It's easy to think that all this teaching applies to the yuppies, to the nouveaux riche, to the rich brother with the big business, to the poor brother who's always talking about what he wants to have...but not to me. Because we know people (and brethren) who are richer and more wealth-seeking than we are, it's fatally easy to conclude that therefore we aren't rich, therefore we aren't materialistic. This is part of the subtle snare of materialism; that we all think that this is an area where we're not doing too badly; that really, we don't care that much where we live, or what the furniture's like, or whether we have money to take a holiday... But remember, our attitude to materialism is the litmus test of all our spirituality. None of us should be so quick to say that we're OK in this area. " Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break (Gk. dig) through and steal" (Mt. 6:19) was spoken to a huge crowd of Jewish peasants. The Lord wasn't only referring to the few rich men who might be hanging around on the edge of the group. He was talking to all of them. He knew their mud walled homes which thieves could so easily dig through. That little cheap bangle, that ring, thinly buried under the bed mat after the pattern of Achan, that prized tunic...the petty riches of the poor which they so strove for, which to them were priceless treasures. This is what the Lord was getting at; and His point was that every one of us, from beggar to prince, has this 'laying up' mentality. He is almost ruthless in His demands. He warns a similar crowd not to everlastingly worry about where the next meal was coming from; and then in that very context, tells them to sell what they have (Lk. 12:29-33). He wasn't just talking to the rich. He was telling the desperately poor to forsake what little they had, so as to seek His Kingdom. He probably didn't mean them to take His words dead literally (cp. cutting off the offending hand or foot); what He surely meant was: 'Resign, in your mind, the possession of everything you have, concern yourselves rather with the needs of others and entering my Kingdom'. No wonder those crowds turned round and soon bayed for His blood.
So let's not think that all the Bible teaching about materialism and forsaking all we have refers to those who we may consider to be 'rich'. The Mosaic Law countered this idea that only the rich can be generous. They all had to tithe. And it’s possible to argue that they had to give around 27%, not just 10% (10% to the Levites, 10% of the rest to support the feasts; and 10% of the rest for the poor). The purification after childbirth and the cleansing of the leper allowed a lower grade of offering to be made by the very poor- to underline that no one is exempted from giving to the Lord, no matter how poor they are. Consider the emphasis: " Every man shall give as he is able...he shall offer even such as he is able to get...then the disciples (consciously motivated by these principles?) every man according to his ability, determined to send relief...let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him(1)" (Dt. 16:17; Lev. 14:30,31; Acts 11:29; 1 Cor. 16:2). God reckons a man’s generosity according to what he has; if there is the desire to give, a generous spirit, then this is seen as generosity. This is exemplified by the Lord’s high estimation of the widow’s giving. The amount was not as important as the spirit behind it. “The Lord blesseth a cheerful giver, and will supply the deficiency of his works” (Prov. 22:8 LXX; although not in the Hebrew text, this passage is quoted in the NT as inspired). This may mean that God is so sensitive to generosity that such love covers a multitude of sins, in His estimation. Or it may mean that if the giving is done with the right, cheerful spirit, the “deficiency”, that which the giver would like to give but simply doesn’t have, is counted by God as if it has been given. We must ask: do we have a spirit that would give if we could? Or are we all too taken up with coldly calculating what we think we can afford to give?
From the evidence presented, there is no doubt that our attitude to materialism is a sure indicator of our real spiritual position. We are to make friends of mammon [riches] by giving it away (Lk. 16), forsaking all we have- the implication being that riches / mammon are our enemy, no matter how little of them we possess. And yet we are surrounded as never before by a materialistic, money loving world. The believers who were in slavery were told no to 'purloin', not to steal little bits of property and money in the hope that one day they would save enough to buy their freedom (this is the background to Tit. 2:10). And yet we in the twentieth century with our mortgages and pension schemes are in just the same desperate, petty, small minded position! It is the Lord's will that we His people should be ready for Him; the harvest is reaped when it is ripe; His apparent delay in returning is in order to give us time for spiritual development. It seems not coincidental that in these last days there is now unparalleled opportunity for giving up what material wealth we have for the Lord's cause. To heap up possessions (in whatever way) in the last days is absurd; it's like a cow eating just before he's slaughtered (James 5:5), or in Jeremiah's terms, like a bird building up its nest just before it flies off in migration. There are concrete opportunities galore to give to the Lord's work, whether it be a postage stamp per week in one context, or trying to pay one's fares to a Bible School rather than presume on the generosity of others, to a large regular donation of cash in another believer's context. Who we leave 'our' property to (if we have any) is something else we can ponder. We have been given all that we have from the Lord, it is not our own, and He watches our attitude to it carefully. What we have is not ours because we worked for it- although that, I know, is how it feels. It is ours on loan. Surely this of itself ought to mean that each of us leaves our property, if we own any, to the work of the Truth, or to a brother or sister who we know will use the resulting funds in the Lord's work (after the pattern of how David left all his personal wealth to the work of the temple, rather than to Solomon personally- 1 Chron. 29:3 NIV).
