If I am going to write about rich people getting to heaven, we had better clarify what we mean by “rich". Because most of us compare ourselves with neighbors or fellow workers or bank presidents or movie stars, we can agree that the “richness" is a relative trait. Right? In that case, by that standard, we have just defined you as rich. According to Global Rich List, if you have an annual income of more than $850, you are richer than half the people in the world. If you prefer to think of richness in more elitist terms — say the top 10% of income earners – you are rich if you make over $25,000 annually. So…my guess is that you are rich even by the “elitist” definition.
“So," you may be wondering, “does the bible say that rich people can’t get to heaven?" Well…sort of. Some have made that conclusion based on Jesus’ conversation with a rich young man (Mat 19: 16-26) who, although he was morally upright, was not willing to give his possessions to the poor in order to gain treasures in heaven. As this young man, who evidently had great wealth, walked away with his head down, Jesus told his disciples that a rich man has about as much chance of entering the kingdom of heaven as a camel does of passing through the eye of a needle.
“Well, Joe", you are thinking. “Doesn’t that settle it? Jesus is the ultimate authority and it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. By world standards, I am rich. I am also doomed. Right?"
Not so fast. Let’s examine exactly what took place in this encounter.
The young man had a false concept of entrance to heaven.
He started his conversation with Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” If our entrance to heaven is based on our good deeds, we are all in serious trouble.
The young man was self righteous.
When asked about keeping the commandments (at least six of them), he said, “All of these I have kept." Really? ALL of them? Without ever slipping even once? I don’t think so, and he was deceiving himself if he thought so.
His possessions came between him and God.
Those six commandments were all about how well one treats his fellow man. Because the other four (there are ten altogether) are about one’s relationship with God, Jesus tested that relationship by offering treasures in heaven if the young man would give his possessions to the poor. Of course we know what happened: He walked away sorrowfully. Why? Because his stuff was more important than his relationship with God.
All things are possible with God.
After the man walked away, Jesus’ dumbfounded disciples asked what you and I would have asked, “Then who in the world can be saved?" Jesus answered, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
“Joe, this is all a big riddle to me. Tell me flat out: can a rich man get to heaven?"
OK. The answer is yes. Here is why:
- Access to heaven is a free gift. (Eph 2: 8,9) It has absolutely nothing to do with being good or having money or keeping commandments. Just as good deeds will not open heaven’s doors for Mother Teresa or Billy Graham, riches will not close those doors for Donald Trump or Warren Buffett. Entrance is based on one thing and one thing only: accepting God’s free gift.
- By seeking right standing with God through his good deeds, the young man was asking the wrong question: Jesus simply pursued this erroneous line of thinking until he reached this young man’s chink in his armor: his possessions. We all have similar “chinks", whether they be our stuff or our time or our selfishness or temper or…well, you get the idea.
Maybe this free gift stuff makes sense, but Jesus DID ask the man to give all of his possessions to the poor. Doesn’t that mean we should do the same?
Not necessarily. We are reading a narrative of a one time only event where Jesus confronts a rich man about what is standing between him and God. We should not read into this narrative a command that Jesus expects all of us everywhere to always give every penny we have to the poor. Think about it: we would then be the poor and the recipients would then be expected to give it back. Very confusing.
But shouldn’t we be willing to give to the poor?
Ahh. Great question. We should be willing to do whatever God leads us to do. If he wants us to be very generous (and he does), we should be very generous. To reiterate, this generosity has nothing to do with earning a spot in heaven; it is the natural result of being changed on the inside when we become God’s children.
OK. This is starting to sink in. Should I therefore go ahead and seek my millions?
Maybe. If you are able to handle those millions in a way that pleases God. Some have misconstrued Jesus’ words “with God everything is possible" as license to go ahead and accumulate wealth. I would remind them that Jesus also said, “ When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required." Luke 12: 48.
A rich man can indeed enter heaven, but a rich man is also be responsible for how he handles those riches.
Readers: How do you define “rich”? Do you think it is harder for a rich person to get to heaven than a poor person? Why?