There seems to be, in my humble experience, a certain kind of attitude toward God that is pervading American Christianity (both Catholics and Protestants). One of my undergrad professors mentioned to me that while in Italy a few years ago, he saw an Italian magazine article about American Christianity that really disturbed him. The cover photo was a man in sunglasses, a tropical shirt, and shorts, sipping a drink while lying on a poolside lounger; behind him was not only a pool, but also a gigantic mansion. This image in and of itself was not what my professor found disturbing. Rather, it was the caption, which read, “What can Jesus do for YOU?”
It is apparent that Christians who think that God works like a vending machine have not read the New Testament, or have done so only selectively.
Let’s visit one example of Jesus’ discourse with His disciples on earthly wealth. This takes place in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19.
A wealthy young man approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus reminded him that first of all, only God is truly good – and then reminded this young man of the 10 Commandments. This young man told Jesus that he had faithfully followed the Commandments his entire life. So far so good. But then there’s an issue:
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Now, maybe it’s just me… but I don’t think Jesus was telling this young man that he was going to get even more wealth on earth once he started following Jesus. And here’s the most telling part – this young man had such a great desire to do good, but when it came down to choosing between God and wealth, he found that he loved wealth too much to follow Christ. The Italian magazine article’s “What can Jesus do for YOU?” was implying that God works like an earthly vending machine, rather than an eternal investor; our treasure is up in heaven, where Love, Wisdom, and Life Itself resides.
But Jesus wasn’t finished when this young man left to contemplate his choice. He wanted to make His point absolutely clear to His disciples:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Interesting. Rather than promising riches to those who follow Him, Christ here is warning about something important. But is it against having any earthly wealth at all? I have heard some argue against this passage fervently because they don’t believe that God would ask everyone to give up everything they own and essentially be homeless. And I would agree with them, that that is not a correct interpretation. After all, the majority of the disciples were fishermen who probably struggled to make ends meet. They’re not rich by any means; why are they astonished that it’s difficult for the rich to get to heaven?
Here’s the answer: they had been taught that God works like an earthly vending machine. Cash in your holiness and your good works, and BOOM! You’re blessed with wealth.
But what is Jesus actually saying here? He isn’t saying that everyone should live in absolute poverty. He actually isn’t saying here that earthly wealth is evil at all. Rather, He is warning about love of money, which is why His disciples are so shocked and wonder if there’s hope for anyone at all. Like the young man, who had so many possessions that he could not part with, we all have attachments to wealth and possessions in some way that makes our pursuit of God really, really difficult – and for some people, they outright choose those things instead of Him. How many of us want a giant house, an expensive car? How many of us love to go clothes and shoe shopping? How many of us spend so much of our time pursuing a “stable” job but only pray during crisis? Our attachments are what make our spiritual journey difficult.
If you’re still not convinced that Jesus condemned the idea of God as a vending machine, here is another example, from the Gospel of John, chapter 9 (it also appears in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11):
“And as he was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents, but the works of God were to be made manifest in him.'”
Whoa. Hold up. So not only are you not guaranteed earthly wealth if you do good, but perfectly innocent people might have bad things happen to them just because? Karma is not a thing? WHUT?
Surprise: God works in mysterious ways. The disciples had been taught, by the Pharisees and other mistaken rabbis, that if you do good works you receive good things on earth. But our reward, as Jesus repeatedly says (because, just like us, sometimes the disciples were a little bit… thick-headed), is heaven and not necessarily on earth. This blind man did nothing to deserve being blind and having to beg for his entire life – but he had a special role to play in God’s plan for saving souls. Jesus heals him immediately after the quoted passage. And we hear about it because it is important.
God does not work like an earthly vending machine; He works like an eternal investor.
In light of the message of the Gospel, how are we supposed to live our lives? We need jobs in order to survive in our capitalist society, to provide for our families, etc. So how can we go about living Jesus’ Way practically? Thankfully, He answers this for us as well.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be given to you besides. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow; for tomorrow will have anxieties of its own. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:34
Oh. So we’re supposed to seek the Lord – not just for ourselves – and everything else will work out. We just have to trust him. Sounds easy, right? But we are all attached to things and people in this world that make it difficult for us to seek God. So some introspection is definitely called for.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
That should sound slightly familiar as well. We’re supposed to depend on God to give us our “daily bread,” which does not necessarily mean a hefty life savings. The Lord’s Prayer is a substantial road map for the spiritual life, which I would love to write in depth about in another post. But for now, we’re focusing on wealth. How can we get to heaven if we do have wealth? It isn’t easy, but as Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, with God it is possible. We can have wealth and still get to heaven – if we use that wealth in order to glorify Him and help to bring about His kingdom.
We can invest our wealth in our children’s education. We can donate our wealth to charities. We can use our wealth to adopt children who need homes. We can give more of our wealth to the Church. There are so many good things that can be accomplished if we both love God and are not attached to money. There is hope for us.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His Righteousness, and you have just joined God as an eternal investor. God bless.