by Bram Cools, originally published on his blog.
Recently I’ve been finishing an older collection of songs with titles like ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor’. (downloadlink to Safe Happy Christian Music for the Conservative Middleclass).
People have asked me before why I wrote the song, and what I think about the bible verses that it’s based on, so maybe it’s a good idea to clarify a bit with some bible study about Christ and money, or riches in general.
Let’s start with the song, which can be listened here. Music-wise it’s basically a very simple folk song in an American style, so simple that anyone who has had a few lessons on a guitar can easily play it (please do! It’s only G, C and D). The lyrics are a simple retelling of a story in the gospels that is often called ‘the rich young ruler’ in English, a passage found in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-27, Matthew 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-34):
a rich young man came to Jesus Christ and asked
what should I do to get life, life eternal
you know the commandments Jesus replied
do not steal, do not kill do not commit adultery
yes I do know them he said, I followed them all, all of my life
Jesus said well then there’s one more thing that you have to do:
sell everything you have
and give it to the poor
yeah everything you have
get rid of it
sell everything you have
and give it to the poor
and you shall live
Jesus said do this and follow me
and you’ll have a great treasure in heaven
but the rich young man became very sad
for he did posses great wealth on earth
and he preferred it over the life
over the life eternal
easier it is for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter
the kingdom of heaven
and if Jesus Christ would be here today
and preach the same words as he did back then in Galilee
we probably would kill him and lay him i a grave again
like good old woody sung years ago
we still don’t want to near those words
and explain them away if we read then…
sell everything… /easier it is…
Quite catchy, isn’t it?
So, why did I write and still this song if I didn’t exactly do what I sing myself? It’s clear that I didn’t sell all my possessions, nor that I am planning to so… The first explanation is that I sometimes write songs about things that I want to understand myself and try to learn more about, wrestling with the subject. But there’s a lot more that can and should be said.
Some in the first church might disagree here (a lot of people did sell everything, read Acts) but I believe that while the command to the rich young ruler was not a general law for everyone, and only a personal advice to that one guy. But still there is a very grave warning about being rich in this story and other places of the New Testament that cannot be ignored if you that the bible seriously.
Or at least that’s what one who takes the bible at face value would think, but it seems one of the most-ignored biblical messages these days, even though there’s a very grave warning attached to it. Whatever the metaphor of the camel an the eye of the needle means (I’m not going into that discussion here, it only would distract) the range of interpretations one could have for “easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” goes from it being very very hard for rich persons to be saved to beyond impossible. It might be softened by ‘what’s impossible for humans is possible for God’, but it still looks like it looks very bleak for rich people when it comes to being saved.
It would be an understatement to say that according to Jesus there is something very dangerous about riches and money. The fact that the only false god Jesus calls by name is Mammon, his own personification of money should say enough here, but there is much more in the New Testament to back this up. Jesus literally says ‘blessed are the poor’ and ‘woe to the rich’ in Luke 6 for example. The apostles also have some interesting things to say. Let’s look at some bible verses, and I suggest that if you want to really think about this issue you read them slowly and prayerfully and let them sink in, and let the text read you.
Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money/Mammon.
(Note that the NET bible translates ‘Mammon’ into money here)
This is straightforward: Money competes with God, and if we serve money we will not be able to serve God. The danger of being rich here is that the things we think we own end up owning us, and take us away from God, and demand our soul.
1 Tim 6:6-11 Now godliness combined with contentment brings great profit. For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either. But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains. But you, as a person dedicated to God, keep away from all that. Instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness.
Paul echoes the same idea here, but adds different layers about temptation to it. Note that he is often misquoted here, he does not say that ‘money is the root of all evil’, but that the love of money is. This is an important distinction to contemplate.
There also is the famous warning against the rich from James, where he echoes Jesus from Luke 6 and seems to assume that riches often comes from a sinful life:
James 5:1-6 Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you. Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure! Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, although he does not resist you.
No, that’s not Marx, that’s the New Testament, and it echoes countless passages from the prophets in the old testament, including the description of the sins of Sodom in Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 16:49-50 “‘See here—this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and practiced abominable deeds before me. Therefore when I saw it I removed them.
To complete this bible study, and to bring some balance to those who think that utter poverty is what all these verses point to (they don’t) I also connect this to the wisdom of Agur (no, I have no idea who he is either but he is included in the bible here as a wisdom teacher…) as recorded in proverbs 30:7-9 that I turned into another song on the same album, with less chords and instruments than ‘sell everything’, but a lot more weirdness. The music to ‘poverty nor riches’ might lose itself in pseudo-shamanic atmospheres and noisy freejazz interludes, the lyrics themselves are straight from the bible without much paraphrase:
Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
to not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me
and give me neither riches nor poverty
only my daily needs
for I may own too much and disown you
and say Who is the Lord
or I may become poor and steal
and so dishonour your name O Lord
How do we connect the dots here? It seems that there are great warnings against being wealthy in the bible, which are very often ignored. Which is quite dangerous, because relatively spoken we all are rich as Westerners. Compared to a lot of people in the global South today, and to most of the population in biblical times, we’re all rather wealthy and rich even though we often fail to see it. But the effect on our soul and our faith might still be there if we don’t watch out…
There are 2 very important realities about money.
- Money can very easily become an idol. Jesus doesn’t call it Mammon for nothing. This is not something new, a lot of philosophers and spiritual teachers in all kinds of traditions would agree about this. Money, and possessions in general are a dangerous idol that make it impossible to connect to God. And some are willing to sacrifice human lives and whole ecosystems for. And that in our modern secular times… And that brings us to our second point:
- A lot of rich people have become rich by being oppressive or dishonest, as Jesus, James and the prophets tell us. This is evidently very bad for the involved oppressed, but it also is a sin that keeps the rich one away from God, makes one arrogant. If you dehumanise your brother to just a pawn in your game of getting richer instead as a person worth as much as you, deserving as much as you, you’re far from God indeed.
In spite all my rage I might still be just a rat in a cage. My album title ‘Safe Happy Christian Music for the Conservative Middleclass’ might be sarcastic but after all I still am Middleclass myself. Some people would look down on me as not earning much to certain contemporary standards, while others would see me as incredibly wealthy. (Including most of my forefathers in earlier eras, people from biblical and historical times, and people in the global South)
I’ve met people who knew what it is to live with nothing and trust God, living from day to day in faith and trust. While this is very basic Christianity, it also is something very few modern Christians need to develop, and something I know is seriously lacking in my faith life. I trust that I will have enough. I am a spoiled Westerner.
(The issue of being wealthy might even be part of why the West is losing its Christianity in this era btw. Faith is trusting in God as a Reality anyway, and we have made it accepting conceptual statements.)
As you see, these are things that I am still am struggling with. I don’t have all the answers, and even if I had them they will not sink in unless you have struggled with them yourselves.
Some will think I’m going way too far here, but I’m not sure of that. If you think I’m too soft on sin here, and want a more resolute input, I refer you to this excellent series by Micael Grenholm on Holy Spirit Activism who does argue it is a sin to be rich as a Christian. And his biblical explanation is quite strong, stronger than a lot of reasoning where super-important issues for some people are defended as ‘biblical’.
What do you people think?
Bram Cools lives in Antwerp, Belgium. He’s from a Pentecostal/evangelical background and is part of a Vineyard church.
Dr. Richard E. Waldrop, Missionary, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Tennessee.
Paul Walker, Pastor of The Meeting Place, Canada.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!