In Lk. 14:33, the Lord appears to make discipleship dependent upon giving up our possessions and forsaking all we have. But it’s quite apparent that His disciples didn’t literally do that. Zacchaeus only gave away half of his possessions (Lk. 19:8); and other disciples of Jesus clearly retained their homes and some possessions. The Lord must therefore mean that He expects us to in our minds resign all personal ownership of absolutely everything which we have- even if those things remain, to human appearance, ‘ours’. This is really a challenging thing, in this world of savings and acquisition. In appealing for the Corinthians to be generous, Paul points out that the Lord Jesus became a pauper for our sakes, and therefore, because of the riches of salvation He has given to us, the least we can do is to reach out into the lives of others with what riches we may have (2 Cor. 8:9 Gk.). This is why in 2 Cor. 8:1,19; 9:14, Paul uses the word " grace" to mean both the grace of God and also our grace (gifts) in works of response. Thus he talks of bringing the " grace" of the money collected for the poor saints; he is talking about the gift they had made; but in the same context he speaks of God's grace in Christ. If we have received the grace of God's forgiveness and salvation (and so much more) in Christ, we must show that grace, that gift, by giving. Our heart tells us to give, our heart is in our giving, it's a natural outcome of a believing mind (2 Cor. 9:5-8, J.B. Phillips). Our giving is a quite natural outcome of our faith in and experience of the cross. Material giving to the Lord’s cause was associated with the breaking of bread in the early church (Acts 2:42-46; 1 Cor. 16:1,2), after the pattern of how every male was not to appear empty before Yahweh (Heb. ‘to appear for no cause’) at the Jewish feasts (Dt. 16:16). We cannot celebrate His grace / giving to us without response. Because Israel had been redeemed from Egypt, they were to be generous to their brethren, and generally open handed (Lev. 25:37,38). This is why the Acts record juxtaposes God’s grace / giving, and the giving of the early believers in response (Acts 4:33 cp. 32,34-37). The bread and wine of the drink offerings were to accompany sacrifice; they were not the sacrifice itself. And likewise the spirit of sacrifice must be seen in us as those emblems are taken. The Laodiceans' materialism resulted in them not realizing their desperate spiritual need for the cross (Rev. 3:17,18); Lemuel knew that riches would make him ask " Who is Yahweh?" ; he wouldn't even want to know the Name / character of the Lord God (Prov. 30:9). The Jews' experience of redemption from Haman quite naturally resulted in them giving gifts both to each other and to the poor around them (Es. 9:22). "You shall lend unto many nations" has often been misread as a prediction of Jewish involvement in financial institutions and banking (Dt. 28:12). But the context is simply that "The Lord shall open unto you His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of your land... and you shall lend unto many nations". If God opens His treasure to us, we should open our treasures to others, even lending with a spirit of generosity, motivated by our experience of His generosity to us. Because Yahweh had redeemed Israel, they were not to be petty materialists, cheating others out of a few grams or centimetres in trading. The wealth and largeness of God’s work for them should lead them to shun such petty desire for self-betterment. God gives to all men with a single eye (James 1:5 Gk.); and in response, we too must be single eyed in our giving (Mt. 6:22 s.w.- this is one of James; many allusions to the sermon on the mount).
There is an amazing ability in human nature to believe that wealth lasts for ever. That's why we recoil in horror at the idea of forsaking all we have. James 5:3 says well that gold rusts. Yet we know it doesn’t rust. But in the very end, it does in the sense that it doesn’t last in our hands for ever. Especially in the perspective of the soon return of Jesus, materialism is totally inappropriate for the believer awaiting Him. James 5:3 RV says it so clearly: “Ye have laid up your treasures in the last days”. It’s as if it’s self-evidently inappropriate to build up wealth in the last days. Period. The men of Beth-Shemesh were smitten because they looked into the ark (1 Sam. 6:19). I suspect this was because they wanted to find any more jewels which the Philistines might have placed there. In the face and presence of the things of the supreme glory of Jehovah of Israel, they scavenged around in a spirit of petty materialism- just as men gambled for the clothes of Jesus at the foot of His cross.
