There is an intriguing gospel story that, prima facie, suggests that Christianity is incompatible with earthly riches:
Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler
16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good[a] Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good?[b] No one is good but One, that is, God.[c] But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”
Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’[d] and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”[e]
20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth.[f] What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
(Matthew 19: 16-22)
Now I had always thought that Jesus was tailoring His commands to this specific guy because Jesus knew that the man would not be willing to give up his material wealth. In other words, I had thought (and possibly I heard some conservative preacher even say this, I don’t remember) that the important thing is that a Christian would be willing to give up everything. I didn’t think Christians were supposed to read this passage and conclude, “Yikes, if I really want to go the extra mile, I need to sell all my stuff and go into ministry.”
The other day, I re-read another familiar story–that of the man possessed by a “legion” of demons. After Jesus casts the demons out into a herd of pigs, look what happens:
14 So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. 15 Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 16 And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. 17 Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.
18 And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. 19 However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” 20 And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled. (Mark 5: 14-20)
Look at the part I put in bold. At that point, that guy has been given his life back, and he is ready to leave his family behind–without even saying goodbye!–to hop in the boat and follow Jesus. He actually begged Jesus to allow him to travel with Him. Yet Jesus said no, and told the guy to go back to his friends.
By no means would I dare to suggest that I understand all of the nuances in the various interactions Jesus had with people, but I think these two stories juxtaposed show that we shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions from any single one. Jesus clearly did not want everyone who heard His voice to break off all existing social ties and physically follow Him around. Thus, the story of the demon-possessed man reassures me that Jesus gave those specific orders to the rich man, because Jesus wanted to reveal what that man valued most.
P.S. It detracts from the main message, but I also note that there is something odd/suspicious that when Jesus tells the guy to keep the commandments, his response is, “Which ones?”