We often make out the rich as the typical villains of not just the modern world but also the Christian precursor world, as noted in many Christian interpretations. The primary verse most Christians cite when discussing the rich is Matthew 19:24 (or its reiterations in Mark and Luke): “’And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person into the kingdom of God.’” The disciples were amazed at this proclamation, assuming that the rich would be the first to enter the Kingdom. This reaction dispels the simplistic modern notion that the wealthy are morally bankrupt. That said, in a world where solutions to basic needs are readily available to nearly all humans, I believe it is necessary to understand God’s definition of the rich, as well as His advice for those who are rich.
Specifically, I will be looking at the 31 New Testament references for the term “πλουσιον,” which is the term Jesus uses for the rich, or well-to-do. It is important to note that “rich” can refer to richness in faith or material richness. James 2:5 stresses that God enriched the faith of the poor. John in Revelation proclaims the church in Smyrna to be inflicted and impoverished yet rich, and proclaims the church in Laodicea to be rich yet in want for nothing more and so poor.
“Rich” is also a word used to describe God, both materially and morally. God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4). Christ was rich but for our sake became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). The regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit was poured out richly through Christ (Titus 3:6). Entrance into the kingdom of Heaven will be richly supplied to those who continuously pursue Christ (2 Peter 1:11). While not explicitly stated in these references, it is important to note that all wealth, both spiritual and material, originates from God. Flaunting one’s poverty is just as heretical as flaunting wealth as a source of moral superiority. James notes that showing partiality is sin, and, while the specific case he posits rests in the defense of the poor, one could easily flip the case in defense of the rich.
A unifying theme for most of these verses is that riches, and their pursuit, ultimately lead to a null value. Riches do not last forever even on this mortal plane, let alone in the afterlife. This flies in the face of notions like the ancient Egyptian burial practices or the more modern notion of karma. The final references in the New Testament, Revelation 6:15 and 13:16, have the rich and poor united, hiding from the wrath of God or blindly obeying the commands of the end-time’s second beast, respectively. As a result, a rich man in his pursuit of wealth will wither away, not unlike a flower, along with his wealth, as stated in James. Jesus gave a parable in which a rich man, after an abundant harvest, hordes all his wealth and retires into a life of luxury. God took his life that night, making all his endeavors ultimately pointless. We see similar reverberations in concepts like sex, discrimination of most sorts, and power. These concepts will be outdated in the end-times, and it would be better to pursue other things, most notably faith.
The gospel according to Luke, which has the most of these references, particularly troubles me. It seems to imply that riches, or perhaps good times, lead to damnation in and of themselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God,” yet “Woe to you who are rich, because you have received your comfort.” When a rich man is damned to hell in one of Jesus’s parables, he asks Abraham for comfort. Abraham’s response is “’Child, remember that you received good things during your life, and Lazarus likewise bad things. But now he is comforted here, but you are suffering pain.’” Is this karma? I would wager against that notion, seeing how little a role karma plays in the Bible and in modern life. Rather, I posit that rich men, in their pursuits of wealth, are demanding God’s blessing much earlier than God planned, as per the prodigal son. However, unlike the prodigal son, many of the wealthy choose to remain far from home until death, leading to their damnation and the eventual fall of everything they obtained.
Is there salvation, then, for those who do not pursue earthly riches but were instead simply born wealthy? Timothy provides salvation: to put hope in God, to do good and to work good deeds, and to be generous with God’s blessings. The rich men Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, through their pursuit of Christ and their personal offerings, were canonized as righteous men in the gospels. The rich should, like the widow and her mite, sacrifice in their devotion to God, and let the word of Christ dwell in them richly. Is it evil to simply be rich? No. Humans, however, cannot serve both God and money, and one master yields significantly better long-term returns than the other.