What If Jesus Meant What He Said About Rich People? A Non-Nuanced Reading of Lazarus and the Rich Man

It seems that the richer Christians get, the more interpretive energy they put into proving that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said about rich people. The camel through the eye of the needle? That was just the back gate to Jerusalem. Sell all you have and give it to the poor? He was using hyperbole to prove a point. Mary’s Magnificat? Never heard of it. If I had a dollar for every time I have had these discussions in a church context, I would be rich enough to have to worry about it.

Whatever Jesus meant by these things, there is a general agreement that there are two things he could not possibly have meant because they are just too hard to fit into our current understanding of the New Testament:

  1. Jesus could not possibly have been saying that it is inherently immoral to be rich. That would be unfair and simplistic. Some rich people are very moral, and some poor people are immoral in every way that one can be immoral, so it is just wrong to say that wealth, in and of itself, is a bad thing. It is the love of money, not the money itself, that is the root of all evil. What is important is how you use the wealth that you have. Certainly, rich people should do everything that they reasonably can to help poor people. But it is just wrong to say that Jesus criticizes the bare fact of having wealth.
  2. Furthermore, Jesus could not have been saying that a society that permits profound economic inequalities is inherently corrupt. He was not criticizing capitalism or low taxes. Don’t go making Jesus into a communist. He said that people should help the poor, but he never said that the government should help the poor—or that people should be forced by the state to surrender their hard-earned dollars to give to people who have not worked for it. That goes against free agency. In the Kingdom of God there won’t be any rich or poor, but that is what happens after Jesus comes again. It is not possible to live that way today, so don’t go trying to immanentize the eschaton. Keep your woke nonsense out of my religion!

These assertions, and many like them, are made necessary by the fact that there is really no way to read the text honestly without coming to the conclusions they reject—not if we rely solely on what is there. To reach other conclusions, we have to rely on what is not there—a critical maneuver best accomplished by adjectives rather than arguments. No passage in the New Testament illustrates this better than the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) from this week’s Come Follow Me reading.

The parable begins by telling us a few basic facts about two men:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (:19-21)

It is important to note what we are NOT told here. We know of Lazarus only that he was poor. We do not know if he was righteous or wicked, or somewhere in between. We don’t know if he was mentally ill, sexually promiscuous, addicted to a substance, guilty of criminal behavior, or bad smelling—because none of these things matter to the interpretation of the story, just as none of them impact the moral duty that the rich man has towards him.

We know a little bit more about the rich man (he would not be named “Dives,” which just means “rich man,” until the middle ages), but not as much as we think we do. The overwhelming fact about him is that he is rich. This is beyond dispute. We also know that he spent some portion of his wealth on luxury items, including food and clothing. We don’t know what he did with the rest of his money. We don’t know how he came by his fortune.

We don’t know how he treated other people. And we don’t know how he treated Lazarus, though the text supports a strong inference that he did not do anything to address the poor man’s suffering. We don’t know if he was religious, righteous, a good husband and father, a pillar of his community. Just that he was rich and that he did other things with at least some of his money than take care of the poor. With just this knowledge, we have to make sense of the major plot line:

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.” (:22-23)

If we stick to the text, we can’t make any assumptions about relative morality that are not given in the text. We must assume that Lazarus was “with Abraham” (whatever theological assumptions one wants to read into that phrase) because he was poor and did not receive economic justice in his life. And we must assume that the rich man was in hell because he was rich and did not give all of his excess wealth to relieve the suffering of the poor. If there were any other factors that mattered to our interpretation of the story, Jesus would have told us about them.

The implications here are stark as they apply to wealthy people, but they do not run counter to other things that Jesus has said. In fact, there is nothing in the New Testament even hints at a different understanding. Jesus told us that it is more difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of the needle. And when a rich man asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. The inherent sinfulness of wealth is one of the most consistent themes of the New Testament.

And Jesus tells us why this is so.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store 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 your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and Eternal Life all mean the same thing. They refer to a constitutive reality that we create when our entire focus is on loving God and loving each other. It cannot be created by people who value other things more, and a person who holds on to great wealth when other people are suffering, by definition, loves the wealth more than the people who are suffering. People cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven by holding on to wealth simply because the Kingdom of Heaven is what happens when people stop holding on to wealth, and everything else, that is not the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is, of course, nothing new. One of the overarching principles of Hebrew prophecy is God’s condemnation of societies that allow some people to live in poverty. The scriptures unfailingly present this as a structural problem. It has to do with the way that societies are organized–with the core principles that determine how collective decisions are made. God’s Kingdom is not neutral on these questions. Both the Old and the New Testaments make it clear that God overwhelmingly favors social structures that do not permit great wealth and great poverty to coexist. And everybody who has a say in a society’s organization is morally accountable for this principle.

In a modern liberal democracy, where social policy is set (however imperfectly) by popular vote, this makes us all accountable for the social structure that emerges. And those who profess to be Christian have an added responsibility to the core principles of our faith. This element of God’s kingdom can’t wait for the eschaton, and the fact that we cannot accomplish it perfectly does not mean that we should organize our society on exactly opposite principles and simply wait for Jesus to come and create the justice that we could not.

