After man sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, God punished man. God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
We read that God punished man with the invention of labor, and because of this, man would have to work in order to survive. If he didn’t work he would die, simple as that. Many people often oversimplify the story of the fall of man and say that sin caused the punishment of death, and that’s it. This assessment overlooks the labor part of the story. This oversight is an interesting one because in it we find the answer to the question: what does the Bible say about money?
If Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross, did he also defeat the need to work, and thus the need for money? This is a loaded question, but one I hope to answer by the end of this post. The Bible talks about money a lot and at times the messages can seem contradictory, and thus very confusing. To understand what the Bible actually says about money, one must break down the financial instructions into two main categories. One is the natural and the other is the supernatural. I define these two categories as: Real World Finance and Elevated Economics. The former is, as you might guess, pieces of instruction on money matters that can be applied to our regular day-to-day financial lives in order to make wiser money decisions. These pieces of financial wisdom have to do with work, debt, and saving. Elevated Economics, on the other hand, is where we transcend desire and/or the need for money and instead find our riches in God. As I have already suggested, to begin our discussion on what the Bible says about money, we must first begin with the idea of labor. In the Book of Proverbs, it is written that, “A slack hand causes poverty; but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4) and that “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to want” (Proverbs 14:23). In other words, working hard is seen as a very valuable trait to have, and if we do not work hard we will be sorry. Nevertheless it should be noted that Proverbs also tells us, “Do not toil to acquire wealth” (Proverbs 23:4), suggesting that there is in fact a limit to our labor. This is a confusing contradiction, but I will return to it later, once we have more information. So we work and make money, now what? It is important to know how to handle money. Paul highlights the importance of saving and preparedness in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2). In other words, take care of your money and it will take care of you. For as it says in Proverbs, “He who is impulsive exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). In other words, do not waste your hard earned money on frivolous things – plan and save. People who want more tend to have to work more, however, if one does not work in proportion to their need then debt is soon to follow. The Bible is very explicit about debt. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another” (Romans 13:8). For like it is written in the Book of Psalms, It is “the wicked [who] borrows” (Psalm 37:21). And to really drive the point home about the evils of debt, the Book of Proverbs declares, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). So as we can see, the Bible is very clear about the dangers and moral hazards of debt. This subject of Biblical finance, however, is far more nuanced than most realize. It is not as simple as: work hard, save money, and do not put yourself into debt, and everything will be fine. Sure the Bible tells us that “the rich rule over the poor,” but there is a huge asterisk here, because so many caveats have to be added to this statement for it to be fully understood. For as bad as debt clearly is according to scripture, being rich can be even more dangerous for the soul, for as it is written, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31). Mark’s Gospel sums up the meaning of this statement perfectly when it says, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life” (Mark 8:36). The boundary that differentiates using money -- as a necessary tool to support your earthly needs -- and using money – as an oppressive tool to control others -- is marked by greed. It is written in scripture, “Greed takes away life from its owner” (Proverbs 1:19), which is precisely why Jesus warned us, “Be on guard against greed” (Luke 12:15).
What is more, the Gospels tell us how Jesus himself was on guard against greed. For it is written, “Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple…and he overturned the tables of the money changers… He said to them, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus was literally flipping their economic practices upside down.
Jesus was not only an avid defender of the poor; he was also a vocal critic of the rich. He even went so far as to say, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
Statements such as these invited some very dangerous enemies into Jesus’s life. In their role as defenders of the status quo (as well as defenders of their earthly riches and desires) the scribes and chief priest tried to catch Jesus saying something about money that he shouldn’t.
For it is written, "Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk... ‘Tell us then, what you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.’ And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’” (Matthew 22:15, 17-21).
It is in this statement that Jesus draws a clear line between the two different categories of money in the Bible. With this distinction we leave behind the Real World Economics and enter into the realm of the Elevated Economy. This is the new economic system that Jesus opens up for his followers. To enter this system one has to transcend the greed of earthly economics. And the way that one does this is by giving. For the act of giving is the physical economic expression of love.
Jesus described this elevated economy very simply: “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). The truth is, this point is deceptively simple, meaning there is a lot more here than meets the eye. It is a profoundly deep statement. For you see, one should give because doing so is serving the Lord, and because you understand in your heart that it is the right thing to do; you do not do this action because you know that God will owe you one -- although he will.
For as it is written in scripture, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). However, the intention behind the act of giving is key, for as Paul writes, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Your attitude when you give is as important as the action itself, for only a giving attitude or being a “cheerful giver” so to speak is what shows your love to God.
The Book of Deuteronomy confirms this, for as it is written, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and all that you undertake” (Deuteronomy 15:10).
The irony is that we are seemingly presented with the same problem that we saw earlier. That is, by honoring God and caring more about our fellow man than money or the things of this world, the Lord enriches us. In other words, by shunning riches we have been showered by them. Or as it says in Proverbs, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered” (Proverbs 11:24).
We are presented with a problem: if being rich will keep you from the kingdom of God as Jesus warned, and giving freely will enrich you because of God’s blessing, should we stop giving freely, so that we don’t become rich and thus damn our soul? -- Of course not.
By looking at the Letter of James and the first Letter of Paul to Timothy, we find a clear path out of this catch 22.
In the Letter of James, there are some very harsh things said about the rich. For it is written, “Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” This sounds like a terrible fate for rich men, but James goes on to describe what exactly these particular rich men did that has caused them such a terrible fate: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:1-4).
So, not only did these rich men not give freely, they did not even give what was obliged of them -- what their laborers earned. Their greed is grotesque (which, truth be told, is a redundant statement).
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he writes, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). He then goes on to explain how the rich are to behave with their money in order to save their souls: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who furnishes us with everything we enjoy. They are to do good. To be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
To put this all another way, as long as one honors God above all else – even/especially money – then the kingdom of God and all of its blessings are still open to the rich and poor alike. The main point here is like Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
Jesus makes it clear to us that we need to differentiate our love of earthly riches and our love for God when he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” (Matthew 6:19-21).