Jesus’ Compassion for the Rich and Powerful
When our family moved to Nashville from an 850 square-foot New York City apartment, we had hoped for more living space…but not too much more. We had grown accustomed to smaller quarters, which drew us together and helped us live more simply. So we asked our realtor to find us a modest house within five miles of the church where I would serve as pastor. “Anything around 2,000 square feet will be plenty,” we told him. But the smallest house he could find – the house where we now live – is almost twice that size.
Moving day would be the first glimpse that either of our daughters would have of our new home. When we arrived, our justice-driven, sensitive-to-global-poverty daughter exclaimed that the house was too much. Way too big. Enough room to fit four families comfortably. Why do we have so much space? This standard of living seems wrong. Although we didn’t say it out loud, in some ways Patti and I felt the same.
There were two ironies that soon emerged from this moment. The first is that our 3,650 square foot house ended up costing us about half of what the 850 square-foot New York apartment did. Secondly, within weeks, we all noticed that our big house was starting to feel small relative to some other homes we had visited.
Our former New York church and our Nashville church are unique, as both communities have an unusual number of well-resourced and well-known people in the mix. This has forced us to wrestle with the question of wealth and fame. What does Jesus think about those who have money and celebrity? Is there a place for them at his Table and in his circle of friends? Are others in our church – namely those living bankrupt or paycheck-to-paycheck – more virtuous because they have less? Is Jesus’ imperative to the rich young ruler – that he must sell all he has and give it to the poor – a non-negotiable for all of his followers?
The Opulence of Jesus
Mary took a pound of expensive ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus…The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas said, “Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:1-8)
Despite Judas’ protest, Jesus received the gift – a full year’s wages worth of perfume – as he lounged comfortably at the table. This was the same Jesus who was born in a stall, died on a trash heap, and had no place to lay his head. This same Jesus enjoyed certain perks familiar only to corporate executives, preferred country club members, and bluebloods.
What’s more, Jesus in his infinite wisdom – a wisdom that is sometimes perplexing and always greater than ours – has appointed some of his children to live poor and others to live rich.
Job, the most God-like man on earth, was also the wealthiest. Abraham prospered with land and cattle. Solomon asked God for wisdom and got wisdom and great wealth. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both influential and moneyed men, secured a burial site for Jesus. Never once does Scripture condemn these and others for being rich. In fact, Scripture seems to say that “living large” is feature of God’s world untarnished by sin and corruption. History started in an extravagant paradise, and will end in an extravagant city with many mansions, precious gems everywhere, and streets paved with gold.
Yet, the following is also true:
Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Timothy 6:8-10)
No one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and money. (Mark 10:21)
Jesus told the rich young ruler, who was enamored with his wealth, that he would not be able to enter life until he sold everything and gave it to the poor.
Why would Jesus tell the rich ruler give everything to the poor, but not demand the same of Abraham or Job? It was because the rich ruler didn’t really have money. Money had him. The man who thought he couldn’t live without his money, in truth, wouldn’t be able to live with it.
Scripture never says that having wealth is wrong, but craving and serving wealth is the problem. It never says that money is a root of all kinds of evils, but that the love of money is the real issue.
Compassion for the Rich?
The rich ruler chose power and money over Jesus. The idea of losing his upscale identity felt like too much to bear. But as the rich ruler ran into the arms of wealth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. (Mark 10:21)
How could Jesus love this man who rejected him for money? A man who served his reputation and power and “net worth” above all else? Jesus was able to see past the greed to the fears and insecurities that drive the greed. Are we, too, able to look at the rich ruler and love him? Are we able to look at Zacchaeus, the wealthy, crooked, unjust, powerful, crooked, and friendless tax collector and say, “We’re coming to your house today…” We want to eat with you, to be your friend, to welcome you into our circle?
Why are anxiety and depression most prevalent among the rich? As Thoreau has said, most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. This is the tragic biographical summary of many of the world’s rich, who, in the poverty of their riches, have been plunged into ruin. As psychiatrist, Madeleine Levine says in her book, The Price of Privilege:
“America’s (most) at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, ‘children of affluence’ experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children…twenty-two percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. This is three times the national rate of depression for adolescent girls.”
Things are not always as they seem.
Jesus looked at the rich man overtaken with power and greed, and Jesus loved him.
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