In a society that has been organized on anything like Christian principles, neither Lazarus nor the rich man should exist. One of the non-negotiable aspects of such a society is socioeconomic equality, which means that people are free from both the spiritual burdens of great wealth and the physical deprivations of great poverty. Both are characteristics of a society organized on the principles that Jesus, in no uncertain terms, denounced. This is not a woke-Marxist manipulation of the meaning or even a nuanced interpretation of the text. It is a straightforward reading of the words on the page. We display only contempt for the gospel when we pretend that they mean something else.


  1. “ the Kingdom of Heaven is what happens when people stop holding on to wealth.” I’m going to be thinking about this post for a long time.

  2. I have been serving in a Catholic soup kitchen for approximately 10 years. I, being comfortably well off, have been confronted by this dichotomy on a weekly basis. Some thoughts:

    The general leadership of the soup kitchen seems to not like poor people. They, it seems, work in the soup kitchen to earn good marks while, basically, holding their noses around the poor.

    I have decided to be as personable to these poor, homeless, often disturbed, people as possible. I greet them, talk with them, make jokes, etc. I realize that, for very thin margins, I could be there.

    I am happy with my comfort. I do not think I could really invite someone off the street to live in my house, either. And it makes me a uncomfortable to see myself in this light.

    As Jesus said, we will always have the poor. The problem is ageless and society-wide, and we must address the problem as a society. So, can I exonerate myself because of my attitude and my voting pattern? Can I find comfort that I treat the poor as people with feelings? That I devote 6 hours a week feeding them (basically earning good marks)?

    If the rich man in the parable were know to have pangs of conscience about being rich among poor, would you (and maybe God) think better of him?

  3. Excellent as always, Michael. Especially this: “In a society that has been organized on anything like Christian principles, neither Lazarus nor the rich man should exist.” (As I think the scriptures suggest, if you want to live the way Jesus wants us to live, and you make–and mostly keep–over $100,000 year, you’re doing something wrong.)

  4. Michael, you’re clearly right about what the text says. And what it means. Attempts to transform the eye of a needle into a city gate is transparently and laughably absurd.

    And yet, whatever the plain language, Jesus was (dare I say it?) wrong. (And don’t worry–you’re a state away from me, so when the lightening comes, you’ll be safe!)

    I’m reading Ehrman’s Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene right now and, as Ehrman discusses the New Testament, it’s clear that the writers had and eschatology of an imminent Kingdom of God; Jesus is going to return within the writers’ lifetime.

    Eschewing wealth, eschewing property is easy when money and property will be gone in a year or two or maybe less. Selling all you have and following Jesus (or giving to the Apostles): easy if it’s going to be temporary.

    But it doesn’t work in a world where the Kingdom of God is somewhere in the (probably distant) future. Because in that world, at least to the extent this life matters, we have to work and save and give and and and.

    And I don’t mean this to dispute anything you’ve said; I actually think this is where the rubber of religion meets the road of lived experience. Because we have to live the contradiction of an impossible law in an imperfect world. And in this imperfect world, our sharing what we have with the poor becomes, if possible, even more critical and important than in a world with an imminent Kingdom, because now we have to help and support the poor indefinitely, not just for now.

    Trying to soften what Jesus said is cheating. But so is taking it too literally and throwing up our hands. The beauty is in the messy world of not fighting the plain language, but picking and choosing how we can best approximate it in the world that we live in.

    IMHO, of course.

  5. Sam, Ehrman definitely sees Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who presented the Kingdom of God as something that was going to be established, immanantly, by a cataclysmic eschaton. This is a majority opinion among contemporary New Testament scholars. But it is not a unanimous one. A second possibility–espoused most famously by John Dominec Crossan and Marcus Borg–holds that Jesus spoke of a sapiential Kingdom rather that an eschatological one.

    The sapiential Kingdom is constitutive. We create it through our actions, imperfectly, but decisively, and it is only eschatological if we do it correctly. Those who interpret the New Testament this way see the teachings of Jesus as an instruction manual for building something, not as a set of commandments for deserving something.

    I fully agree that, if we read Jesus’s Kingdom parables as eschatological, then all the stuff about rejecting wealth is simplistic because, as you say, that is easy to do if you think the world is ten minutes away from ending. But all of my posts this year come from the assumption that Jesus meant the Kingdom to be sapiential–something that is within the power of human beings to create in this world, and that most of the parables are constitutive instructions on how to create it.

  6. This parable is kind of an odd duck. The poor man dies and goes into the arms of Abraham who was arguably the richest man in Canaan during his mortal life–a fun bit of irony there. And then the rich man who is in torment pleads with Abraham to send the poor man to warn his brothers so that they might not come to the terrible place where he is. But Abraham tells the rich man (in so many words) that if they won’t believe the law and the prophets neither will they believe a person who was raised from the dead to warn them.

