Posted in Christlike justice, reflections

The dual dangers of wealth and poverty

ShillingThe Bible cares about economics. A  search for words like “rich,” “poor” or “money” yields dozens of verses. Why is it, then, that pulpits so rarely sound off on this important theme?

Many know the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11, NIV). Yet Jesus was merely echoing a saying from Augur in Jewish wisdom literature:

Keep lies far away from me. Don’t make me either rich or poor, but give me only the bread I need each day (Proverbs 30:8, NIRV).

The church today is faced with dual dangers, that of too much emphasis upon riches or a too-easy surrender to poverty. Let’s take a look at both.

The danger of wealth

A Seminary professor asked his students to think about a time when they had to depend upon God. One student observed: “We don’t need God. We have savings accounts.”

The Bible has nothing against saving. Joseph, after all, saved the world from famine by maintaining a food bank (Genesis 41:46-49). Likewise, Proverbs 6:6 extols the industriousness of the ant and encourages us to be busy in the same way. Yet Jesus recognized the subtle danger of putting our trust in our riches rather than in God, of being a rich fool who is materially well-to-do but spiritually destitute (Luke 12:16-21). He cautioned that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25).

Proverbs 30:9a (NLT) underscores the danger of riches:

For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say ‘Who is the LORD? (NLT).

Seneca once observed: “It is not the man who has too little, but the one who craves more, that is poor.” This reflects the teaching of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:8, advising us to be content with food and clothing. It is eagerness for money that leads us away from faith (6:10).

The danger of poverty

Yet if riches present one spiritual danger, poverty is another. Augur’s saying concludes with the adviso:

And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name (Proverbs 30:9b, NLT).

For those who have grown up comfortably middle class, it is difficult to appreciate the spiritual danger that poverty presents. When David says that he has never seen the children of the righteous begging bread (Psalm 37:25), I conclude that David lived a sheltered life. As a missionary who has lived in four African nations, I’ve seen my share of poverty, and it is no respecter of persons. There are many God-fearing people who struggle to make ends meet, despite working from dawn to dusk.

A coziness with poverty, unfortunately, is deterring African youth from vocational Christian ministry. Young people who otherwise would answer God’s call to full-time service in the church resist because they have seen the grinding poverty of pastoral families. This condition is worsened by a “poverty gospel,” the church’s mistaken notion that a poor pastor is a more spiritual pastor. Disobedience in the giving of tithes and offerings is thus rationalized.

Some justify the church’s neglect of poor people by citing Jesus’ observation: “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7a). Yet this citation ignores other teachings of Jesus, most notably the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The parable is misused when we mine it for truth about the afterlife. Rather, it is a cautionary tale about the haves neglecting the have-nots. Jesus calls us to alleviate the conditions of the poor, not to close a blind eye.

God’s solution: mutual assistance

The solution to poverty appears in Acts 2:44-45. Long before the principle of “pay it forward” became popular through the 2000 Haley Joel Osment film, the first Christians in Jerusalem put it into practice. The concept is simply: Today, I have a need and you help me. Tomorrow, a third person has a need, and I will help her. Poverty does not honor God; generosity is the remedy. Such generosity is needed not only in our private lives but also in our public policy. God’s solution is neither dependence nor independence. Rather, the Gospel calls us to interdependence both spiritually and materially.

Summing it all up

The wise man, Augur, traces a middle-way between the danger of riches on the one hand and poverty on the other. Both riches and poverty can be a stumbling block spiritually. Let us beware false teachings that result in one error or the other. Instead, may we foster an interdependence that honors God.

Image credit: Kellie White 




Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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