In the beauty and depth of His simplicity, the Lord comprehended all this in some of the most powerful sentences of all time: It is very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. He must shed his riches, like the camel had to unload to pass through the needle gate (Mt. 19:24). This is such a powerful lesson. And it's so simple. It doesn't need any great expositional gymnastics to understand it. Like me, you can probably remember a few things very vividly from your very early childhood. I remember my dear dad showing me this as a very young child, with a toy camel and a gate drawn on a piece of paper. And I saw the point, at four, five, maybe six. It is so clear. But what of our bank balances now, now we're old and brave? It's easier for a camel, the Lord said. Why? Surely because someone else unloads the camel, he (or she) has no say in it. But in the story, surely we must be the camel who unloads himself, who shakes it all off his humps, as an act of the will. And as we've seen, the spirit of all this applies to every one of us, including those without bank accounts. In this matter of giving, there are (once again) different levels on which we may respond to the Man who gave all. We can give on some kind of proportionate level to what we have. Or we can give more than we can afford; the kind of giving the Philippians are commended for (and no, Paul didn't scold them for being irresponsible): " In their deep poverty...to their power...yea, and beyond their power" (2 Cor. 8:2). The basic message of so many of the parables is that our generosity to the Lord’s cause should be offered without a calculated weighing up process first of all, and with a recognition that such giving may be contrary to all human wisdom. Thus the rich man sells all he has and buys a pearl- he’s left with nothing, just this useless ornament. He doesn’t sell what he has spare, his over-and-above...all he had went on that pearl, for the sheer joy and surpassing, all-demanding excellence thereof. His wife, colleagues, employees- would have counted him crazy. He acted against all the conventions of human wisdom. Likewise the shepherd leaves 99% of his flock unguarded and goes chasing madly after the one weak, straying one. This was crazy, humanly; one per cent loss wasn’t unreasonable. But he risked all, for love of the one. And in this He set us a pattern for forsaking all we have.
A true appreciation of the Lord's work on the cross, a real ability to say that the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me, will reflect itself in our attitude to materialism. The Lord gave His blood in order to purchase our body and our spirit for himself (1 Cor. 6:19,20; Rev. 5:9 RV). Therefore we must surrender our body and spirit, all that we have, to Him. We are not our own. To hold anything back is to deny the cross; to deny the Lord what He paid so terribly to possess: our lives, our hearts, our bodies. 1 Pet. 1:18,19 sets the blood of Christ in utter opposition to materialism; the very historical fact of His cross of itself means a rejection of material things. We are familiar enough with the way in which Israel's crossing of the Red Sea represents our redemption in Christ. Their response when they got the other side was to willingly sacrifice the riches of Egypt which they had brought with them; they gave them to the Lord's work, so that the tabernacle could be built up. Israel's exodus and establishment as God's Kingdom at Sinai was the prototype of the early church's experience. They too, for the sheer joy of the Truth, resigned their material possessions. The merchant man for the sheer joy of finding the beautiful pearl sells all he has, for the pure excellency of possessing just that one pearl (Mt. 13:44-46). And that man is to symbolize every one of us who would fain attain the Kingdom; " whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath , he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:33). The Lord had recently taught that to him who overcomes, He will give all that He has (Lk. 12:44). This is yet one more example of the wondrous mutuality between a man and his Lord; we sacrifice all that we have for Him, and He will give us all that He has. The very height and wonder of all this motivates me at least to want to lay absolutely all before Him, to make Him the One to whom I can say I have committed all. Not just so that according to the covenant I'll therefore get all He has; but just from realizing the sheer wondrous grace of it all.
Moses and Paul were likewise motivated, although unlike me they pulled it off. Paul could have been such a high flyer; he profited (materially, the Greek could imply) in the Jews' religion above any one else (Gal. 1:14). But he resigned it all. He wrote some majestic words which ought to become the goal of every one of us: " But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I way win Christ" (Phil. 3:7,8). Why did he do it? Not just because he wanted to get salvation. " For the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" . For the excellency of who Christ is, as my Lord, he did it. Grasping the wonder of our salvation in the Lord Jesus should do even more than motivate us to write out a cheque; Paul not only gave, but he counted the things of this life as dung (and that's just what it means); he despised material advantage. This is a stage beyond just being generous. God Himself ‘detests’ the mammon which man so highly esteems (Lk. 16:13-15 NIV). A day will come when man will despise material possession. " In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold...to the moles and to the bats; to go into the clefts of the rocks...for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty" (Is. 2:20,21). But for us, today is the day of the Lord's coming in judgment. If we will be forsaking all we have in that day; we ought to now, in spirit. The parable of the unjust steward surely teaches that our attitude to the “mammon of unrighteousness” will determine our eternal destiny. The wealth of this world is called “that which is least…that which is another’s [i.e. God’s]” (Lk. 16:10,12 RV). We are told: “make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail [at the Lord’s return], they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles” (Lk. 16:9 RV). There will come a day when money will fail, and when we will despise it for what it was- “that which is least”.