    And so, the only way I can make sense of this story is to allow the end to justify its meaning. It seems to me that the first half of the story — about the dichotomy between the rich man and the poor man — is standard fare so to speak–something that everyone will understand. Thus the lack of any moral complication. But the real meat of the parable is in the second half–IMO. The Savior is telling the story to the Pharisees–and it finally has to do with their failure to understand the spirit of the Law.

  7. This parable is kind of an odd duck. The poor man dies and goes into the arms of Abraham who was arguably the richest man in Canaan during his mortal life–a fun bit of irony there. And then the rich man who is in torment pleads with Abraham to send the poor man to warn his brothers so that they might not come to the terrible place where he is. But Abraham tells the rich man (in so many words) that if they won’t believe the law and the prophets neither will they believe a person who was raised from the dead to warn them.

    And so, the only way I can make sense of this story is to allow the end to justify its meaning. It seems to me that the first half of the story — about the dichotomy between the rich man and the poor man — is standard fare so to speak–something that everyone will understand. Thus the lack of any moral complication. But the real meat of the parable is in the second half–IMO. The Savior is telling the story to the Pharisees–and it finally has to do with their failure to understand the spirit of the Law.

  8. In many areas of the country, including mine, it’s easy to make six-figures and not be wealthy. Thanks inflation. But then again, many of the poor today would be wealthy standing next to the poor of Biblical times.

    Practically, we’d all have to do it together. Or at least everyone in your sphere would have to. A fantastic starting place to bring on the eschaton is in your own ward.

  9. Without making any assumptions about Michael’s devotion to the LDS church, I read this as a covered criticism of a $100billion+ organization which both hoards exorbitant wealth while also spending hundreds of millions on gawdy temples which do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Church charity is such a small percentage of total wealth. Perhaps the wealthy men in fine suits sitting in cushy chairs in a large and spacious building are being called to repentance and to live as Christ instructed. Is that the message?

  10. I believe the call is to build heaven on earth, and that it is on us to do the work, hoping for and trusting in but not waiting for miracles along the way. I agree with Michael’s reading and am condemned by it, as I sit in my wonderful home that could not be supported at Russell Arben Fox’s notional $100k income level.

    Having set that baseline, I’d make two comments or qualifications.

    First, there is some evidence that inequality in the U.S. (think Gini coefficient) has turned in recent years, although COVID-19 will make it difficult to discern for some time (historically, widespread epidemics have increased difference; but COVID-19 relief programs reduced poverty in the short term). Also, quoting a recent note from economist Noah Smith:

    “A lot of conservatives will tell you that despite all the lavish government spending of LBJ’s Great Society, poverty remained stubbornly persistent — a dramatic government failure. In fact, this is a total myth. When economists measure using a fixed standard of living — i.e. what we would have called “poor” in 1960 — they find that the rate of absolute poverty in the U.S. has declined to under 2%, with most of the decline happening in the 60s and early 70s when the Great Society programs were introduced.
    Now, 1960 living standards are a pretty low bar. But even using updated standards — such as the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — we see that there has been substantial progress. And in fact, much of that progress has come in just the last decade. In 2013, 16% of Americans, and 18% of American Children, were in poverty. By 2019, those numbers had fallen by about a third.”

    Put this all in the hope and trust but do the work category. It tells me that collectively we can make a difference.

    Second, having watched the world through the eyes of a tax lawyer for decades, I have come to believe that the tension between the eschatological view of the New Testament teachings, i.e., that the end is near and our economic and family and marriage decisions should be made in light of the current living crop of people being the last society ever, and the constitutive or what Michael calls the sapiential view that we are engaged in the project of building heaven on earth, is about children and inheritance. I consider myself on the fringe of the hippie generation (they were the college students while I was in high school, three blocks away, in Madison, Wisconsin). I am attracted to the image of an all-things-in-common or according-to-need society, as were many 19th century Mormons. And then we grew up and got married and had children and that reality is that for me, my children and now grandchildren are more important than all of you. It’s a hard problem. One way to read both the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon—different from the New Testament, I would argue—is as illustrative of the many difficulties and challenges that marriage and children bring to the image of brothers and sisters getting along together and sharing.

    I think the generational issues are hard problems. I’m not convinced they are beyond our capacity to solve and I actually think we are bumbling forward in a positive direction. See my first point about poverty. But I don’t think the New Testament, any part of it, serves as a guide to the multi-generation Zion that I’m interested in building.

  11. Fred Voros says:

    Wonderful essay. Thank you for posting it.

  12. “… and a person who holds on to great wealth when other people are suffering, by definition, loves the wealth more than the people who are suffering.” Amen. Bravo. Well done! You state succinctly what I’ve been trying to articulate for years.

    Cause I, too, grew up hearing all these exact same rationalizations for why Christ didn’t actually mean what he said repeatedly and explicitly about wealth; but I also didn’t have to be an English major to note that such rationalizations are obviously unsupported by the text.

