Many of our political debates center on the topic of wealth and poverty. Who is wealthy, and who is poor? Who are the haves, and who are the have nots?
If we want to engage these issues from a Christian perspective, we need to understand what wealth and poverty are — and what Scripture teaches about them.
How do we define wealth and poverty?
Wealth and poverty are the concepts we use to measure the presence or absence of material goods. I talk in greater depth about wealth and poverty in Every Good Thing. But as we’ll see, defining “wealth” and “poverty” might not be as easy as we might think.
What is wealth? What is poverty? How do we determine if we are rich or poor? Although these may seem like easy questions, the more thought we give to them, the harder they are to answer in an objective manner. Material wealth and poverty are typically determined within a certain context, relative to our immediate or cultural proximity and era. We’re not saying that everyone gets to make up their own definitions of wealth and poverty; rather, we’re saying that how we measure wealth and poverty is affected by when and where we live.
For example, by almost every conceivable material measurement, the average person living at the government-defined poverty level in the United States in the 21st century has a better (that is, more wealthy) life than the vast majority of individuals who lived in the first century. This is not because there are more or fewer wealthy or poor people living in either time period; it’s because we’re comparing different eras. So, while a dictionary may define wealth as the presence of material abundance and affluence and poverty as having few or no material possessions, it’s important to understand that these concepts are, necessarily, relative measurements.
What does the Bible teach about wealth and poverty?
Of course, given a choice, most people would choose wealth over poverty, regardless of how the status is measured. I know I would. Yet it’s interesting to note that the Bible describes each of these conditions as both a blessing and a curse. Let’s consider wealth first. Moses taught Israel,
Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth. (Deuteronomy 8:18)
If God enables us to attain wealth, it must be a blessing. Scripture is full of examples of godly rich people — such as the patriarchs, Job, David, Solomon and Joseph of Arimathea, among others. Since God is the source of wealth, and given the examples in Scripture of rich individuals who love God, it would seem honorable to desire wealth, if not to view wealth as a mark of godliness.
Yet the Bible’s teachings on wealth are not always quite so positive. For instance, in an often-cited verse, Jesus said,
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 19:24)
Similarly, in the parable of the Sower, Christ taught that the cares of this world, including wealth, will prevent some people from entering heaven (see Matthew 13:7, 22). The Bible offers many examples of the ungodly rich: the apostate kings of Israel and Judah; Nabal; and several wealthy individuals who appear in Jesus’ ministry, including the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-26) and the rich man in the Lazarus parable (Luke 16:19-31) — both of whom chose wealth over a right relationship with God. Perhaps having wealth, then, is not as desirable as we first thought.
Poverty is an equally difficult concept to pin down in Scripture. While few modern Christians in Western culture would volunteer for a life of poverty, this is apparently exactly what Jesus’ disciples did, as they willingly “left everything and followed [Jesus]” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus also taught,
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
We might be tempted to think Jesus is speaking only of spiritual poverty here, as Matthew records Jesus’ similar teaching on a different occasion about “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). However, in light of Luke’s parallel woe (see Luke 6:24), Jesus is clearly teaching about the materially poor in Luke 6:20 — again saying they are blessed. Of course, there are biblical examples of godly poor people throughout the Bible, including Jesus himself (who had no place to lay his head), Lazarus the beggar (who died and went to heaven) and the apostles (who, we just noted, left everything to follow Jesus).
However, poverty is not always — or even usually — presented as a blessing or a mark of spiritual maturity in Scripture. For example, the proverbs repeatedly warn about and teach that poverty can be the result of personal sin. To cite a few passages, Proverbs 23:21 warns,
The drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.
And Proverbs 28:19 teaches,
Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
Furthermore, God often identifies poverty as accompanying judgment (see Deuteronomy 28:30-42; Jeremiah 5:17-19; Micah 6:13-16). So, then, poverty may not always be a preferential option for Christians.
We cannot identify either status as being inherently favorable or unfavorable in Scripture. Discussions about wealth and poverty that begin with the assumption that either is always evil (or a blessing) will inevitably come to wrong conclusions. In Every Good Thing, I explain that the Bible has more to say about how we arrive at and handle our material status than it does about the inherent morality of wealth or poverty.
We have only to remember: Paul taught that it is the love of money, not money itself, that is evil (see 1 Timothy 6:10). Similarly, Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty seem to focus more on what’s in our heart than what’s in our hands.