Jesus Saves?

I’ve been preparing recently for a talk on a “Biblical theology of money”, and one of the topics I have been thinking about is saving. Saving up some money for times of need in the future is almost universally agreed on as a wise financial practice. When looking for biblical support on the matter, I often go to Gen 41:1-36, where Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of fat cows and thin cows. Through this dream, God revealed that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and so during the abundant years they should store up grain for the future.

I tried to apply this principle when I got married. At that time, both I and my wife were earning salaries – two incomes for two people. But I knew we wanted children, and so these were our “fat cow” years. Now over a decade later, we have one salary to support seven people (in fact nine at the moment, but that’s another story). The modest amount we saved up during the “fat cow” years is still in our savings account, and is earmarked to be used for our next car when the current one finally stops working.

There are other passages you could go to in support of saving, such as Proverbs 6 where the sluggard is told to learn from the ant who works hard storing up food during the summer months. The principle is similar – store up food while it is plentiful for the times when it is lacking. It is common sense, sound financial practise, and a value I want to instil in my children.

But when we come to the teaching of Jesus, finding support for saving is harder. In fact, in his stories and teaching, it is the people who save who are the fools and the people with no reserves at all who are the wise ones.

For example, in Luke 12:16-21 Jesus tells the parable of the rich “fool”. Why was he considered a “fool”? For “laying up treasure” for himself without being “rich towards God”. Matt 6:19-20 teaches the same thing explicitly: “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying “don’t save up lots of money” unless you think Jesus had a particular aversion to wooden chests filled with gold coins and strings of pearls.

In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus praises a widow for giving everything away, when surely the prudent thing for her to have done would have been to save some of her money for food. By keeping nothing in reserve she had nothing left to trust in but God’s provision. This seems to have been Jesus’ motivation for sending his disciples out without any money in Mark 6:8. Again, this runs contrary to conventional “wisdom” – what church would dream of sending people out on a mission trip with no means of supporting themselves?

It seems that Jesus places a much higher value on a life which trusts God day to day than one which stockpiles money just in case. He taught us to ask for “daily” bread (Matt 6:11) whereas my preference would be for God to provide at least a month’s supply at a time.

Even more shockingly, he often encouraged those with financial reserves to get rid of them. In Luke 12:33 he tells people to “sell your possessions” in order to give to the needy. In Mark 10:21, the rich young ruler was told to sell everything. We often interpret this as some kind of “test” to see whether he loved Jesus more than his money, or whether he understood that you can hold nothing back from God. But what if Jesus simply felt that everyone ought to be able to live trusting God day to day for provision, and saw no sense in this man having a lot of surplus that he wasn’t currently using?

Does all this mean that saving is wrong? I’m not prepared to go that far, but this has made me reconsider whether I should present it as a particularly godly virtue. Obviously, extravagant consumerism where you spend all your income on yourself as soon as you get it is no more godly than putting some of it in a savings account. Spenders look to money instead of God for happiness, and savers look to money instead of God for security. Both are forms of idolatry.

There is one form of saving that Jesus wholeheartedly approves of, and that is what he calls “storing up treasure in heaven”. How you do this appears to be living a life of radical generosity and obedience to God. It means that we will sometimes do things that appear to be financially foolish, but in God’s economy, are the best investment we can ever make.

Book Review – Jesus and Money (Ben Witherington III)

I have been following Ben Witherington III’s blog for some time, and although he is a prolific author, have not yet read any of his books. So when I noticed that were offering the Kindle edition of this book for free, I jumped at the chance.

The book is titled “Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis”. I don’t know if the publisher came up with this title, because in some ways it is misleading. The book itself covers more than just Jesus’ teaching on money – it actually surveys the entire Bible. And Witherington doesn’t particularly focus on the “financial crisis”, prefering to draw out Biblical teaching on money that is relevant whatever the state of your finances.