    And I know you restricted yourself to the New Testament because that is this year’s focus of Gospel study church-wide, but I would still like to add that The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are likewise consistent in backing up Christ’s condemnation of wealth and social inequality (certainly there’s no real ambiguity in D&C 49:20, “It is not meet that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin”—not to mention 4 Nephi 1:3, Jacob 2:13-19, Mosiah 4:17-19, etc. etc.)

  13. Christian,

    I am attracted to the image of an all-things-in-common or according-to-need society, as were many 19th century Mormons. And then we grew up and got married and had children and that reality is that for me, my children and now grandchildren are more important than all of you. It’s a hard problem. One way to read both the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon—different from the New Testament, I would argue—is as illustrative of the many difficulties and challenges that marriage and children bring to the image of brothers and sisters getting along together and sharing.

    That’s a great and insightful comment, and one that I think contains a great deal of truth. So much of Jesus’s witness, and the records upon which Christians have attempted to articulate and live out that witness over the centuries, comes to us in the form of a snapshot, a brilliant bolt of revelation. With the exception of the Book of Acts and some readings of certain of the epistles, the New Testament lacks any real guidance in terms of what can or should or must be done with that witness. Arguably the rest of the scriptural record, as well as Mormon church history and many other examples of Christian socialism and communalism over the centuries–filled with failures as it is (my own extended family’s failed attempt to build a “Fox Family United Order” decades ago being just one of many thousands of examples)–can partly fill that vacuum with practical advice and suggestions. But still, as Michael’s post makes clear, reading back into Jesus’s words various interpretive stratagems to cover for our own failures is profoundly disrespectful to the explicit call of Jesus’s revelations to us. We’re supposed to build Zion (or, in my preferred locution, build Zion-like conditions such that God’s Kingdom can be immanently revealed to us). To the extent we fail, I think there is no other option other than to keep doing it, and keep failing at it, so long as we abide in mortality.

    Also, I appreciate your correctly identifying my hypothetical $100K measure of riches as “notional.” As the post and discussion from over a decade ago hopefully still makes clear, the point was and is to recognize ourselves, myself most assuredly included, with all our comparatively mundane upper-middle-class aspirations, as Lazarus, and feel condemned accordingly, as you write.

  14. It’s interesting how you take individual moral injunctions and turn them into collectivist politics, while sarcastically mocking anti communists.

    Have you figured it out yet? Mortal Jesus didn’t want you to organize yourself with a leader at the head of your collective. It goes much farther than that.

    He wasn’t interested at all in your day job. Let alone your ideas about how the police and tax enforcement of the Roman empire.

    He called them, like John, to abandon their cities and towns and follow him into the wilderness. And when they did so, he provided.

    Now, is he here, doing that now? No. Has he said anything in our day? Yes. Do we have his words in the D&C that she’d light on government? Yes.

    What are they, and do they square heavy social state spending?

    I’m all for strictly following Jesus. But you can’t tell anyone to follow a preacher into poverty in the wilderness means keep your day job at Google while arguing for high “entitlement” policies while construction workers struggle to make ends meet, which includes a payment on their 4wheeler and fishing boat.

    None of those really square with new testament Jesus’ literal actions.

  15. You’re missing one of the biggest justifications that people so often make. But luckily Russell Arben Fox just made it for you.

    I think it’s pretty clear the vast majority of us, would be considered rich in the context he’s talking about. People like to draw that line just above themselves.

    So many consider themselves like I who make well under this arbitrary line. Having lived well under the “poverty” line, (admittedly in a developed country). I’ve had more access to food, clean water, bathing, transportation, heating, entertainment, than the most of the richest people throughout human history.

    Most people interpret Jesus’ call to apply to only those richer than themselves.

  16. I agree that one of the main points of this parable is to drive home the point that material possessions are worthless in eternity and that hoarding wealth in the face of poverty will condemn us. But this hyper-simplistic reading of the parable is inconsistent with the way we have to read every other parable. Take, for example, the Parable of the Talents. If we take the same literal approach that Michael takes in this post, the only lesson to learn is that we have an obligation to seek profitable returns on investments.

    I can hear the objection that that parable is different because it would contradict Jesus’ other statements condemning the rich. Ok, but Michael’s statement that “there is nothing in the New Testament even hints at a different understanding” is facile at best. There are, in fact, a number of instances where wealth is at least tolerated:
    -The aforementioned parable of the talents and many other parables where a wealthy person is the source of justice (eg, unjust steward, the unforgiving debtor, etc.)
    -Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector whose sacrifice of only half of his possessions (which would have still left him wealthy) was approved
    -Jesus’ rebuke of Judas for suggesting that the perfume be sold to care for the poor
    -Paul’s counsel to Timothy that the rich are to be generous (notably absent is a command to cease to be wealthy)

    Apart from the textual nuance, as Sam mentioned, there is also practical nuance. One major problem is defining the poor and the rich, and what to do with those who are neither.

    Again, I don’t think there is any way to construe the scriptures as glorifying material wealth or tolerating poverty among wealth. But those who seek to find nuance do so because both the text and real life demand it.

