James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the following in an open letter to the early church: “…Weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you…[Your sin] will be a witness against you and will consumer your flesh like fire.” Was he referring to a) homosexuality, b) abortion, or c) excessive wealth?
The answer is c.
When the Prophet Ezekiel describes why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, does he cite the cities’ a) sexual promiscuity, b) abortion record, or c) excessive wealth/neglect of the poor?
The answer, again, is c. In Ezekiel 16:49, the prophet quotes God as saying:
“Behold, THIS was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it.” (emphasis mine)
You don't usuallly get that version in Sunday school.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul urged his young protégé to “flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness…” Was Paul warning against a) homosexuality, b) pornography, or c) wealth?
The answer is c. Paul writes, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare, and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness…” (I Timothy 6:9-11)
I highlighted the passages above to show how the Bible consistently employs strong language to describe the potential dangers of wealth, and to condemn the neglect of the poor. The “fire and brimstone” tones so often used by evangelicals to judge homosexuality or abortion are actually more commonly used in the Bible to judge excessive wealth and injustice toward the needy…sins that perhaps hit a little too close to home.
Today I’d like to begin a two-part series on wealth. This is a tricky subject because, (relatively speaking), most of us in America are indeed rich. The first post will focus on the bigger picture – the wealth of our nation. The next post will look at the more personal and the practical aspects of the issue, asking how can we live more simply? how much wealth is too much wealth? what are our personal responsibilities to the poor?
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been warned of God’s impending judgment on America in response to gay marriage and abortion. Attend just about any church event billed as “a time of prayer and fasting for our nation” and the focus will be on these hot-button issues. However, a more serious look at Scripture reveals that the most consistent criteria regarding God’s judgment of nations is how those nations treat the poor.
[Here I must cite Ronald Sider’s groundbreaking book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” which absolutely changed how I thought about myself, materialism, the poor, and the world. I use it often as a reference, and cannot recommend it enough.]
For example, the prophet Amos tried desperately to warn that the northern kingdom of Israel would be destroyed. Why was God going to allow this to happen? Writes Amos, “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall…Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (Amos 6:4, 7) In Israel, Amos described a kingdom in which the rich “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.” (Amos 2:7)
Isaiah too warned that destruction would befall Judah because of its mistreatment of the poor: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees…to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?” (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Jeremiah also condemned the wealthy who had amassed riches at the expense of the poor. He writes, “They have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. ‘Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord, ‘and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?’” (Jeremiah 5:26-29)
You don’t hear a lot of pastors preaching against growing “fat and sleek” while our neighbors go hungry. And you certainly don’t hear a lot of conservative evangelicals defending the “rights” of the needy. [If I had a dime for every time a member of the religious right has passionately informed me that I’m a socialist for thinking healthcare is a right, I could afford a plane ticket to Denver this week]]
Now, I have a general aversion to slapping down a bunch of verses and using them to make a point, but I really see care for the poor, on a national level, as an important and prevalent theme throughout the Bible. Even at the ultimate judgment, Jesus makes the standard for judging the nations quite clear:
“I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
And what fate befalls those nations who do differently?
More fire and brimstone – “Depart from Me accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
So I guess the question is, how does America stack up? No one would dispute that we are a wealthy nation. But how do we treat the needy among us? And how do we respond to the incredible poverty around the world?
When I think about our justice system, which favors the rich, I wonder. When I think about the millions of Americans who cannot afford basic healthcare while insurance and drug companies announce record profits, I worry. When I remember the heartbreaking footage from Hurricane Katrina, or think about the awful situations in so many inner cities and in rural areas across the country, I question whether or not our nation’s wealth is really a “blessing from God,” as so many people claim.
I’m concerned about raising children in a society so obsessed with materialism that a three-bedroom, 2-bath home is considered modest, and where you can’t turn on the TV or drive down the road or get on the computer without being bombarded with advertisements.
And then there’s the rest of the world. With today’s technology and continued advances in communication, we know good and well that kids are dying every day from lack of nutrition…and yet our grocery stores are busting at the seams with cereal options. Our clothes are often made by exploited laborers. Our trade restrictions cost developing nations more than the aid that we send them. Our sanctions against rogue nations keep food out of children’s mouths. Are we accountable for those actions?
At the same time, the U.S. is known as a generous nation. Bush committed $15 billion to help combat the AIDS crisis. America is often the first to send help in the wake of a disaster, and commits more to international aid than any other country.
I’m not sure how literally to take Jesus’ description of His judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, but I often wonder if the U.S. would be a sheep or a goat.
(Remember, we’ll talk about our personal spending habits later. This post is about the national wealth and care for the poor.