In his introduction, Witherington highlights the problem that Christian attitudes to money are rarely any different from the world’s. He is also eager to critique the prosperity gospel, which he believes is a severe distortion of the biblical message.

the self-justifying tendency of modern Christians to hoard wealth and live large have absolutely no basis whatsoever in the NT

The bulk of the book is then devoted to surveying the Biblical teaching on money and wealth. He organizes this into chapters on the OT in general, the Wisdom literature, Jesus’ teaching, James, Luke & Acts, Paul’s writings, and Revelation. It’s not an exhaustive study, but he picks out key representative passages from each portion of the Bible to discuss.

Along the way he is also keen to give instruction in hermeneutics (especially when dealing with Proverbs), and on historical background (especially on the economic situation in the time of Jesus). His chapters on James and Paul’s epistles read like commentaries in places as he goes into detail on some of the exegetical issues. Each chapter concludes with a “so what” section, that begins to explore what the teaching of that portion of the Bible means for us.

Amongst the key principles he touches on are the foundational concept that all things ultimately belong to God – our money is his even if we “earned” it. Tithing is not a New Testament command (he argues that those who insist on it should also refuse to lend money at interest). He is critical of the idea of saving up for a luxurious and idle “retirement”. The idea of “charity” too comes under criticism, since it forgets that Christians who are better off have an absolute obligation to help those who are less fortunate.

Jesus is all in favour of a person being rich – rich towards God that is, and generous towards one’s fellow human beings, especially the poor. What Jesus is not at all keen on is persons who are all about enhancing their own assets, portfolios, standards of living, or retirement accounts, which in one sense is what the rich fool envisioned.

He also raises the issue of reciprocity. Jesus explicitly taught that we should give with no though of return, an idea that seems almost nonsensical to our materialistic mindset. In his chapter on Revelation, he begins to explore the idea of “systemic economic evils”

Christians, like the culture around us, have become blind to the deadening effect of materialism.

Having surveyed the Bible’s teaching, Witherington devotes two chapters to some practical application. The first attempts to summarise a Biblical theology of money, stewardship and giving:

The Christian community must not allow any of its members to be in want.


Never once does Paul talk about a weekly collection for the local congregation. He just assumes that they know since they are brothers and sisters in Christ, they take care of their own.


If the purpose of making money now is so we can live in luxury and idleness later, it is not a biblical motivation

The second concluding chapter gives some practical suggestions on how to “deprogram ourselves from a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and self-gratification”. These incude:

  • Develop a good sense of the difference between necessities and luxuries
  • Make a commitment to ministerial projects that require a sacrifice
  • If making money is no longer an issue, devote the rest of your life to ministry projects
  • Evaluate your budget, especially discretionary spending funds
  • Decrease the amount of waste in your life (“go green as rapidly as possible”)
  • Stop hanging out with those who live in luxury
  • Stop assuming that therre are no problems with capitalism
  • Declare a jubilee year, forgiving a debt and lending money interest free
  • Tear up credit cards

As can be seen from that list, not all of his suggestions will meet with universal approval from Christians, but I found them refreshingly direct. There is no question in my mind that Jesus’ teaching on money is deeply counter-cultural both in his own day and in ours, so we should expect a biblical theology of money to throw up some ideas we find uncomfortable.

Witherington also includes two appendices. The first deals with 10 myths about money, which are mainly countering verses that have been misinterpreted. The second is Wesley’s famous sermon on money, which I had often heard quoted but never read. His famous maxim of “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can” makes more sense to me now I understand that the “save” part does not refer to savings accounts, but to reducing your expenditure.

Overall I would say this was a very helpful and provocative book (and great value for money given Amazon’s deal!). Some readers may get bogged down in places, but if you do, just skip to the “so what” section. The historical background material is very valuable for better understanding Jesus’ teaching. The book covers very similar ground to Craig Blomberg’s excellent book “Neither Poverty nor Riches“. Blomberg’s survey is perhaps more complete, but Witherington gives more space to exploring the implications. I found it very helpful to let myself be challenged afresh as to whether my thinking about money is shaped more by my culture than the Word of God.