  17. Dsc,

    As it happens, I do think that the Parable of the Talents has much to do with getting a good interest rate, and about being good stewards of resources that we are holding in trust for God. I wrote this in a post a few years ago that some of my liberal friends and acquaintances have still not forgiven me for:

    The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

    I apply a different interpretive logic to parables in which the rich man, in the allegory, represents God. I will give you Jesus’s rebuke to Judas on the perfume and Paul’s counsel to Timothy, though, and say that there are “very few passages in the New Testament in which wealth is not seen as a moral failing, independent of how the funds are used.”

  18. Sute made a very good comment.

    Christ was, and always did, talking about individual spiritual responsibility, not collective.

    We are responsible for our own choices, our own repentence.

    The author of this article started out just fine in talking about the wealthy man and how he failed in his responsibility to Lazarus but then some how morphed into how Christian’s ( notice the plural) as a group are some how responsible to make sure that any and all “societies” they live in should be organized on socioeconomic equality.

    This means that people are free from the spiritual burdens of great wealth and the physical burdens of great poverty.

    According to the author.

    This is quite a stretch from what Christ seems to be saying.

    Christ always teaches that we as individuals are responsible for what we each do, and we must do the best we can.

    But we will not be judged as a group for either our success or our sins.


  19. All these comments arguing Jesus doesn’t judge a group or society should pay more attention to the scriptures. It happen in the OT, NT, and the D&C. That argument is yet another myth promoted by those uncomfortable with the actual text in relation to wealth disparity.

  20. perserverancia says:

    There is nothing so refreshing as the gospel taken seriously in its simplicity. We would do well to take the Savior at his word on this question. I have never understood how we can think we will not be impacted spiritually by choosing to compound our wealth through usury or spend it on luxury or, especially, on ostentation while there remains a greater need among our brothers and sisters.

  21. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    Christ was, and always did, talking about individual spiritual responsibility, not collective.

    Odd, then, that when he spoke about a true and living church, the only one with which he was well pleased, he was specifically “speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” (D&C 1:30)

  22. First, it is a mistake, in my book, to present collective righteousness/sin and individual righteousness/sin as an either/or proposition (as some have tried to do). For those in the Abrahamic tradition both have their place: God wants individuals to do what’s right and God wants societies to do what’s right. The accounts we have of Zion-like moments in history describe good people who make up good societies (Alma 1:30, Moses 7:18,Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32; 3 Ne. 26:19; 4 Ne. 1:3); one can’t happen without the other. And in every instance Zion living has included (but is not limited to) a fracturing of socioeconomic stratification at both the individual and societal levels (and the OT books of Amos and Isaiah, as examples, contain very strong language against societies that perpetuate situations of victimization through continued individual and community socioeconomic stratification). That observation is neither liberal nor conservative; it is simply what the scriptures say. To try to bend ourselves in knots to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. In this way, Jesus is not teaching anything particularly “new” but rather leaning on a long history of such teachings with which those whom he taught would have likely been familiar.

    Second, in meaningful ways, a lot of this boils down to whether or not we actually believe that we can fix today’s problems. If one views the world as a “lost cause” that can only be fixed by God burning almost the entire thing to the ground and then working with the select few who are spared, then I suppose the call to fix societal problems (like the damage caused by uneven wealth distribution) feels silly. After all, if the world is lost, the best we can do is hold on and wait for the end, and make sure we do what we think we need to do to escape the fireballs. If however, one believes humans can chose to do better and really could, if we were all committed, make meaningful steps toward establishing Zion-like situations through both individual and community efforts (and I put myself in this camp), the Michael’s analysis is convicting. We, individually and collectively, need to do more because we’re not where we need to be. But the message of hope implied in Jesus’s message is that we could get there… and Jesus can help us do that.

  23. Doctrine and Covenants 49:20
    But it is not given that one man should apossess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.

  24. J. Mansfield says:

    An amusing and discouraging thing is how the standard self-excusing is employed here even by those who want to take Jesus’ words seriously. “If I had a dollar for every time [ . . . ] I would be rich enough to worry about it.” “If [ . . . ] you make—and mostly keep—over $100,000/year, you’re doing something wrong.” We all know someone with seven times as much accumulated wealth as us, and that includes those who have seven times as much as we do: They are familiar with others who are richer still. Somehow those we know who have less than us don’t count in these calculations, and so everyone thinks Jesus’ teachings are warnings to someone else. And we all have our version of “corban.” The investments in our homes don’t count, our retirement savings don’t count, because we need them and (the universal excuse for casting selfishness as selflessness) our families need them. Our wealth in education doesn’t count. Only someone else’s bigger house and newer cars count. The braces and cello lessons if we can afford them are sacrifices for the sake of health and beauty and goodness, not luxuries, not markers to us that we are more like a sumptuously dressed rich man than like a destitute beggar.
    Back in 2004, I moved my family to another state, and believing housing prices were a bubble, I rented the next five years (only wise financial decision I ever made). When prices came down, my wife and I looked at the $80,000 we had ready for a down payment and wondered: Is buying a house for ourselves what we should be doing with this money? Is there a need elsewhere that we should sacrifice our savings to? Really, though, we were play-acting hypocrites, and we bought ourselves a house.