The man who built greater barns realized on the night of his death that all his laid up treasures could not be his after his death (Lk. 12:20). And yet this is couched in the very language of Ecclesiastes. We can come to that attitude and understanding right now; and if we don’t, we will come to it on our deathbeds or at judgment day. The parable of the pounds may be intended to describe our dealing with wealth. This is how it would have appeared to the Lord’s first hearers. At His coming, He will “require” of us our use of wealth (Lk. 19:23). The man who did nothing with his pound should have at least lent it out on usury, the Lord said- even though this was illegal according to Moses. He should have done at least something with his money, even if it involved taking a lower level of service than the Lord ideally expects.
Paul wrote a telling comment about wealth in 2 Cor. 9:10. He likens generosity to sowing seed. If we do this for our poor brethren, then God will multiply our seed for sowing (RV); He will give us yet more with which to be generous with. We are “enriched unto all liberality” (2 Cor. 9:11 RV)- this is why we receive anything, to be liberal with it. And thus he writes in conclusion of “the proving of you by this ministration” (2 Cor. 9:13 RV). This brief but vital teaching of Paul here is a proof of our spirituality. Our response to ministering to others is a proving of us. It’s as simple and as clear as that. And remember that Paul was writing these words to a poor ecclesia, amongst whom there were not many wealthy folk (1 Cor. 1:26-28). Paul speaks of joy as a motive for generosity. He writes of how the abounding joy of the poor brethren in Macedonia abounded unto a generosity which was actually beyond their means (2 Cor. 8:2). And when he goes on to speak of how God loves a “cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), he uses a word which James Strong defines as meaning ‘hilarious’. And yet our giving tends to so often be a matter of phlegmatic planning, to salve an otherwise uneasy conscience. But the picture Paul paints is of a man or woman hilarious in their giving to the poor. This isn’t the giving which watches for the response, and is offended if it isn’t what we expect. This is a picture of giving from the joy of giving, reflecting the Father’s generosity to us. And this, Paul says, God loves. Quite simply. We touch the heart of Almighty God by such giving. And yet this hilarious giving isn’t merely the emotion of a moment, the sort of thing played upon in many a Pentecostal gathering. It is to be a giving as a person ‘purposes in their heart’ (2 Cor. 9:7); and again, Strong challenges us with his definition of the Greek word translated ‘purposes’: “to choose for oneself before another thing (prefer), that is, (by implication) to propose (intend)”. But having made this conscious decision, to put, say, Sister Svetlana’s need before your preference for a new piece of furniture, we are to perform the actual giving with the hilarity of the cheerful giver. And as we know, Paul makes the point that such acts of generosity are acts of sowing, bringing forth fruits of righteousness; and the Lord will grant us yet more seed to sow in the same way. Forsaking all we have may not mean we are left with nothing.
Paul seems to have based his life decisions on the pattern of Moses, of whom he commented: " ...[Moses] refused to be called the son of Pharaoh...choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward" (Heb. 11:24-28). Moses could have been the next Pharaoh; according to Josephus, he was the commander of the Egyptian army. But he walked away from the possibility of being the riches man on earth, he " refused" it, because he valued " the reproach of Christ" and the recompense of the Kingdom to be greater riches. Yet what did he know about the sufferings of Christ? Presumably he had worked out from the promises of the seed in Eden and to the fathers that the future Saviour must be reproached and rejected; and he saw that his own life experience could have a close association with that of this unknown future Saviour who would surely come. And therefore, it seems, Moses counted the honour and wonder of this greater that the riches of Egypt. Both Paul and Moses rejected mammon for things which are abstract and intellectual (in the strict sense): the excellency of the understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ and His cross, and the Kingdom this would enable. Living when we do, with perhaps a greater knowledge of the Lord's victory and excellency, our motivation ought to be even stronger.
(1) This would explain why Paul took up his baggage at Ephesus and went on to Jerusalem (Acts 21:15 RV); the baggage would have been the bits and pieces raised by the donors to the Jerusalem Poor Fund. Those who couldn’t send money had sent what little they could spare in kind- presumably clothes and even animals, or goods for re-sale in Jerusalem.