The Idolatry of Wealth and Reevaluation of Treasure
“Idolatry? Who can tell me what that word means?” A nine-year-old’s hand shot into the air. “It’s like what some people do with money—they make it more important than God.” The wisdom of these simple words reverberated through the Sunday school classroom. The complex and seemingly contradictory teachings on wealth in the New Testament were reconciled in this unassuming phrase; wealth is inherently amoral. It is only when individuals value wealth above their relationship with God does it become a corrupting force. In the New Testament, Christ never condemns the possession of material goods; instead, he asks that the world reevaluate the meaning of treasure. In the New Testament, Christ calls humanity to reject the idolatry of wealth and effectively redefine treasure as the gift of God’s saving grace, and wealth as the abundant possession of God’s compassion.
One of the most potent arguments constructed against material wealth using the New Testament is grounded in the story of the young man who asks Christ what good deed he must do in order to have eternal life. After Christ tells the man to follow the commandments, he offers one final suggestion for the man’s perfection: “‘Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:21-22). The Gospel does not indicate whether or not the young man does in fact follow Christ’s direction, but rather focuses on the difficulty that the materially rich will face in their attempt to reach the Kingdom of God. Just as the condemnation of the young man does not derive from the fact of his owning many possessions, the difficulty of the rich to enter heaven stems instead from the restraining influence of the prominence of material wealth in their lives, depriving God of His rightful place of supreme importance.
Unwittingly, the young man from Matthew’s gospel and the materially rich are committing idolatry of wealth. So long as individuals maintain a greater attachment to worldly possessions than to God, they will find it harder to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of the needle. The disciples echo the thoughts of all Christendom upon hearing these words, wondering who then can be saved considering the importance humanity places upon material possessions. In this sense, all humanity is embodied in the wealthy young man grieving for his possessions. Christ’s answer simultaneously provides a challenge and reassurance, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). In this, mortals are bound by the strictures of their very materiality and only through God can humanity successfully reject the bonds inherent to its nature.
The all-consuming desire to possess riches and temporal material comfort is a barrier between humanity and God, for you cannot serve both God and wealth (Matthew 6:24). The comforts of this world can all too easily distract from God’s call, and the acquisition of material wealth can blind humanity to the awareness of its need for God. The wealthy often fall prey to the earthly constraints of riches and are comparable to seed that fall among thorns in Luke’s Gospel, “choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature”(Luke 8:14). Although these individuals initially seek the saving grace of God, earthly concerns and pleasures distract them from fulfilling their potential as fruitful members of Christ’s body in the church. It is the desire to be rich that “plunge[s] men into [spiritual] ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:9-10). It is thus the desire to be rich, rather than the existence of wealth that corrupts humanity’s relationship with God. This distracting force pulls from the “godliness with contentment [which] is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that”(I Timothy 6:6-8).
The basic appreciation for the simple necessities of life grounds humanity once again in the understanding that all goodness is derived from God rather than from material gain. So long as God is kept central in the lives of the faithful, and their lives are kept “free from the love of money, and [they are] content with what [they] have” (Hebrews 13:5). Accordingly, contentment results from simplicity and the awareness of what is truly important in the lives of believers: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position “for the simple and humble shall be exalted for their life in Christ and the humbling of the rich will remove the trappings of a busy life in which they wither for the lack of Christ’s presence” (James 1:9-11). Christians are called to subordinate the desires of this world to the will of God and reject the pursuit of earthly riches in favor of a life with Christ. To love the passing material goods of this world is to raise them up in an idolatrous relationship, subverting the will of God. Instead, he who rejects the “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does” and “does the will of God lives forever,” attaining the eternal life sought by the wealthy young man (I John 2:16-17).
The New Testament glorifies those who reject the idolatry of wealth and maintain God’s central position in their lives. The poor widow who contributed two small copper coins to the temple treasury is praised in Mark’s Gospel for “she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on”(Mark 12:44). It is not her material donation which impresses Christ—indeed the rich are witnessed contributing large sums—it is her readiness to, in essence, donate her life to her faith in God. There is no material barrier between this woman and God, for she has removed the desire for material riches from her life, turning away completely from any idolatry of wealth. She is the blessed poor spoken of in the beatitudes, poised to inherit the kingdom of God. By possessing the eagerness to give a “gift…acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have,” she demonstrates that “he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” (II Corinthians 8:12, 15). The widow’s act of giving, willingly and eagerly relinquishing material wealth in a way that the wealthy young man was unable to, reflects the call of the New Testament to a Christocentric life.