  25. J. Mansfield, you’re like the J. S. Bach of the blogs. Your comments never disappoint.

    It’s interesting to consider Abraham and Sarah in light of the theme of this discussion. They were model disciples–never failing to do what the Lord required of them. And almost invariably, after they had suffered through some terrible ordeal, the Lord would bless them manservants and maidservants and flocks and herds. They were probably the richest folks in Canaan. And so the question is: in what way would these archetypal saints be an example to us vis-a-vis the management and utilization of wealth?

    Well we don’t know very much about that aspect of their lives. But even so, one could surmise that because they were both unquestionably faithful *and* rich their attitude towards wealth would have been somewhat like Jacob’s (from the Book of Mormon):

    18 But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.

    19 And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob chapter 2)

    I think it’s one thing to criticize a culture — and our culture is very much in need of criticism on many fronts — and quite another to criticize individuals. While there’s no doubt that the vast majority of us don’t use our excess to do as much good as we might–there are some folks who really try to do as much good as the possibly can with the riches they’ve been blessed with. And I’ve no doubt that everyone here knows a few well to do people who are generous to a fault.

    So we–all of us–need to be careful in how we judge individuals who seem to have greater means than we do. Only the Lord knows where their hearts are at with respect their wealth and possessions.

  26. Bryan S says:

    Michael, lovely post, as always. J Mansfield, like you, I feel a “play-acting hypocrite” often–it is hard to take the gospel as seriously as it demands. But it’s good to keep the ideal before us.

    I’ll add one of my favorite quotes from Kierkegaard, a statement that’s perhaps a tad hard on scholars (from whom I’ve benefitted tremendously) but also insightful about how we too often use scholarship.

    “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

    “I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).”

  27. nobody, really says:

    If the Lord didn’t despise the wealthy, why would He make so many of them bishops and stake presidents? It seems like the perfect way to decrease wealth and damage family relationships.

  28. Dear nobody,

    I’d say that you’re about 95% mistaken.

  29. Bryan S,

    I love those frightening quotes. Even so, I think the Book of Mormon does a better job of situating those concerns in a pragmatic down-to-earth context of sorts than the New Testament does. And I think that approach not only helps us to get our hands on the principles involved but also to wrap our minds around them as well.

  30. Todd S says:

    Chloe, you said “But we will not be judged as a group for either our success or our sins.


    While I understand your general idea, your argument falls entirely into Heaven as an eschatological concept that becomes very lonely, very quickly.
    Suggesting that we will not be “judged” as a group, may be true, but it ignores that any useful or reasonable idea of success is only possible by our collective well-being. You can personally make all the “right” choices, as you propose, and unless others around you simultaneously do the same, it seems that you will find yourself in a very lonely “Heaven”, that will feel more like “Hell”.

    I’m much more inclined to follow the sapiential kingdom that Michael mentioned above, where Heaven is constitutive as opposed to the arbitrary reward for your good choices. The sapiential concept validates choice by the fruit they produce, not the reward achieved. Yours and my good choices are a part of the whole, they together are the ingredients to the building of “Heaven”, or “Zion” or “Kingdom”. Salvation is not an individual thing no matter how much you want it to be.

    I’m not suggesting that you will be judged for my poor choices directly, but agency is not confined to the space you personally occupy, so indirectly, if Heaven is in fact something we are building, then your success does depend on others success. If they fail, you fail with them, or you will live out eternity with the other self-absorbed commandment keepers.

  31. A Non-E Mous says:

    I am someone who feels convicted in how I withhold my wealth and fail to give it to those who have much more dire needs than I do. I often feel the guilt of having kept back part of the price and spent on that which is of no worth.

    At the same time, I’m not persuaded that this reading of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was the intended message. The argument seems to focus (explicitly) on a narrow reading of the relevant passages, devoid of context or interlinear interpretation — the exact opposite of how we’d expect a parable to be read.

    I also think the discussion what “society” does or does not permit fails to grapple with the more difficult moral questions involved. I agree that Zion societies have no poor among them and that they are intensely focused on the needs of the least among them. But I don’t think we have any information on what the political order of a successful Zion looks like. We thus have no idea whether the absence of the poor is because Zion societies consist of individuals who do not tolerate poverty and voluntarily choose to eradicate it, or if instead there is a top-down political order that compels re-distribution from those who have to those who have not. The difference between the two of those is enormous in terms of means of execution. The first (which is what I tentatively subscribe to) means that I ought to feel the guilt I do about withholding my wealth. Similarly, it means Russel’s $100k threshold above is almost certainly too high, and any amount of wealth above maybe $15k is exorbitant given the median global income. The second (which I’m skeptical of) means that I should feel primarily a burden to change policy, not my individual practice.

  32. OHHHHHH, I finally understand the definition of “nuanced”. In other words, I don’t like what He said, so I’m going to do mental gymnastics until it says what I want.

  33. Bro. B. says:

    This question of what is the Kingdom of God is an interesting one. Is it a Home Depot concept or a Custom Builder concept? Seems in our day more Home Depot if we clean our own ward buildings. A lot of Jesus’ teachings were warnings to prepare for an immanent Eschaton, even if only His Father and not even He himself knew the time it would happen. I think it’s possible to read these parables either way. But I see it as more of a call to stretch ourselves in giving and supporting equality and unity as best we know how so that when the kingdom of God does come, however it arrives, we will want to be part of it.

  34. I am reminded of the ending of the Book of Mormon, where the desire of some to possess that above others they lived near was sufficient not only to destroy a Zion society, but also to so corrupt a civilization that murder and the destruction of those who differed from them was the sought after goal.
    Why would they want to destroy this other civilization? Was it to steal their physical belongings? To eliminate those whose very existence reminded them of their failures to even pretend to follow the teachings of Jesus?
    Do we do the same sometimes in our Sunday School classes, as we belittle the beliefs of others because we have had more opportunity for learning? Perhaps you have been fortunate enough to never have lived in such a ward. I have lived in one, where Sunstone substituted for the scriptures and men, mainly men, attended church to show off their knowledge, never to learn from others. Never, ever, to seek Christ. Thank you Oakland First Ward.
    When we truly desire Zion, we cannot be kept from it. Until then, we parade our new cars, humble brag at church socials about what our homes are now valued at, thinking that if we express surprise that we are not really bragging. We waste our lives trying to appear better than our neighbors, always revealing what we value by what we show off.
    I have friends who cannot keep from bragging about the senior ward positions their family members now hold. I have never once heard them brag about how they served as a great ministering sister or brother, only about how much money they donated to this Church endeavor or how their wife is now the Primary president. The world’s values, overlaying their Church life.
    We think that if it is our children we are bragging about, it is not the same as if we were bragging about our own accomplishments. So we, oh, so humbly, reveal that yes, our daughter was accepted at Stanford, our son at Yale. They could mention the child who stayed home to care for a sick parent, but somehow their children are never expected to make that sacrifice. Why should they; there are Hispanic caregivers who can be hired to do the heavy lifting.
    Meanwhile, the poor often draw closer to Christ and receive the visitations of angels, all while the rich congratulate themselves that they am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. Do we really even try to live the scriptures? Do we imagine that the poor will want us in their kingdom? I think they will not.

  35. Call me Mark says:

    Peter Singer wrote an unbelievable essay in 1971 titled Famine, Affluence and Morality. If you ready it, good luck trying to disagree with him.

  36. Geoff - Aus says:

    I believe Christ wants us to have an attitude of concern/love for our fellow beings.
    If there are poor, and rich, are there also average?

    Rich is not a measure of income but accumulated wealth.
    In this age a couple million is not rich. Guilt could indicate concern for fellows so long as it is directed.
    But I have looked up the personal wealth of 2 GAs, one at 25m, and another at 75m. They would be included as rich. I can’t think how anyone could justify not having distributed such wealth.
    There are countries much closer to Zion. There was mention of the gini index 0 is perfect equality financially.US is 40, Aus 34, Canada 32.5, and Northern Europe mid to high 20s.
    Why couldn’t America be as good as europe?

  37. Few in the Church actually desire Zion. It requires they sacrifice their pride. Pride in the material possessions they have surrounded themselves with. Pride in the educational degrees they post on their office walls and initials or titles they place before or behind their names. Pride in the accomplishments they parade before others.
    We know that God hates sin and eventually will destroy it. Yet we hang on to the inequality, justifying it with reasoning so shallow a child could see through it.

  38. IanThomson says:

    I tend to take Jesus at his word, and read many of these scriptures plainly. It is interesting how much blow-back you get at Church, or from members of the Church, when you talk about wealth, wealth redistribution, and particularly when you mix in politics. I carry around with me a sheet of paper tucked in my scriptures, that is filled on one side with two columns in 8-point font of everywhere in the scriptures that I have found where wealth and riches is mentioned or condemned (primarily the latter). It is not a short list. And the criticisms aren’t even greatest in the New Testament, but in the Book of Mormon. And yet, you’ll go years without hearing a peep at Church about it.
    Of course, in the time of Christ, there was almost no way to redistribute wealth other than personal philanthropy and almsgiving. There were no governments, institutions or systems that were able or willing to do this difficult work for us. If we took Christ at his word, I do believe our attitudes towards the “undeserving” would change. We are fixated to the point of blindness by our dedication to merit and the fruits of hardwork (convinced that most poverty is the product of some sort of laziness, shortsightedness or lack of discipline). I do think that the individualism found in modern American capitalism and many Mormon’s penchant for Ayn Rand’s objectivism is fundamentally anti-Christian (devoid of the common good, duty, or obligation).
    That being said, when it comes to navigating modern life, I am sympathetic to the comment of jpv above. And it makes me think that one of the things that is often lost in a discussion like the parable at issue, is that we tend to think of “rich” and “poor” in relative terms, like Chris Kimball’s mention of the GINI coefficient. And although this is important, I think it is worth remembering that “poor” in these times often meant destitute–without shelter or food to eat. Thankfully, we have progressed to the point where as a percentage of our population we have very few folks in our society who would now qualify as this type of “poor.” Anyone who is starving to death or freezing to death, or dying from a curable disease, that is a serious tragedy and a mark on our collective souls. I do think this is qualitatively different than criticizing the fact that we have nicer neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods, with some folks using public transportation and others driving Mercedes. I am particularly concerned about our taking care of individuals’ needs and meeting some minimum threshold at the bottom–for everyone–and more resigned about ever fixing our GINI coefficient.

  39. Antonio Parr says:

    Since you mentioned the Magnificat, this is worth sharing:

    I would love to hear this in a Sacrament Meeting . . .

  40. Antonio Parr says:

    As to wealth . . .

    Prior to joining the Church, I was a member of another denomination with some absolutely wonderful members. One was a physician who had attended one of the most prestigious medical schools in the world. Rather than live in a mansion that I am sure he could afford, he lived in a mixed race, very middle class neighborhood. Upon “retirement”, he merely moved from his paying job to volunteering at an inner city health clinic. He was meek and pure in heart, and his approach to wealth – which was to view its accumulation as a stumbling block to his discipleship to our Lord – was an example of what it means to believe what Christ had to say about the things we should be seeking in this life. I count his memory as a blessing.

  41. christiankimball says:

    Ian Thomson, not as any kind of rebuttal or “ditto”, what you make me think about is that I can envision a rich complicated multifaceted conversation about the Gini coefficient, multi-generational wealth, policy choices, the tax system, and so on. But set the conversation at the level of housing, food, and medicine, and I’m no longer tolerant of complexity and hedging and qualifications. I’m more of a “just make it happen” player at that level.

  42. Antonio Parr,

    The person you describe sounds a lot like my bishop–a doctor who lives in a middle class neighborhood and works in a state funded clinic treating mostly poor minorities.

    Oh, and did I mention that he paid for half of my daughter’s mission?

  43. Bro. B. says:

    Can these parables of Jesus be considered his commandments? Seems that most all of us, including the church itself, are not keeping them very well, especially considering the hoarding of wealth and being sued at the law. Almost no one actually does what He taught. Every time the curriculum comes back around to to New Testament I feel new waves of cognitive dissonance. Do you think that was Jesus’ intent, to “afflict the comfortable?”

  44. Antonio Parr,

    The person you describe sounds a lot like my bishop–a doctor who lives in a middle class neighborhood and works in a state funded clinic treating mostly poor minorities.

    Oh, and did I mention that he paid for half of my daughter’s mission?

  45. Antonio Parr says:

    Jack – Thanks for sharing, and I am so happy for you that you have the fellowship of someone who is such a committed disciple to our Savior.

  46. Sapiential or eschatological kingdom? No idea. But I have always loved this quote from Joseph Smith and it resonates with me:

    “…let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.”

  47. Antonio Parr says:

    Gomez: That’s an entertaining quote, and reflective of the frontier spirituality of its time. But I wish there was a more of an emphasis on the presence of Jesus being what makes heaven, heaven. When I hear Latter-Day Saints speak of the “hereafter”, there is always a focus on one’s immediate biological family and often a focus on fellow Saints. My coreligionists seem to have a harder time figuring out where Jesus fits into the heavenly picture, which is so unfortunate, since John the Revelator writes of Jesus as if He is the object and end of our deepest spiritual longings:

    2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

    3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

    4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

    5 And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

  48. Christian John says:

    Really nice to read this Michael. I was having similar thoughts when I was recently assigned a talk on “finance”. Do you mind if I quote you and/or use some of your analysis in my talk? All the best.

  49. I would be flattered, Christian

  50. I love this.

    I also think that the Book of Mormon provides additional doctrine to create a complete whole that we can live with, if we dare to do so.

    At one point, I thought The Church was drifting closer to the prosperity gospel doctrine. But I’ve noticed that’s not what’s happening.

    It is said that during the Caliphate, there was an institution known as Bayt al-Māl that was controlled by government officials. Often, zakāt could be paid into it. The destitute could appeal to Bayt al-Māl and they would be helped. Obviously, poverty and homelessness still abounded, but their levels seem to have risen exponentially after the fall of the Caliphate or — at least — once the institution of Bayt al-Māl went away. So, providing the proper checks are in place, paying taxes and letting government programs help those who need it doesn’t seem bad. But we still have our communal obligations to help those around us.

    It’s interesting that since the institution of zakāt as a pillar of Islam, people were expected to comply and this would help alleviate destitution. However, the question of “who is qualified to get zakāt” has plagued Muslims from the beginning. The consensus is that a Muslim’s first obligation is to give zakāt to family members in need. After that, Bayt al-Māl. Applying the same principle, I think The Church has it right with expecting us to pay our financial obligations (including taxes) and paying fast offerings. I consider the Bishop’s Storehouse to be the modern Bayt al-Māl which has the benefit of allowing us to support our (religious) family.

  51. KerBearRN says:

    Just…nailed it. Thank you.

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