—as some people inaccurately think. The apostle Paul says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10).
How then can the rich be blessed? Paul gives us a helpful answer in 1 Tim 6:17-19: “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.”
The Christian measure of prosperity is sacrificial generosity.
Yes, Jesus did say, “Blessed are the poor.” Think about it!
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