The call to a quest for righteousness and rejection of the importance placed on material wealth becomes a call for the rejection of prejudice based on economic disparity. Beyond the idolatry of material goods, Christians are called to reject the prejudice in favor of those in possession of material wealth. To make distinctions among a faith community based upon material appearance, honoring the wealthy and richly clothed above the poor is to become “judges with evil thoughts.” By removing the obstacle of material wealth from the poor, God has chosen “those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him” (James 2:5). When one dishonors the poor and favors the wealthy, one places a relationship with material wealth above a positive relationship with God. Indeed, those who utilize their material wealth for the good of others further their relationship with God. For in every individual in need of food, drink, clothing, shelter, or comfort, there is God (Matthew 25:34-40). In doing good works, a Christian’s faith comes alive, for what good is it if “a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food [and] if one of you says to him ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs” (James 2:15- 16)? It then naturally follows to reject the acquisition of wealth for personal gain, and rather utilize the material goods for the benefit of others and the glorification of God. Ultimate victory is then to force the temptations of wealth into the service of God’s work. Christians are called to “give to everyone who asks you,” as withholding wealth from those who ask would place Christians back in an idolatrous relationship with wealth (Luke 6:30). The parable of the rich man and the beggar highlights the consequences of dismissing the call to works. The rich man spends his days carousing while the poor man sits outside his gates and begs. In the afterlife, however, the poor man is exalted at the heavenly banquet while the rich man is an outcast, yearning even for a drop of water (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man is not punished for his earthly possession of riches, but rather for the vicious neglect of the opportunities provided to him to do good works in the life of the poor man.
The call to the practiced, concrete removal and gifting of material goods from the Christian’s possession to those in need cements the value of human life and a relationship with God above any temporal wealth. Truly, the riches which are not used towards Christ’s ends will rot, and the gold and silver not dedicated to good works will rust for lack of use. The treasure laid up for the last days will serve no purpose, for it cannot be brought from this world into the next, and the life on earth, lived in luxury and pleasure at the expense of the poor either through fraud or neglect, will reap only miseries in the world to come (James 5:1-6). This developed understanding of the transience of material wealth facilitates the understanding of the need to make use of it while on earth. Perhaps this is why the widow so willingly gives her last coins to the temple treasury, because of her loss she understands the ephemerality of this life in a way the young man cannot. In the life of one who has experienced loss, the fleeting materiality of this world is evident and the goodness of works is revealed.
Christians are called to be good stewards rather than owners of their material blessings, multiplying them in accordance to their ability. A lively faith requires the investment of both material goods and ability for the benefit of God. When humanity is entrusted with the material and spiritual gifts of God, it is called to use its material wealth for the glory of God, and like the servants of the Parable of the Talents, Christians are called to freely and willingly return the talents to God upon His request, and for this careful stewardship, they will be richly rewarded in heaven. It is the careful investment and eager return of material and spiritual blessings to God which explicate Christ’s teachings on riches and wealth, for humanity is called to “store up…treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21). When a believer’s heart is with God in heaven, free from threats of the material world, the Christian will find the abundance of spiritual treasure and their life will be in accordance with God’s will.
The treasure of heaven is far greater than any temporal wealth, and the abundance of grace which flows from Christ’s life far surpasses any earthly comfort. For “the grace of [the] Lord Jesus Christ” is known, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so you through his poverty might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9-10). Here, ‘rich’ refers not to monetary wealth, but to the richness in love and mercy that can only derive from God. Christians are thus charged to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in [you]” (II Timothy 1:14). To guard this redefined treasure, humanity must be careful to prize it above all temporally praised treasure, and “show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). In this, Christians are to be regarded as ”poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (II Corinthians 6:8-10). For when temporal wealth fades away, Christians are rich in the promise of their salvation and wealthy in the abundance of God’s compassion for them. With this blessing, Christians are called to share these blessings with others through their material ministries.
Christians are called to reject the idolization of wealth in the modern consumerist society. Instead, they are invited to make productive use of material wealth for the ministries of God. In maintaining a Christocentric life, believers are able to realize the importance of the heavenly treasure only attainable through a belief in Christ and the devoted and responsible stewardship of his blessings. Ultimately, Christians are called to hear God’s voice in their lives and willingly relinquish their material good for the furtherance of the glory of God. For only through the recognition of the ultimate worthlessness of material treasure are the true treasure of God’s mercy and the true wealth of God’s compassion attained.
Katelyn Chan is a sophomore Biomedical Engineering major in Silliman College.
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