Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” … 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, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matt. 19:16, 21-24
We have a pretty strong sense in America of what it means to be successful. We want to win, to be on top, and that tends to be measured by our money and power. Unfortunately, even as Christians, we tend to adopt the measures of success handed to us by our culture.
I had the opportunity recently to attend two very different conferences in the same week. One was for urban ministry leaders living and working among the poor. The other was for very wealthy Christian philanthropists. Both groups of people were obviously committed to the Lord and serving the kingdom. But the differences were striking. Both groups had very different experiences of life, different beliefs, different solutions to social problems and much more.
By every American standard, the conference with the wealthier folks was the place to be, the cream of the crop, the winners. Most Americans would envy the success this group has had in life.
But spiritually speaking, is one group really better off than the other? If so, which one? Which group has the better solutions for the many social problems we are facing?
I believe the reality is no one group has it all. No one has the corner on the market. But Jesus clearly teaches that, at some level, success and wealth, the things we strive for, actually hinder our ability to experience and enter into the realm of the kingdom.
Our success usually leads to self-reliance, lack of trust, illusions of control, and the deadliest killer of spiritual things, pride. In my life, it’s been the struggles, the pain, the suffering and the failures that have led to the biggest transformations of my soul. I wish it weren’t this way, but the way up has always been down. That’s the paradox of Christianity, the paschal mystery, the way of the cross. Those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first.
I think that’s a big part of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Spiritually speaking, there seems to be an advantage to being poor, the outsider, the orphan or widow.
Does this mean that all poor people become saints and the wealthy are evil? Of course not. Many poor people end up bitter and entitled, and many of the godliest people I know have great financial wealth. But I do think we need to re-think our internal assumptions.
In inner-city ministry, we at Desire Street get the opportunity to be bridge builders, often bringing wealthy people together with poor people in efforts to transform impoverished neighborhoods. I often find it strange to hear about the rich people wanting to come into the “hood” and help lead people to the Lord. More often than not, I find that many of the poor families we work with have a faith much deeper than mine. The struggles they’ve been through, the injustices they’ve faced, the powerlessness they feel—it all has forced them to develop strong muscles of faith, a trust in God’s love far deeper than I have. We often show up thinking we’re going to teach them about God, and we end up learning way more than we have to share.
I thank God for my friends who happen to be rich. I thank God for my friends that happen to be poor. I’m grateful for the things I learn from both groups of friends, and I pray we will all have the humility to come together in ways that create mutually beneficial relationships that glorify God and lead to healthy communities.