One of the side-effects of choosing a dissertation topic involving money - the Ananias and Sapphira story in Acts 5 - was that I was obligated to research every Hebrew and Christian Scripture text having anything to do with wealth and its use.
All who study this topic eventually arrive at the same conclusion: there’s no consistent biblical teaching on the subject. Not only are there the well-known differences between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, there are theological nuances even within the gospels themselves. One evangelist often disagrees with another. For example, Luke’s Jesus simply proclaims, “Blessed are the poor!” while Matthew’s Jesus, in the parallel passage, provides some wiggle room, “Blessed are the poor in spirit!” Yet, as rigid as Luke is on poverty, even he allows exceptions, as we see in Acts 16 when Lydia, a “dealer in purple,” prevails upon Paul and his missionary companions to “stay at (her) home.” She’s obviously not obligated to give up everything.
Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, is best known for the ultra-pessimistic statement with which he begins his book: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Though he believes wealth is better than poverty, and even a sign of Yahweh’s favor, he’s brutally honest about the time and effort one wastes in acquiring it. “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave his property.” Of course, writing during a period in which Jews had no belief in an afterlife as we have today, the writer is basically saying we should have more enjoyment and less drudgery in our lives. Nothing one does or possesses will have any value at the moment of death.
Luke’s Jesus, who does believe in reward or punishment after death, looks at the issue from another angle. Before anything else, the evangelist has Jesus state the basic Christian conviction on wealth: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist in possessions.”
Jesus’ ministry wasn’t rooted in providing his followers financial stability. On one level he agrees with Qoheleth: all our possessions eventually will belong to someone else. Yet his belief in an afterlife compels him to take his disciples beyond physical death, encouraging them to become “rich in what matters to God.”
At this point, today’s Colossians passage kicks in. Like Jesus, the author is trying to expand the horizons of his or her community. “If you were raised with Christ,” the writer states, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
Christians - imitating the risen Jesus - live as new creations. Taking us back to Paul’s famous Galatians 3 description of what it means to be a new creation, the author breaks down all the limits our old creation imposes on us. “There is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, in all.”
Our sacred authors’ different perspectives on wealth demonstrate there’s no one way to integrate possessions even into our new, Christian life. We simply have to do so with the faith and example of Jesus always before our eyes and in our hearts.
The late John L. McKenzie often reminded us that not even members of poverty-vowed religious communities always succeed in living poverty-driven lives. (He at times referred to some religious as people who “shared in a common wealth.”) Yet even the great “John L.” believed we’re all are called to live a life which shows we’re directed to another life, a life in which possessions are on the perimeter, not at the center.