Woe to the rich
By Femi Aribisala
Pull Quote: The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is only for the poor and the needy.
Which is better: to be rich or to be poor? Jesus’ answer is without ambiguity; according to the dynamics of the kingdom of God, it is better to be poor. Jesus says: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24). When you bring these ominous words of Jesus to the remembrance of Christians, they attack you as if they were the words of Satan.
It is one of those paradoxes of Christianity that Christians are among those who hate the words of Jesus the most. Anticipating this, Jesus warns: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38).
Jesus is unrelenting in his attacks on the rich. In his most damning proclamation, he says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24). When Peter heard this, he became completely demoralized. He complained to Jesus: “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27). However, Jesus had little to offer him in this life but the cross. The main prize is eternal life in the age to come.
This message that the rich will not enter the kingdom of God is rarely preached in churches. The usual practice is to give it a non-biblical sugar-coating so as not to offend the rich and those who aspire to be rich. Some will tell you it means everybody must enter the kingdom by the grace of God. But Jesus does not talk about everybody; he singles out the rich. According to him, rich men who are not prepared to give away their wealth on earth cannot inherit the kingdom of God and lay hold on eternal life. Jesus says: “If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11).
Kingdom for the poor
Christians need to be told the truth: the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is only for the poor and the needy. Therefore, he says specifically: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20). James reiterates this: “God (has) chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love Him.” (James 2:5). This implies in plain commonsense: God has not chosen the rich.
Indeed, the gospel itself is essentially for the poor. In declaring his ministry, Jesus said: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). What about the rich? John says they are appointed to wrath. (Revelations 6:15-17). James says they will be humiliated. (James 1:10-11). Mary says: “The rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:53). Jesus says: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:30).
Since the rich are the first in this world and the poor the last; that means the rich will become last and the poor first. That is kingdom dynamics. “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low.” (Luke 3:5).
God despises the rich
No matter how hard you search, you will not find any good news for the rich in the bible. Instead, Amos says: “Woe to those lounging in luxury at Jerusalem and Samaria.” (Amos 6:1). Neither will you find any biblical instance of anybody coming into wealth as a result of righteous living. The general assumption is that wealth is ill-gotten by the rich.
Argumentative Christians will tell you Abraham was “very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.” (Genesis 13:2). However, he came into wealth fraudulently by selling his wife into a king’s harem. When God rescued her, Abraham did not give the king his refund. Jacob also came into wealth by conning his uncle out of his sheep. We are not told how Job came into his great wealth, but the counsel of God ensured that he lost everything so that, in the end, all that he had would come from God.
The rich are responsible for most of the problems in this world. We get rich at the expense of the poor. We buy cheap and sell dear. We lend money and make borrowers repay with interest. We employ the poor to do the work but we get a bigger share of the returns. All this is contrary to the ways of God. As a result, in James, the terms ‘rich’ and ‘brother’ are mutually exclusive. He asks the rich to weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon us. (James 5:1). What is our offence? We heap up treasure. We live on earth in pleasure and luxury. We withhold the wages of our workers. (James 5:2-5).
The rich will be barred from heaven because Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.” (Matthew 25:42). How can true disciples of Jesus be unconcerned about the anguish of the poor? The rich man in Jesus’ parable fed his dogs while poor Lazarus went hungry. Rich people spend a considerable amount of money on our fancies and foibles instead of supplying the needs of the poor. According to Jesus, we have a case to answer before God.
The hard truth
Jesus did not tell the rich young ruler that salvation is by grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8). He did not say eternal life is a gift of God. (Romans 6:23). On the contrary, he told him it would cost him his riches. When he heard this, the rich young ruler lost all interest in eternal life and walked away. Jesus’ approach would be unacceptable in most churches of today. Frankly, when was the last time you heard of a church turning away a rich man, how much more one who expresses nominal interest in eternal life? This explains why many churches today are apostate. In their money-mindedness, they disregard the true message of Christ.
When Zacchaeus understood message, he said to Jesus: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” (Luke 19:8). Then Jesus said to him: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus acknowledged the injunction of Jesus that most so-called Christians ignore today: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34).
But it was not only Zacchaeus who understood and obeyed this; so did the other early disciples of Jesus: “All who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” (Acts 2:44-45).