Matthew 19: 23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
James 5: 1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
I think, when many Americans read these verses, they assume that the “rich person” being referred to must be someone like Bill Gates. Maybe they think that it would be someone who could afford to buy a small country or pay cash for an airplane. Or maybe, they would at least say, that these warnings are only for the 1%; the rest of the 99% of American people need not worry about this warning. When we lived in America, and resided in the mid to lower end of the American salary spectrum, I was definitely guilty of this type of thinking. I never worried myself too much about these warnings. It was easy to look around, see many people who were wealthier than us and therefore consider our family to be on the poorer side of things. When we moved to Uganda, our salary and standard of living changed very little, but our perspective changed a lot. We suddenly were thrust into the 1% percent of our surrounding neighbors. Suddenly, we came face-to-face with the reality that we are rich… We are the rich people of Matthew 19 and James 5 that will have difficulty obtaining heaven apart from God’s particular grace to meet us in our weakness.
This has led me to question…
What exactly is it about being rich that makes it hard to enter heaven? By looking into my own prone-to-wandering-heart and into scripture, I can see a few things…
A rich person can end up trusting in his riches. Riches give us a better education, better food, better health, and better access to theological literature. Riches give the appearance of strength and power physically, spiritually and intellectually. In reality, Christ is the only source of strength and power. To rest in our own strength and power is to deny the sufficiency of Christ.
A rich person can become a proud person…boasting in himself. It is easy to look around and be well-pleased with the fruitful work of one’s strong hands. But Christ wants us to boast in our weakness, because we are recognizing that his grace is sufficient. (2 Corinthians 12:9) Rich people don’t have as many easily apparent weaknesses to boast in, so it becomes difficult to see that his grace is sufficient.
A rich person can often fail to cultivate a deep trusting relationship with his provider God because he sees very little that his own hand cannot provide. When I listen to the depth of prayer and the urgency with which my brothers and sisters in Uganda pray for daily bread, school fees, traveling mercies, and health concerns, I realize that I am missing a unique depth of relationship that they have. They trust God because there is nothing else to trust in. Related to this, rich people tend to store up treasures and things in their garages, attics, cupboards, storage rooms and closets. All these items are sitting there “just in case a need arises.” All these items, that could be put to good use by someone else or sold and the money given to the poor, are just sitting there for years, degenerating. I fully believe these items will be evidence against us on the Day of Judgment. (James 5:3) Oh to have greater faith that would trust God to provide when our needs arise, rather than storing up our own treasures so we can provide for ourselves.
Rich people can easily think of themselves as “blessed” because they have a house, they have a car, they have a full refrigerator, and they have their needs met. These are all good things to be thankful for, but they are not how scripture tells us we are “blessed.” Matthew 5 defines a blessed person as meek, pure and merciful. He or she is a peace-makers who mourns, is poor in spirit, and who is persecuted because of his righteousness. Rich people can be easily distracted by their so-called “blessings,” and fail to strive for God’s blessings, but the poor Christian brother and sister is more likely to see and experience God’s blessings as He defines them because they have very few things to be distracted by.
A rich person can easily live in a bubble and forget about the poor. It is easy to get caught up in the daily life of the wealthy: private Christian school life, church building committee life, soccer-mom life, work-life, country club life, home school mom-life, etc. All the while, millions are suffering and trying to find their basic necessities. Failure to pull one’s head out of the daily life of the rich and do things for the “least of these” puts one in danger of hearing the Lord say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matthew 25: 31-46)
A rich person can easily fatten his heart. Let’s face it, obesity rates in America are crazy high. Is it just our bodies that are fat, or could our hearts be also? Just like it is difficult for rich people to stay physically fit, it can be difficult for a rich person to keep his heart fit, in-shape and ready for service like a good soldier. Being physically fit takes self-denial: not eating the rich, pleasurable foods or spending one’s daily calorie allotment on empty calories. A physically –fit person may enjoy a slice of something chocolaty every once in a while, but it isn't where his fork usually resides. Heart fitness takes self-denial too: not participating in the rich, pleasurable life style that the world has to offer. A spiritually fit person doesn't spend all his time or money that he has been given on spiritually-empty, self-pleasuring, self-entertaining activities. He might enjoy some entertainment every once in a while to the glory of God, but it isn't where his heart resides. But rich people have so much excess time and money (or access to it via credit cards) to participate in all sorts of potentially unhelpful entertainment: gaming systems, cruises, large screen TVs, fine dining, fine wines and IPA beers, novels, movie theaters, etc. A rich person has to exercise great self-control to not over participate in these things and end up fattening his heart. Just like maintaining control over one’s body is hard, maintaining control over one’s heart is hard too! And just like science has made clear that obesity leads to death, James has made clear that when we fatten our hearts, we do so for the day of slaughter.
Is it therefore wrong and sinful to be rich? Or should we feel guilty for being rich? No. It is not wrong to be rich nor should we feel guilty that we have money while others struggle for money. We do not need to feel guilty or sinful every time we shop for groceries that we have been given the means to provide for our families while others haven’t. Nor should we feel guilty about earning more money. But we must be very aware that being rich puts us in a position where we can be (and probably are!) easily deceived by Satan in many areas simply because our culture does not see these things as sin. Being wealthy is a potentially dangerous place for our souls to be. The Bible shows that there are many ways a rich person can be guilty of not glorifying God with their wealth and therefore be found guilty of sin and in need of repentance. This is the reason that I Timothy 6:9 warns that the desire of riches (and that can include the desire for a certain standard of living) can cause people to “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” We must pray earnestly that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will sensitize us to these sins in a world that is so desensitized to them. If we have failed in these areas, a contrite and repentant heart that looks to the cross of Christ will glorify God and his grace to us and save even the rich! With God, even the salvation of a rich person is possible!
And as we seek to grow in sanctification in the area of wealth, a good passage to meditate on is I Timothy 6: 17-19 in-which God tells us what we SHOULD do with our wealth. It says, “17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” Being rich in good works, generous, ready to share our wealth and storing up treasure in heaven by giving our earthly treasure away is a means of grace to us. God gives us this particular grace for our particular soul-threatening status of being rich. If we have been given wealth, it is in our spiritual best interest to lower our standard of living so that we have more to give. We must put off the old man by fleeing the particular sins that can accompany wealth and we must put on the new man by being rich in good works, generous and ready to share!
And we can take comfort that while we work on our hearts in this area, God is also working in us to bring our hearts into submission to his will. That is the comfort of Matthew 19:26: “With man this [a rich person being saved] is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” When I see the hardness of my heart, God says “I can change it. All things are possible for me.” Through the power of the triune God, may we all be known to the world as a people that seek God with our wealth!