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Is it wrong to be rich?

May 4, 2010 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

One of the most powerful and challenging books I have ever read is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during the reign of Adolf Hitler who participated in the German Resistance movement against Hitler and was eventually imprisoned and executed in 1945 at the age of 39 for this act of treason. As I prepare to preach on how the gospel transforms our approach to money this coming Sunday, I wanted to share with you a very challenging (and humorous, ironically) passage from The Cost of Discipleship regarding Jesus’ interaction with the man who has come to be known as the Rich Young Ruler:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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 19:16-24)

And now, excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s commentary (the whole commentary is much longer but worth reading):

The young man’s enquiry about eternal life is an enquiry about salvation, the only ultimate, serious question in the world. But it is not easy to formulate in the right terms. This is shown by the way the young man obviously intends to ask one question, but actually asks another… what he expects from the good master and great teacher is a weighty pronouncement, but certainly not a direction from God which would make an absolute claim on his obedience… The answer to the young man’s problem is – Jesus Christ… It is now a question of yes or no, of obedience or disobedience. The answer is no.

When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience… If, as we read our Bibles, we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way today, we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: “It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith… It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.” Jesus may have said, “Sell thy goods,” but he meant: “Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.” We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience “in faith.”… If Jesus challenged us with the command: “Get out of it,” we should take him to mean: “stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.” Again, if he were to say to us: “Be not anxious,” we should take him to mean: “Of course it is not wrong for us to be anxious: we must work and provide for ourselves and our dependents. If we did not we should be shirking our responsibilities. But all the time we ought to be inwardly free from all anxiety.” Perhaps Jesus would say to us: “Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” We should then suppose him to mean: “The way to really love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.” Jesus might say: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” and we should interpret it thus: “Of course we should have to seek all sorts of other things first; how could we otherwise exist? What he really means is the final preparedness to stake all on the kingdom of God.” All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.

How is this absurdity possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus can be thus degraded by this trifling and thus left open to the mockery of the world? When orders are issues in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: “Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though father tells me to go to bed, he really means: ‘Go out and play.’”

There is an element of truth underlying all this sophistry. When Jesus calls the young man to enter into the situation where faith is possible, he does it only with the aim of making the man have faith in him, that is to say, he calls him into fellowship with himself. In the last resort what matters is not what the man does, but only his faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Mediator… So far then we are quite right; it is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ – so that a man may have these goods as one who has them not. But this is an ultimate possibility of the Christian life, only within our capacity in so far as we await with earnest expectation the immediate return of Christ. It is by no means the first and the simplest possibility… This is only possible and right for somebody who has already at some point or other in his life put into action his single-minded understanding, somebody who thus lives with Christ as his disciple and in anticipation of the end…

Anybody who does not feel that he would be much happier were he only permitted to understand and obey the commandments of Jesus in a straightforward literal way, and e.g. surrender all his possessions at his bidding rather than cling to them, has no right to this paradoxical interpretation of Jesus’ words… The elimination of single-minded obedience on principle is but another instance of the perversion of the costly grace of the call of Jesus into the cheap grace of self-justification.

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