The Dangers of Wealth
In Luke 12:13–34, Jesus identifies three dangers that wealth poses for all people. Have American Christians taken sufficient notice of them?
by George P. Wood
By any economic measure, Americans are wealthy people. We produce more and consume more than any other nation on the planet.1 Even our poor are wealthy, relatively speaking. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield have noted, “Today, most poor families have conveniences that were unaffordable to the middle class not too long ago.”2
Our wealth is a source of great blessing to us. It enables us, if we are prudent, to meet our needs, indulge our wants, save for emergencies and retirement, and still have enough left to give generously to churches and charities. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day.3 We belong to the 20 percent that lives on more than that — in most cases, much more.
Our wealth is also a source of great danger to us, however, if we value and use it in terms that are contrary to God’s will. This is a recurring theme in Scripture generally, and in Jesus’ teaching specifically.4 Luke 12:13–34 provides a lens through which we can focus on what Jesus taught about the dangers of wealth. As we study this passage, we can see that Jesus’ words are especially relevant to wealthy Americans like us.
Setting and Summary
In Luke 12:13–34, Jesus tells and interprets a parable about the dangers of wealth. Luke identifies the setting of Jesus’ words in verse 13: “Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ ”
In Jesus’ day, elder sons received a greater share of an inheritance than younger sons. We can assume that the man who spoke up was a younger brother who felt — rightly or wrongly — that his older brother had deprived him of his fair share. He thus approached Jesus and asked Him to settle the dispute, which was the kind of request commonly made to a rabbi.
Jesus made three replies:
1. He told the man He would not adjudicate the dispute. “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (verse 14).
2. He used the man’s request as a teachable moment for the crowd. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (verse 15).
He followed this warning with a parable about the judgment of a rich fool, which concludes with this moral: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (verse 21).
3. In light of this parable, Jesus taught His disciples to trust in God rather than material things. The word “therefore” in verse 22 connects what precedes with what follows. Jesus taught His disciples not to worry about wealth because God would provide for their needs (verses 22–31).
He further instructed His disciples to put their faith into action by selling their possessions and giving to the poor, storing up treasure in heaven (verses 32–34).
Taken together, Jesus’ replies to the man, the crowd, and the disciples establish three dangers wealth poses to people: insatiable greed, anxious unbelief, and a selfish disdain for the poor. These three dangers hang together. If your scale of value is the possession of an ever-increasing amount of stuff, you will always worry that you don’t have enough, and you will never be generous to those with real needs.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these points in turn.
Jesus frames His response to the crowd as a warning about greed (verses 15–21). He goes on to identify three elements of greed.
1. He points to the nature of greed. In Greek, the word for greed is pleonexia, which derives from the words “to have” (exein) and “more” (pleion). The greedy are those who desire to have more. There’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring more, of course. The poor disciples who pray, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3) are not greedy. They have a legitimate desire for more. The difference between legitimate desire and greed is the difference between need and want. Greed begins when you cultivate the habit of wanting more than you need.
2. He notes greed’s scale of value. Jesus says, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Greedy persons value stuff; they are materialists.
Notice what excited the rich man in Jesus’ parable: bigger barns and surplus grain (verse 18). Jesus describes materialists as “whoever stores up things for themselves” (verse 21) and contrasts them with His disciples, who store up “a treasure in heaven” (verse 33). In Greek, the former is thesaurizon, while the latter is thesauron. When Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (verse 34), He means that the location of your treasure — here or in heaven — reveals the orientation of your heart — materialism or godliness.
The problem with materialism is that material things are subject to thievery or destruction (verse 33). Adopting a materialist scale of value locks you in a cycle of perpetual discontentment. You must replace things that are lost or destroyed. If the Jones family buys a shiny new widget, you too must buy one to keep up with them.
Even more problematic than this, you yourself die. “This very night your life will be demanded from you,” God says to the rich man in Jesus’ parable. “Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (verse 20). Answer: Not you! You can’t take earthly wealth with you into the afterlife. Thus, being fabulously wealthy in this age but abjectly poor in the age to come serves no good purpose.
3. Jesus exposed greed’s self-centeredness. The rich man said to himself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (verse 19).
He desired to spend his wealth on the satisfaction of his own wants — not the needs of others. In the parable, God demanded the rich man’s life that very night. Jesus notes that God’s assessment of the rich man’s values demonstrates a universal standard: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (verse 21).
We will examine what it means to be rich toward God. (Hint: It involves generosity to the poor.) For now, however, we can simply note the irony of the man’s self-centeredness.
Jesus de-emphasizes the rich man’s role in the production of his bumper crop: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest” (verse 16). The rich man may have built the barns, but he didn’t produce the overflow of grain that filled them. God did. Therefore, the rich man should have used his surplus as God intended: to provide for others. He had been blessed with wealth, but his wealth wasn’t a blessing to anyone else.
Taken together, these three elements produce the motto of a greedy person: “I want more stuff for myself.” The sentiment underlying this motto is spiritually dangerous. Indeed, according to Jesus, it is a threat to one’s eternal well–being.
A second danger wealth poses to people is unbelief. In verses 22–34, Jesus frames His reply to the crowd as a warning about anxiety. He says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear” (verse 22).
It is clear that the root of anxiety, according to Jesus, is unbelief. We worry because we have “little faith” (verse 28).
Jesus soothes our anxieties by teaching us several truths:
1. He reminds us of life’s true scale of value. He says, “life is more than food, and the body more than clothes” (verse 23). The word than makes all the difference in one’s philosophy of life. Compare materialism, which says, “Life is more food and clothes,” with Christian discipleship, which says, “Life is more than food and clothes.” The abundant life consists in properly identifying the “more than” element.
