15 Oct “Poverty & Riches”
The Bible uses the word ‘rich’ 154 times and specifically the word ‘riches’ 48 times. Simultaneously it talks about the ‘poor’ 176 times and about ‘poverty’ 21 times. The terms ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ have to be studied together to understand the Biblical teaching on the issue. While the churches’ significant teaching and attention is on ‘salvation’ (a word mentioned 114 times in the Bible) a proper study on poverty and riches are overlooked mostly. If we study the context clearly, about poverty and riches in the Scripture it will have a greater implication on our lives and challenge us to live radical lives. It will also lead the church to a meaningful dialogue on “Radical Discipleship.”
Is the Bible against the rich and riches?
To understand what the Bible teaches about ‘riches’ it’s imperative to study what the Bible says about rich people. In the New International Version (NIV), the word ‘rich’ is used 18 times in the gospels. In all these passages except in one, the rich have been looked at from a negative aspect. When the news of Jesus’ birth is told to Mary, she breaks out singing, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 53). Jesus Himself says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). We also read that Joseph from Arimathaea one of the disciples of Jesus Christ was a rich man (Matthew 27:57).
So, what does the Bible teach about riches? The Ten Commandments sanction private property implicitly and explicitly. Simon Peter the disciple of Jesus owned a house (Mark 1:29). Jesus’ commandment to his followers to give to the poor (Matthew 6:2-4) and asking them to lend money even when there was no reasonable hope of repayment (Matt 5:42; 6:34,35), shows that Jesus had accepted the legitimacy of having private property. Dr. Ronald Sider in his famous book ‘Rich Christians in an age of hunger’ gives reasons for Jesus’ harsh words on riches. “Riches are dangerous because their seductive power very frequently persuades us to reject Jesus and Kingdom.”
So, what is the way to live? Jesus is not alienating the rich nor denying ownership of property. What he teaches is not to cling to the possessions. Share your possessions with others generously and live without anxiety. Leviticus 25:23 gives us a good understanding on the possession of wealth. The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” God has given the wealth to care for and it is not for us only to enjoy but also to share with others (Deuteronomy 26: 10 -12).
He exhorts us to “Genuinely seek His kingdom.” “No one can serve two masters;. . . You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
The world is distorted because of the effect of Adam’s fall and poverty is one of the results. Like the Pharisees during Jesus’ time, some of us infer from Deuteronomy 28 that people live in poverty because of their disobedience to the Lord. This perspective is different from what the Lord holds. In the books from Exodus to Deuteronomy, one can see that the Lord recognizes that structural injustice will lead to poverty and so He makes provisions to care for the poor. Observing Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25) is one such law, which seeks to maintain economic balance in Society.
God’s response to poverty
The Lord recognizes that the poor will be subjected to injustice and they will face hardships. So, He gave laws to protect them with minute details. “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22: 26). When Israel did not follow this instruction, the Lord brought that as an accusation to send Israel into captivity (Amos 2: 8). “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19: 9, 10). The issue is not the right of ownership but the expression of God’s concern and care for the poor. This provision which was made available to the poor, actually helped Ruth to survive in whose lineage Jesus was born.
Jesus and the poor
One of the reasons for the coming of Jesus into this world is to do justice to the poor as expressed in Malachi. The people wearied the Lord by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2: 17). The answer is given in the following verse where the Lord says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). That Jesus who came to do justice deliberately chose himself to be born in a poor family and identified himself with the poor people. In Matthew 9: 10, 11 we see Jesus dining with the sinners. Who are the sinners? In those days, Pharisees identified the sick and the poor as sinners. The reason for this classification was their interpretation of Deuteronomy 28 as mentioned earlier – they have disobeyed the law and so the Lord has brought affliction in them. But Jesus recognized that the poor had become poor because of exploitation and so He wanted to bestow them with dignity and He ate with them.
He gave them a higher status by calling the poor as blessed people and that they will inherit the Kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). Some interpret this verse to say that the poor mentioned here are the poor in spirit and not economically poor. But it is not right. Luke 6: 20 and 24 are parallel verses. It gives proper meaning only when we interpret the poor as economically poor people. Otherwise, verse 24 becomes meaningless. Who could be the rich to whom Jesus said “Woe to you”? This can be correlated with James’ teaching, ”… has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2: 5).
He even acknowledges that he was anointed to preach the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). One of the indicators he gives to John’s disciples to prove his identity, as Messiah is that good news is preached to the poor (Matthew 11: 4, 5). So, we can say that Jesus had a special concern for the poor.
Application for us
As mentioned earlier, the Bible is not against riches, but on how we use our riches. The emphasis given by James, Peter, and John the pillars of the church to Paul “Remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) is exactly the teaching required for the church today. We have to care for the poor.
We work and earn money to meet our personal and family needs. But Paul teaching the church in Ephesus says that we should earn “… so that we may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4: 28).
Sometimes we console ourselves that we do not belong to the rich list, which the Lord is talking about, and we position ourselves as middle class. If you visit www.globalrichlist.com, you would recognize that if we earn Rs. 1,20,000 a year, then we are among the top 19.79% of the rich people in the world, and if Rs. 50,000 a month, then among the top 0.86%. Where are you in the graph?
Jesus says in Matthew 25: 31 – 45, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers of mine, you did to me”. So let’s open our hearts to have a giving attitude, open our purse or use the credit cards to give generously to the poor so that we do not have to hear Jesus tell us, “You did not do it for me” (Matthew 25:45).
Rev. Kennedy Dhanabalan is a Pastor Living Faith Cornerstone Church. He is also the Executive Director of EFICOR. He lives with his family in New Delhi