What did Jesus really teach about wealth and poverty? Perhaps you think that Jesus discouraged wealth and promoted a lifestyle of poverty and self-denial. Perhaps you believe that Jesus encouraged wealth, as many prosperity gospel advocates assume. Or, maybe you fall somewhere in-between.
The answer to this question matters because it gets to the very heart of who Jesus is — and what the Bible as a whole teaches about wealth and poverty. So let’s examine Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels and seek to find an answer.
Establishing a detailed ethic of wealth and poverty from the example of Christ’s life is actually quite challenging, for it is possible to emphasize both wealth and poverty in Jesus’ life and ministry. Focusing on poverty, you could emphasize the following facts:
- Jesus was born in a manger (see Luke 2:7), and he was part of a lower, or at best, middle-class working family.
- Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was a manual laborer — a carpenter (see Matt. 13:55), a trade that Christ himself apparently later adopted (see Mark 6:3).
- At Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary were poor enough to qualify to offer two pigeons at the birth purification ceremony, rather than the usual yearling lamb (see Luke 2:24).
- During his earthly ministry, Jesus attended to and identified with many from the lower classes — including prostitutes, orphans, widows, and other social and economic outcasts.
- He declared that “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). This verse was true of Christ’s life, as during his ministry he apparently had no home, no land and no regular income.
- Borrowing was a common practice during Jesus’ earthly ministry — he borrowed a boat from which to preach, food to multiply, a colt on which to ride, a room in which to meet and even a tomb in which to be buried.
Conversely, though, the Gospels demonstrate power and material wealth in Jesus’ life and ministry.
- Jesus frequently interacted with the religious elite, such as scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, as well as members of the Sanhedrin, including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (see John 3:1-21; 19:38).
- Christ also ministered to powerful and wealthy individuals like the rich young ruler (see Matt. 19:16-24), the unnamed centurion (see Luke 7:1-5) and a number of tax collectors, including Levi and Zacchaeus.
- Jesus occasionally attended public parties and feasts (see Luke 5:29-32; John 2:1-11), accepted invitations to dine with the rich and powerful (see Luke 11:37; 14:1-6), used investment banking analogies in order to illustrate His parables (see Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27), and on more than one occasion, graciously received costly gifts from his followers (see Luke 7:36-39; John 12:1-3).
- By Jesus’ own testimony, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matt 11:19).
- Moreover, Jesus taught that “there is no one who has left house… or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… and in the age to come…” (Mark 10:29-30). Though this verse has surely been misapplied and abused, Jesus did seem to allude to the possibility of material increase for his disciples.
We would have a difficult time demonstrating that Jesus favored either the possession of wealth or a state of poverty in his practice and teaching, at least not to the exclusion of the opposing condition. In fact, though economic matters frequently arose in Christ’s life and ministry, he gave no systematic, detailed economic plan to his followers. Rather, Jesus’ example and teachings on wealth and poverty are wide-ranging, and the Gospel writers usually emphasize their spiritual impact. The economic citations from Christ’s life and ministry are, in fact, often peripheral to the main point of the narratives in which they occur.
Nevertheless, we can summarize the main emphases of Jesus’ economic ethic from his teaching. Here are two key themes:
1. Believers must care for the poor.
The creation ideal of laboring is not stressed in the Gospels, but the Old Testament emphasis on caring for the poor is readily apparent in the ministry of Christ. Poverty itself is not presented in the Gospels — or anywhere in Scripture, for that matter — as being inherently sinful. During his incarnation, Jesus was relatively poor, at times voluntarily so, yet was without sin (see 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). However, the Bible does recognize the causes and effects of poverty to be oftentimes sinful. Therefore, believers ought to work to alleviate involuntary poverty, for doing so is both Christlike and in accord with the gospel.
When believers care for the poor, they imitate Jesus.
Note that Jesus began his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18)
During his earthly ministry, this verse was Christ’s example. When believers care for the poor, they imitate Jesus and in doing so effectively minister to him (see Matt. 25:31-46). Such ministry is a fulfillment and depiction of God’s plan of redemption, which aims at the restoration of all things (see Acts 3:21; Rom. 8:21), including proper stewardship over material resources. While there will always be involuntary poverty before the return of the Lord (see Mark 14:7), laboring in order to meet the needs of the poor is a duty of members of the body of Christ.
2. Wealth can be a spiritual stumbling block.
Believers need to be on guard against the temptations of material wealth. This emphasis complements the notion of caring for the poor, for if wealth is not idolized, then ministering to the needy becomes a natural application of right stewardship. This theme is evident in one of Jesus’ most well-known economic statements — his reflection upon interacting with the rich, young, ruler:
Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 19:23)
Contextually, I don’t think Jesus intended to make a univocal statement about the necessary evils of material wealth. Rather, he was evaluating the character of the rich, young ruler — a man whose actions showed that he valued material status above his own spiritual well-being.
Believers need to be on guard against the temptations of material wealth.
Jesus also inferred that wealth can be a potential spiritual stumbling block when he traveled about Israel calling his disciples. They voluntarily left their material goods in order to follow him (see Matt. 19:27; Mark 1:18; 10:28). This appears to be a prerequisite, of sorts, for all of Jesus’ followers, for when instructing a great crowd outside of Jerusalem, Christ taught,
Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
We can find numerous examples of individuals in the Gospels for whom wealth was a spiritual stumbling block, including:
- the Pharisees “who were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14)
- the money changers in the temple (see Matt. 21:12-13)
- Judas Iscariot (see Matt. 26:14-16; John 12:4-6)
Yet we shouldn’t interpret Jesus’ warnings about the trappings of wealth as a complete ban on the accumulation and enjoyment of material goods. As already noted, in his life and ministry Christ himself benefited from the wealth of others and even instructed his disciples in the use of material goods for their own spiritual pursuits (see Luke 22:35-36). Wealthy individuals — including Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea — followed Jesus. Others — such as the Gerasene demoniac — desired to leave all in order to follow Jesus, but were prohibited from doing so by Christ himself (see Mark 5:18-19).
Jesus’ warning about wealth being a spiritual stumbling block are given as a sobering admonition, but they should not be broadened beyond their intended application. Perhaps a good summary of this economic theme in Jesus’ teaching are his words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven …for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21)
This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness.