As I write this, I’m sitting in the cluttered office of my three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, typing away on a nice laptop and enjoying a high-speed Internet connection that I claim I could not live without. Having just gotten home from church, I’m wearing a dressy navy-blue outfit, which I’m convinced would look better with a matching pair of navy-blue shoes. My house is equipped with running water, central heat and air, and Satellite TV. We’ve got more than enough food stuffed in the pantry. In fact, I could stand to lose five or six pounds.
Yet, in my mind’s eye I can travel back to India, where I visited a young mother in her home. The woman, her husband, and three children lived in a one-room house with cement walls. In one corner sat a little stove and some cooking supplies; in the other, a TV for watching cricket. The woman offered me her very best chai and special crackers. Her eyes filled with joy when she saw that I liked what she had offered. She and her family could live for more than a year on what I make in a month.
The global community in which we live sure makes it hard to remain blissfully ignorant about wealth and poverty. More than 39,000 children die every day from preventable diseases. The UN estimates there are around 34 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Food shortages and droughts result in millions of deaths each year.
And yet, in America, most folks own at least two cars and spend a good deal of time worrying about getting fat.
For years, I have wrestled with difficult questions concerning God’s goodness (even His existence), as I observe the incredible suffering around the world and the continued prosperity of the Church in America. Why would God intervene and “bless us” with scholarships and raises and home loans and new church buildings, while allowing little children to suffer the long and painful death that accompanies starvation? Are these people considered our neighbors? If so, are we not obligated to provide for their needs before we indulge our desires?
The focus of yesterday’s post was our nation’s wealth. Today we focus on personal wealth.
I suppose the question for me is this: As long as we are aware of the poverty of others, is it a sin for us to be rich?
This is a subject rarely preached about on Sunday mornings. It seems that the evangelical preoccupation with sexual sins leaves little time for confronting the sin of greed. (How many of you have been a part of a church that “disciplined” a member for hoarding his wealth or mistreating employees? And how often does “care for the poor” register as an important political issue among evangelical voters?) In fact, more often than not, evangelicals seem to regard material wealth as a blessing from God. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has told me that God provided him with a new car or a large sum of money as a sort of “thank-you” gift for continued faithfulness.
And yet, considering what the Bible has to say on the subject, I think it’s safe to conclude that wealth is – at best – a mixed bag. Perhaps not inherently evil, it is indeed a great temptation.
For example, Psalm 112 says, “Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments…Wealth and riches are in their houses…they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice…They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.”
Clearly, wealth can be a blessing if it is used to benefit the poor.
And yet Jesus makes it abundantly clear that wealth can also be a curse.
Matthew records Jesus as saying, in no uncertain terms, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God..With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
So why do we not regard wealth with more trepidation? It seems to me that if wealth can be such a significant stumbling block on the path to salvation, we ought to urgently warn against its possible dangers, perhaps in the same way we warn against the dangers of pornography or lust. Growing up, I must have been told a million times that I must be careful of putting myself in “compromising situations” with boys. (You know, “don’t spend too much time alone”; “don’t stay overnight,” etc.) Yet, I was never warned of avoiding compromising situations regarding wealth. Making a lot of money was always regarded as a positive thing.
In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes so far as to say “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for your shall be satisfied….But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.”
If I learned anything during my trip to India it was this: The gospel makes more sense among the poor. Without the constant pull of materialism, and without the guarantee of daily bread, our need for God is more pronounced and His voice is clearer. At the end of the day, I have come to see wealth as a spiritual DISadvantage, more curse than blessing. (Thankfully, Jesus reminds us that, with the help of God, it is possible for a rich person to follow Him…despite the enormous challenge.)
No wonder Paul warns Timothy, “For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 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 the root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But flee from these things, you man of God…”
In such a materialistic society, the Church MUST reclaim the strong language used by early church leaders to warn of the potential dangers of wealth, and we MUST be more careful of proclaiming all wealth as an undisputed blessing from God.
Writes Sider, “More biblical texts warn of God’s punishment of those who neglect or oppress the poor than tell us that material abundance results from obedience…It is a heresy, particularly common in rich nations, to think that wealth and prosperity are always a sure sign of righteousness. They may be the result of sin and oppression, as in the case of Israel [see previous post]. The crucial test is whether the prosperous are obeying God’s command to bring justice to the oppressed.” (99)
While the Bible does not seem to teach that MAKING a lot of money is a bad thing, it certainly teaches that KEEPING a lot of money, to the neglect of the poor, is a bad thing. Consider the strong language found in James 5:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
It’s really easy to point fingers and say that this passage applies to slave-owners or stingy, Scrooge-like misers. But in this country, middle class families live luxuriously compared to the poor around the world…and (thanks to the information age) we know it! We know good and well when we stuff ourselves at an all-you-can-eat buffet that there are people dying of hunger around the world. Living in our suburbs, we may not see poverty next door, but we may see it down the street, across town, or across the world. I have a closet full of “moth-eaten” clothes that I hardly ever wear because they’ve gone out of style. And my belongings far surpass Paul’s standard for contentment – food and covering.
So, I return to my original question: As long as we are aware of the poverty of others, is it a sin for us to be rich? How much is too much?
I try to keep this in mind when I think about giving: If it doesn’t require sacrifice, it’s not really giving. The Jesus said, “give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” If I am only giving from my abundant surplus, perhaps I am holding too much back.
I’ve really struggled with and prayed about this question a lot, and I welcome your thoughts on the subject. In what ways do you choose to live more simply? How do you think about giving? What biblical guidelines do you use for your giving? In what ways do regular, middle-class Americans exploit the poor?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas!