Jesus spoke to a group of his followers, along with a crowd of others who came to hear him. Luke chapter 6 records that Jesus told them strange things about the poor, the hungry, and the mournful. This was appropriate because most of them likely fit those categories.
But then Jesus spoke about the rich and comfortable—and what a contrast!
Woe to the Rich!
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
The word ‘woe’ is sometimes understood as a threat, but it is not. It’s better understood as ‘Alas!’ or ‘How Terrible!’ But how is it so terrible to be rich? Even most poor people would love to be rich! So what is terrible about it?
First, unlike the poor who receive comfort from the good news, the rich already have their comfort in this world with nothing further to anticipate. Of course they could become even richer, but it wouldn’t transform their lives.
On the other hand, they might lose their riches. The rich depend on wealth for security and self-sufficiency, but Jesus speaks of changing fortune that comes unexpectedly on so many of us. We might be well fed now, but hunger can be ours more quickly than we think. We can laugh freely as though we have no concern, but laughter can change to mourning and weeping at a moment’s notice.
There is another element involved in riches that elicits the response: ‘How terrible!’ Just as poverty often involves certain attitudes, so does wealth. The rich sometimes act as though their wealth places them above the concerns of common people, but if they grasp their wealth as a defense against calamity no amount of wealth is ever enough.
To increase wealth, some take advantage of those who have less money and power, and this exploitation flies against the very core of the good news. It violates Jesus’ prime commandment: to align our attitude with the Father’s attitude and love others as ourselves.
When we become oriented toward wealth and security above love and compassion for others, it is terrible indeed. Alas for that person! How terrible it is! Pride and greed do not prepare a person for the good news of the kingdom of God.
How Terrible When People Speak Well of You
Most people don’t think it is terrible to be wealthy; they often cater to the rich and want to be like them. They want the favors the rich can offer, so they flatter them in order to benefit.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Wealth and fame has its rewards. It may garner the acclaim of the people but doesn’t validate one’s character or leadership.
The Eye of the Needle
In Luke chapter 18, a certain rich man asks Jesus, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus reminds him of the ten commandments, specifically mentioning adultery, murder, theft, false testimony, and honoring parents—all having to do with the way we treat people.
It is interesting that in Luke chapter 10 another person asked the same question, and Jesus again asked about the law. That man answered:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
And Jesus told him, Do this and you will live. Jesus knew his heart.
The rich man we are considering today simply assures Jesus he has always kept the commandments. But Jesus says to him:
“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
I don’t think Jesus indicates here that the rich are to sell all they own and give to the poor. But he realizes that this person values his wealth more than eternal life. Given the choice between them—he chooses riches. Jesus makes his point.
Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus discerned the heart of this rich man, but in his humorous response about the camel he also identifies it as a common problem. I don’t think Jesus means the rich cannot enter the kingdom. Not all are like this, but it is so easy for the wealthy to harbor greed, insecurity, or lack of compassion for others.
What is the Practical Application of this Teaching about the Rich?
I cannot tell another person how they should respond to Jesus’ Woe to the rich!, but I suspect it involves evaluation of how one relates to wealth and to other people. Compassion seems a major issue in Jesus’ message.
Perhaps no one in the crowd asked at this point, “But how should I relate to my enemies?” Jesus answers the question anyway, and we will discuss it next time.
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