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Part 1 in a series on Poverty & the Church

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Dr. Glenn Sunshine to the IFWE blog. Dr. Sunshine is a friend of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and recently participated in our April 2012 Colloquium on Faith, Work & Economic Freedom. He has written a strong series on poverty in which he articulates a Biblical worldview on the rich and the poor, and the role of government and the Church in alleviating poverty. We’ll be running his article series on our blog over the next two weeks. We are grateful to Prison Fellowship (www.breakpoint.org) in granting us permission to reprint the article series. We pray that his insights are helpful to you.

On the side of the poor?

On the side of the poor?

Any honest reading of the Bible demonstrates that God cares about the poor and about how they are treated. It is also clear that Scripture warns of the dangers of wealth and has harsh things to say about the rich.

To pick just a few examples from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort;” “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20, 24; 18:22, 25).

Jesus even tells us that in the end, we will be judged on how we treat those who are poor and powerless (Matt. 26:31-46).

Should we conclude from this that God is on the side of the poor and opposes the rich? This is a tempting conclusion and one that is endorsed by some very prominent people in the Church, but is it supported by a careful reading of Scripture?

Causes of poverty

While it is certainly true that poverty can be the result of injustice or oppression, it is not always. Proverbs, for example, is full of advice about the importance of diligence in our work, and warns that laziness leads to poverty.

The Bible also warns about the danger of some temptations that are particularly important for the poor. The most obvious of these is theft to get food. This can be extended very easily to other types of criminal behavior motivated by the need or desire for money, including gang related activities, drug dealing, etc.

This in turn points to the reality of 1 Tim. 6:9-10: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

The root of evil

These verses are frequently associated with those who are already rich, but that is not the group being addressed. It is those who desire wealth, and specifically those who are not yet rich, that are being cautioned here. This is an important reminder that greed and worship of money is not a vice peculiar to the rich. In fact, the people I know who are most obsessed with money are not the wealthy but those who have to struggle to get by.

Envy of the rich is another sin that Scripture warns against (e.g. Ps. 73). This ties in directly to the tenth commandment against coveting your neighbor’s possessions. The classical definition of envy is the desire to tear down anyone who is ahead of you, to take away what is theirs because they have more than you. Whether you cloak this in the language of “fairness” or “income redistribution,” envy and covetousness remain sins.

The point is that poverty is not intrinsically virtuous, and that there are some sins to which the poor are particularly susceptible.

Blessed are the poor – and the rich

So why are the poor described as blessed? The issue isn’t poverty per se, but rather the attitude of humility and reliance on God that it can produce in us, which is why Matthew’s version of the beatitude isn’t just “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Reliance on personal wealth or government help (Ps. 146, esp. vs. 3-4, 7-10) for security is foolish, because they do not last. Rather, we need to place our hope in God alone.

What about the rich? Although Scripture has some very harsh things to say about the wealthy, this does not mean that all of them are evil or under divine judgment. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were rich and yet were also approved by God. Just as poverty doesn’t guarantee virtue, wealth does not guarantee vice.

Scripture also tells us that God gives us the power to make wealth, and that he delights in the prosperity of his servants (Ps. 35:27)—which includes material prosperity (Deut. 28:11-13). So it is clear that wealth is not necessarily evil.

Why, then, the condemnations of the rich in Scripture?

God’s real concern

The issue isn’t really wealth or poverty. Lev. 19:15 tells us “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” God’s concern is for righteousness and justice, but notice that justice does not mean being partial to the poor, contrary to what many social justice advocates argue. Justice means judging fairly according to the Law and on the basis of truth without regard to social class.

And this is precisely why the rich are so often condemned in Scripture. In a fallen world, the rich and powerful have historically taken advantage of their position to increase their privileges at the expense of the poor and weak—the widows, orphans and foreigners that are under special protection in the Law because of their vulnerability.

A careful reading of the texts attacking the rich demonstrates that the condemnations are almost inevitably connected to one of two things: first, either how they made their wealth, for example by defrauding their workers of their pay (e.g. James 5:4), denying justice to the poor (e.g. Amos 2:6-7), or taking the property of the powerless (e.g. Matt. 23:14); or second, how they use their wealth, for example by giving themselves over to luxurious living and ignoring the needs of the poor (e.g. Amos 6:1-7, Luke 16:19-31, James 5:5).

To put it differently, the rich are not always oppressors, but oppressors are almost always rich. And that is why they incur the condemnations they do in Scripture.

The rich can also fall into other traps, particularly by relying on wealth for their security rather than on God (e.g. Ps. 52:7), which in turn leads very easily to presumption, as if they were in control of their destiny rather than God (Luke 12:16-21). This is exactly the opposite attitude of the poor in spirit, whom Jesus blesses. And, of course, the rich can be just as greedy and enslaved to money as anyone else.

Money doesn’t create these problems. Rather, it reveals what’s inside us and magnifies our character for good or for ill. And for too many in our fallen world, it’s for ill.

To whom much is given, much is required. God expects those He enables to make wealth to use it appropriately and in particular to share with those in need. At the same time, however, Scripture also gives important instructions on how we should discharge our responsibilities to the poor. We will examine those in the next article.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, www.breakpoint.org.

Dr. Glenn Sunshine

About Dr. Glenn Sunshine

Dr. Glenn Sunshine is Professor of History and Department Chair at Central Connecticut State University, a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute, and a faculty member for the Centurions Program. Dr. Sunshine holds a B.A. in Linguistics from Michigan State University, an M.A. in Church History from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance-Reformation History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Why You Think the Way You Do. He and his wife, Lynn, have two children.

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  • Mo86

    This article is so desperately needed today! I come from a wonderful church. But I have lately noticed the creeping toward socialist ideas of redistribution of wealth, along with a subtle putting down of the rich just because they’re rich and elevation of the poor – even those who have become poor by their own life choices. It’s very disturbing.

    What is most disturbing to me is that this is not a difficult or complex issue to understand. A simple, straightforward reading of Scripture makes everything you’ve said here crystal clear.

  • Gary

    One Bible verse that used to always puzzle me was when Christ chastized his followers
    for condemning the use of expensive perfume “wasted” on Him by an adoring woman.
    They said it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus replied that
    we would always have the poor with us, and leave her alone, as she was doing a wonderful act of worship of Him. This just shows life’s priorities and teaches us to put ALL things, no matter how good they me be, after the worship of and/or service to the Lord.

  • http://www.facebook.com/glenn.sunshine Glenn Sunshine

    While there may be Republicans that have the attitude toward the poor that you describe, I have heard that mostly from people attacking Republicans and claiming they say those things, not from Republicans themselves. This makes me think it’s a straw man caricature, a projection of what liberals think conservatives believe. I know it’s a caricature of the majority view among supporters of the free market. All you need to know about this is found in statistics on charitable giving: conservatives give far more than liberals. If they don’t care for the poor, why do they do that? Actions speak louder than words, and this demonstrates that conservatives do in fact care for the poor and are willing to get personally involved more than liberals do.

    The issue isn’t who is for the poor; the issue is what is the most effective means for dealing with poverty. To put it simply, the question is whether government efforts actually work effectively to raise people out of poverty. I would argue that there is little evidence that they do and ample evidence that they inadvertently can cause great harm, some of which I discuss in a later blog post. So who cares more for the poor, those who support systems that lock them in poverty, or those who advocate other approaches that are designed not to keep them poor but to lift them into the ranks of the middle class? Those who believe government should do all the charitable work or those who give money to charities themselves? While both sides may be well intentioned, I would argue that the free market approach is far more effective than the alternatives both at alleviating poverty and affirming human dignity.