On Tuesday I put up a post It is a Conundrum Pt. 1 that gave my answer to the question “How can you be a Christian?” in part through a survey of “love” passages in the New Testament. The directive to love one another is pervasive throughout the New Testament. My answer to the question “how can you be a Christian?” is situated in a deep desire to be part of the people of God living (or more accurately aiming to live) according to the kingdom ethics of God both now and forever.
There is more to this than some esoteric command to love, of course. Love requires action. One of the passages in Tuesday’s post came from the encounter between Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” … Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mk 10:17, 21) (See also Mt 19:21, Lk 12:15, Lk 12:33-34, Lk 18:18, 22)
The passage from Mark as I’ve quoted it above doesn’t quite do justice to the whole:
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:22-23) (See also Mt 19:23, Lk 18:24)
This passage should worry us, at least the vast majority of us. In the grand scheme of things we are quite rich. The command to sell everything and give it to the poor is, as I noted in the post Tuesday, softened a little later in the New Testament. I think this is because the call isn’t to radical poverty, but to radical love. Love of wealth hinders, even prevents, love for one another.
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 Tm 6:17-19)
That the command is softened from radical poverty to radical love doesn’t remove the need for radical generosity. In fact the general theme toward radical generosity and away from greed and love of money or material possessions permeates the New Testament. And it is important to note that the command isn’t to be generous in giving to the church, but to be steeped in generosity as a way of life, especially toward those who are poor, oppressed, or in need.
This is a command that seems rather ignored at times in the Church today. And this is a conundrum. We talk about being Bible believing Christians, about inerrancy and authority at great length. After all, women in ministry is an issue because of only two key passages (1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-13). These lay down an absolute law to which we must submit, at least according to the interpretation of many. Sorry ma’am, we are told, I didn’t make the rules, God did. I just follow them.
But there are far more than two passages calling for generosity, condemning greed, and in favor of the poor, and they are pretty clear. Far more clear than 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2.
What does it mean to take the Bible as the word of God?
A friend mentioned that when he preaches on issues of money and generosity he can sense the change in body language and the resistance that comes from the audience.
Commenters on the blog over the years have sometimes been quick to point out that Jesus told us we would always have the poor (Mt 26:11, Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8), therefore efforts to eradicate or even alleviate poverty are futile. Some will go so far to say that money is better spent on “evangelism” (which has a rather loose definition).
Others have pointed to the passage in 2 Thessalonians 3:6,10
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. … For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Whew! Off the hook! Right?
Of course the preponderance of the evidence points in a bit of a different direction. God has a special place for the poor and hungry and words of warning for the rich. A selection of passages (not exhaustive) hammers us over the head as we listen to the New Testament:
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Lk 1:53)
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. (Lk 4:18) (See also Mt 11:5, Lk 7:22)
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. … 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. (Lk 6:20-21, 24-25)
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mt 13:22) (See also Mk 4:18-20, Lk 8:14)
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Lk 12:15)
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Lk 12:33-34)
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. (Lk 11:39-41) (See also Mt 23:23-26 – where the NIV has greed and self-indulgence instead of greed and wickedness)
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Lk 20:45-21:5 (see also Mk 12:38-44)
(This isn’t a call for the disciples or for us to be like the widow, it is a condemnation of the rich who devour widow’s houses and give only out of their plenty.)
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:12-14)
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. (Lk 16:13-14) (See also Mt 6:24)
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Lk 19:8)
Clearly Zacchaeus knew what God asks of his followers, as did Tabitha and Cornelius.
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. (Acts 9:36)
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Acts 10:4)
As did Paul.
On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Ro 12:20-21)
Generosity is not only toward brothers and sisters in the faith.
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor 5:11)
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 6:7-8)
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:3)
Right attitude (love) matters – but generosity isn’t optional.
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph. 5:5-6)
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1 Ti 3:2-3)
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim 6:6-10)
And in the letters not written by Paul:
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5)
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. (Ja 1:9-11)
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. (Ja 2:5-6)
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (Ja 2:15-17)
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. (Ja 5:1-3)
And finally from 1 John 3
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 Jn 3:16-18
This is a good place to end. Many of us know 1 John 3:16 quite well. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. It is a frequent Sunday School memory verse, and a good one, but the rest of the passage isn’t emphasized nearly as often. This is a conundrum and, I have to say, leaves us all open to the charge of hypocrisy. Sorry ma’am you can’t preach – but I don’t really have to live generously and care for the poor. The Bible only seems to be saying that.
Given this inescapable theme – I have to say …
What does it mean to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God?
How should this play out in our lives?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.