Book Review – Neither Poverty Nor Riches (Craig Blomberg)

This book is part of the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series edited by Don Carson, and is subtitled “A biblical theology of possessions”. The format of the book is basically to survey the entire Bible for its teaching on money and possessions, and to draw out the principles it teaches.

The introduction contains a sobering array of statistics, highlighting the severe problem of poverty in the world, and the meagre contribution that many Christians and churches are making. He agrees with many of the ideas from Ronald Sider’s famous book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, and asserts that there is “a substantial disparity between the biblical mandates and contemporary Christian practise”.

Obviously the subject of possessions is discussed directly in numerous pages throughout the Bible, and indirectly in almost very part. Blomberg does a remarkable job of surveying the material concisely, while still finding the time along the way to discuss alternative interpretations of key passages, and very briefly suggesting practical applications.

In the two chapters on the Old Testament, Blomberg detects that riches can be both associated with those whom God has blessed for their righteousness (but their generosity is always underlined as well), and those who have obtained it by unrighteous means. In the law, there are a number of safeguards to prevent extremes of wealth and poverty from emerging. This idea that there are extremes of wealth and poverty that are intolerable, is one of Blomberg’s main theses. He doesn’t see the Bible as advocating asceticism, or even unrelenting simplicity, but that excess should be avoided, and ‘surplus’ should be honestly identified and shared.

There is a chapter on the intertestamental period, showing how a gap between rich and poor, which started under the Israelite monarchy, grew even further during this period. The New Testament is dealt with in four chapters, starting with the synoptics, which are broken down into parables and teachings. Blomberg deals with some of the more radical calls to giving possessions away, and advocates Sider’s idea of a “graduated tithe”, where more affluent Christians should endeavour to give considerably more than 10% into the work of the kingdom and also directly towards holistic mission to the poor.

James and Acts are surveyed in a chapter on “Early Christianity”. Blomberg rejects the liberation theology idea of “God’s preferential option for the poor”, while acknowledging that it is often the poor who are righteous and the rich who are not both in the Bible and in general experience. He does not endorse violent revolution, but for the church to be a prophetic voice and a counter-cultural community. He sees the sharing of property in Acts an example of having a “communal purse” which was replenished by occasional generous contributions and used for helping the poor.

In a chapter on the Pauline epistles, 2 Cor 8-9 is covered in some depth, and the “patron-client” system is seen as the background to much of Paul’s teaching, along with communal meals. He notes that during this period a broader socio-economic spectrum was found amongst church membership Blomberg argues that Paul’s understanding of possessions is much closer to Jesus and James than some people have claimed. A final chapter surveys the rest of the New Testament as well as noting Luke’s unique emphasis on the poor, a category that can include any outcasts, including the more materially prosperous tax collectors.

Every chapter has its own summary, which is always admirable for its conciseness, and there is a final chapter which presents summary and conclusions for the whole book, which is similarly succinct. Blomberg draws out five main principles, affirming that though possessions are good gifts, they can turn our hearts from God, and that we need to be transformed in our attitudes to money. Again he reiterates the idea that there are excesses of wealth and poverty that are unacceptable, and that our attitude to material possessions is inextricably linked with more ‘spiritual’ matters. He then gives an excellent but brief section on application, including some biographical information on how he has sought to implement these principles in his own life. He also shows concern that churches are not giving enough themselves, and encourages churches to rectify this situation and individuals to give directly to those organisations who combat poverty but also care for the spiritual well-being of those they serve.

In all this is an excellent survey of Bible teaching, and will prove very challenging to all who have the time to read it. The brief application notes will need further reflection by those who want to take action in their own lives, but this may be a strength of the book. The author cannot be accused of being a “guilt manipulator” (as Sider was), but rather has set the biblical evidence out clearly and let it speak for itself. Those who don’t have the time to read the whole book would do well to borrow a copy and just read the final chapter (and maybe the “Conclusion” section from each chapter).