By the same token, however, life is not less than food and clothes. God created our material bodies and their material needs: “Your Father knows that you need them” (verse 30). He also created the material provisions to meet them. It is not wrong to have stuff, in other words.
2. Jesus soothes our anxieties about stuff by reminding us that God is a good Provider.“Consider the ravens,” He says. “God feeds them” (verse 24). “Consider how the wild flowers grow” (verse 27). He “clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire” (verse 28).
In light of God’s obvious provision for living things that “do not sow or reap” or “labor or spin,” let alone have a “storeroom or barn” to store the products of their labor (verses 24,27), we have good reason to believe that God provides for us, too, because we are “more valuable” than they are (verse 24, cf. “how much more” in verse 28). If God provides for the needs of less valuable living things, He will definitely provide for the needs of more valuable creatures.
3. Jesus reminds us that anxiety is counterproductive. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (verse 25). Far from adding to our lives, worry subtracts from our lives. It wreaks havoc with our mental and physical health and poisons our relationships. So why worry (verse 26)?
4. Finally, He reminds us that seeking the Kingdom is the path to true abundance. Jesus says, “Seek [God’s] kingdom, and these things [i.e., life’s necessities] will be given to you as well” (verse 31). He then goes on to add, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (verse 32).
We are to seek what we have already been given. The truly abundant life, in other words, consists of continually refocusing on and laying hold of the divine grace that is ever before us. Only as we do so can we consider ourselves truly wealthy.
The questions are: Do we trust the God whom Jesus portrays in His teaching? Do we value the Kingdom more than stuff? Do we believe that God will provide for our needs? Do we cast all our cares on a gracious Heavenly Father, knowing that He cares infinitely for us (1 Peter 5:7)?
If we do, we can heed Jesus’ command: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32). But we can also demonstrate our faith through generosity to the poor.
Selfish Disdain for the Poor
The final danger wealth poses is stinginess. This appears throughout verses 12–34. Jesus saw the element of greed behind the younger brother’s request that He adjudicate a legal dispute with his older brother (verse 15).
He warned the crowd against acting like the rich man in the parable, noting that judgment was the just desert of “whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (verse 21). And He taught His disciples that if they truly believe in God, they can — without anxiety — “[s]ell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail” (verse 33).
The image of storing up treasure in heaven is not a common metaphor of generosity for modern-day people, but it was a common metaphor in Jesus’ day. Gary A. Anderson argues that the metaphor ultimately derives from Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4.5 The former says, “Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value, but righteousness delivers from death.” The latter says, “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”
As faithful Jews meditated on passages such as these during the inter-testamental period, they came to identify righteousness (Hebrew, tzedekah) with almsgiving, an identification that persists in Judaism to this day. (If you’re in Israel and a beggar asks for tzedekah, he’s asking for financial assistance.) And they came to think of almsgiving as making a loan to God, or making a deposit in heaven. On the Day of Judgment, God would repay generosity to the poor — i.e., a loan to Him — with the interest of eternal life.
Now, as Protestants who believe we are saved by grace through faith for works (Ephesians 2:8–10), this talk of making deposits in the Bank of Heaven strikes us as a bit works-oriented, as if we are saved by our generosity. Yet Jesus uses the imagery of the treasury of heaven in precisely the way Jews of His day did. Do we have a contradiction, then, between Paul and Jesus?
No, of course not! The grace-faith-works formula also appears in Luke 12, though in different terms. Grace: “The Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (verse 32). Faith: “How much more will he clothe you — you of little faith!” (verse 28). Works: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (verse 33).
For Jesus, as for Paul, the ground of salvation is God’s grace, not our works. Our works are simply evidence of authentic faith in God.
Put another way, how we use money is the proof of where we place our faith. If life consists in the abundance of possessions, we will seek to possess ever more stuff, worry that we don’t have enough (or that we’ll lose what we have), and fail to help the poor, believing that generosity diminishes us. If life is more than food and drink, however, we will seek the kingdom of God, trust in the Father’s provision for us, and provide for those in need, knowing that generosity enriches us eternally.
When we compare these two understandings of life, then, we see more clearly what Jesus meant when He said, “You cannot serve both God and money [literally, mammon]” (Matthew 6:24), for they lead in diametrically opposite directions.
A Tale of Two Economies
What we see in Jesus’ teaching is a tale of two economies. The earthly economy stores up treasures on earth. Its motto is, “I want more stuff for myself.” The heavenly economy stores up treasures in heaven. Its motto is, “God has given me more than enough to bless you.”
The crucial question facing American Christians like you and me is: Which economy do we participate in? America produces and consumes more than any other nation on the planet. Yet despite our wealth, American Christians give very little to church and charity, either as a percentage of their incomes or in absolute terms. In fact, over the last five decades, the average giving of American evangelicals has declined, even as our standard of living has increased, and even as our knowledge of the world’s needs have increased.6
That leaves you and me with a very disturbing question: Might we be the rich fools who have stored up things for ourselves without being rich toward God?
1. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, our 2013 gross domestic product (GDP) was $16.72 trillion, ranking us first in the world. Our per capita GDP was $52,800, ranking us fourteenth in the world (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html). According to the United Nations Statistical Division, our 2009 household final consumption expenditure (HFCE) was the world’s largest, representing a full 28.9 percent of the world’s total (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_consumer_markets).
4. Craig L. Blomberg summarizes “[t]he biblical theme of the ever-present dangers of riches” in Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 67–95.