“How do wealthy Christians justify their wealth, despite Jesus explicitly condemning it?” That’s the question one Reddit user posted a couple of years ago. Today, on the 177th birthday of oil tycoon and professing Christian John D. Rockefeller, that query warrants further consideration.
Rockefeller once controlled 90 percent of America’s oil production, and his net wealth totaled about $30 billion in today’s terms. His financial empire encompassed “1.5% of America’s total economic output,” Carl O’Donnell wrote for Forbes Magazine in July 2014.
“To control an equivalent share today would require a net worth of about $340 billion dollars, more than four times that of Bill Gates, currently the world’s richest man,” O’Donnell elaborated.
That mind-blowing amount of wealth borders on incomprehensible. So if being rich is anti-Christian, then Rockefeller must have been among the most un-Christian individuals in history.
Indeed, casually perusing the Gospels could leave readers with the impression that rich people are almost universally sinful. Parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) tell the story of ancient magnates whom God brought to ruin. Strong statements from Jesus to expectant crowds seemingly reinforce these sentiments: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24, ESV).
Jesus told a rich young ruler to “sell what you possess and give to the poor” in order to obtain salvation. He then unforgettably remarked to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23, ESV)
His disciples immediately responded with bafflement, wondering how anyone could be saved. But Jesus put their doubts to rest. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” he answered. In other words, God can miraculously save wealthy people from bondage to sin just like anyone else.
Turn a few pages further in the New Testament, and readers can easily fall into another trap: thinking that wealth itself is evil. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils,” the Apostle Paul famously wrote (1 Timothy 6:10a, ESV). However, those who quote this verse often leave out its second half: “It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Clearly Paul was focusing on the distorted “love” of money and an inappropriate “craving” for wealth.
Reading the texts more closely, it becomes evident that neither Jesus nor Paul condemn wealth. Reflecting upon the Scriptures as a whole reveals that God is far from being anti-money. Examples of Godly people like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, and Solomon show that God blessed some of His best known followers with great wealth. Through His Providence, He actually multiplied their riches.
“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life,” Solomon wrote (Proverbs 20:4, ESV).
Taken in the context of Scripture as a whole, wealth is a blessing from God. The trouble occurs when people allow their love of money to displace their affection for God. Jesus proclaimed that no one can “serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, ESV)
But Christians have a unique opportunity. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they can maintain a healthy perspective on money by loving God first and foremost, and by using their wealth for the glory of God.
Now here is where Rockefeller’s example becomes useful. He demonstrated both of these characteristics beautifully.
First, Rockefeller derived his contentment from loving and serving God, not his money. “There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ,” he once said. Historian Burton Folsom, a professor at Hillsdale College, explained how Rockefeller prioritized his faith and his local church:
Rockefeller always said that the best things he had done in life were to make Jesus his [Savior] and to make Laura Spelman his wife. He prayed daily the first thing in the morning and went to church for prayer meetings with his family at least twice a week. He often said he felt most at home in church and in regular need of ‘spiritual food’; he and his wife also taught Bible classes and had ministers and evangelists regularly in their home.
Second, Rockefeller used his money for good. He broke the philanthropic record at the time, giving away $540 million, according to Philanthropy Roundtable, not even adjusted for inflation. That’s still a large sum by today’s standards, even in unadjusted terms.
Of course, Rockefeller tithed and gave to religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals and orphanages. But his philanthropy also benefited many humanitarian causes. Philanthropy Roundtable said that Rockefeller helped found more than 800 high schools in the American South, deliver aid to war-torn Europe after World War I, fund archaeology in Athens, and rescue more than 300 hundred scientists from Nazi Germany.
Rockefeller saw funding all of this work as part of his personal mission from God. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, expressed as much during a documentary about the Rockefeller family by PBS’s American Experience.
“He honestly believed that he had a calling to make money, and that it was a gift that had been bestowed upon him by God,” Fitzpatrick said. “Just as some people could sing opera, and other people could paint beautifully, he had a particular aptitude for acquiring wealth. And he considered it a God-given gift.”
Rockefeller’s life and philosophy would probably astound that Reddit user who questioned how Christians could “justify” their riches. So too would the realization that Christ never explicitly condemned wealth. In fact, if history and sound biblical reasoning teach us anything, it’s that God blesses His followers, always spiritually and often materially. Why? Because He intends for Christians to go out and share these gifts with others, and so fulfill the law by loving both God and neighbor.