Category: Wealth


I recently came across this video which puts some rather shocking statistics about wealth inequality in America into visual format. It’s disturbing to say the least. Watch the video below (it’s only about six minutes long), and then we’ll pick up a bit of commentary afterwards.

So, what did you think? Pretty heavy stuff, right? Now, before we go any further I just want to emphasize that this is a religion blog, not a political blog. I’m not endorsing any particular political solution to the problem of wealth inequality. However, I am deeply interested in how Christians should respond to this problem. First of all, do we believe that income inequality is a problem? Why or why not? If it is a problem (and I believe it is, for many reasons), should Christians be concerned about it and take action to address it? Why or why not? If we should be concerned and take action (and again, I believe we should, for many reasons), what action should we take?

In my series on a biblical theology of wealth, which regrettably I haven’t added to in awhile, I have stated several times that I believe we’re more influenced by our culture than we are by the Bible when it comes to our view of wealth. Wealth inequality is one example of our culturally-induced blindness; it’s an area Christians need to address biblically. To ignore the suffering of millions of people who lack the basic necessities of life places us squarely in the camp of the goats (see Matt. 25:31-46). At the judgment, when Jesus confronts their indifference, they reply in shock, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” In reply Jesus reminds them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Of course, on the flip side, Jesus affirms the sheep, those who do feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Interestingly, though, this group also does not realize that when they did these things they were doing it to Jesus. The powerful lesson that Jesus teaches us is that whenever we care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, it’s as if we are caring for Jesus Himself. That is how closely He identifies with the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering.

One last thought: this video only deals with wealth inequality in America. Imagine how much greater the inequality would be if we included the entire world. Imagine if we compared the wealth of the world’s richest to the poverty of the world’s poorest. It’s an almost unfathomable gap. Let’s never forget that God loves every person on this planet, no matter what economic bracket they’re in, no matter what country they are from. As followers of Jesus we should be just as concerned as He is with the plight of the poor and oppressed in every part of the world, for all bear His image, and all have been purchased by His blood.

So, how should Christians respond to all of this? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Indebted to the PoorI started this research project about three weeks ago. At the time I knew that I was delving into a deep subject which would take me quite awhile to process. But I honestly was unprepared for the sheer quantity of biblical material I would be wading through. This blog post serves two purposes: first, to give an update on my progress so far; and second, to explain more fully my motivation to tackle this project.

First, a brief update on my progress: to start I am using BibleWorks to search for English words, such as “poor,” “wealthy,” “rich,” and others. I quickly discovered that there are a lot of verses to study. My goal is to look at all the verses for a given search term and then try to distill a list of principles from them. I will also look at the original languages to see what words are used and what their meaning is.

I began by searching for the word “poor.” This turned up well over 100 verses (close to 200, depending on which version I searched). Not all of these verses relate directly to material wealth, but from my study so far most of them do.

One thing I’ve observed is that when the Bible talks about the poor, it’s almost always in positive terms. Now, I haven’t made it through the entire Bible yet; I’m in the Psalms right now, so I’m probably about halfway through. But I believe it is significant that the vast majority of references I’ve found for the poor are in their favor. The Bible talks about how God works on their behalf and brings about justice for them, how God’s people are supposed to care for them and uplift them, and how those who oppress them are wicked and unjust. There are definitely some implications for us today, but I’ll leave that for after I’ve completed the study.

Now, an explanation about why I undertook this study: As I mentioned in my first installment of this series, I have been increasingly convicted that our view of wealth and poverty is influenced more by our capitalistic, consumerist society than by biblical values. This conviction has grown out of my study of the Bible, Ellen White’s writings, and the writings of other Christian authors. Over time I came to realize that I had glossed over, or even missed completely, certain teachings in the Bible because of cultural influence on my thinking. I also realized I was not alone; many committed Christians struggle with the same problem.

Perhaps the best way to explain my changing views is to quote a few of the passages that shook me out of my cultural comfort zone. First, there are biblical passages like James 5:1-6:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Those verses hit hard. Yet the message is consistent with dozens of other passages where God, through inspired prophets, calls people to task for selfishly hoarding wealth while oppressing the poor. Yet I had somehow missed many of these passages. For instance, I had always thought that ancient Israel was judged by God and taken into captivity because the people were idolaters who worshiped false gods. That is indeed part of the reason, but the Bible actually lists several other specific sins for which the people were judged. The oppression of the poor is one of them. In Ezekiel 16:49, 50 God likens rebellious Israel to Sodom, and He tells us what Sodom was guilty of:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Included in that list of offenses is a lack of concern for the poor. In the following verses God actually tells Israel that their depravity has sunk to such depths that in comparison they make the Sodomites look righteous. Considering this, what would God say to us living in 21st century America? We’re the wealthiest nation in the world; how concerned are we for the poor?

Another teaching that convicted me was Jesus’ own words in Matthew 25:31-46, culminating in that famous saying: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Perhaps even more convicting is the other side of that statement: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Could it really be that when Jesus judges the earth He will hold us accountable for the kindness we failed to show to those in need?

These thoughts disturbed me deeply. But their impact might have been blunted (indeed, for years it was) were it not for the writings of Ellen White. This is one of the best examples in my personal life of the lesser light of her writings leading me to the greater light of the Bible. For a seminary class assignment, I was reading Welfare Ministry. The first few chapters in that book gripped me so much that it seemed like I was highlighting nearly every other sentence. Here are a couple of the passages I found most impactful:

Those who have acquired riches have acquired them through the exercise of the talents that were given them of God, but these talents for the acquiring of property were given to them that they might relieve those who are in poverty. These gifts were bestowed upon men by Him who maketh His sun to shine and His rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, that by the fruitfulness of the earth men might have abundant supplies for all their need. The fields have been blessed of God, and “of His goodness He hath prepared for the poor.” (p. 15)

If men would do their duty as faithful stewards of their Lord’s goods, there would be no cry for bread, none suffering in destitution, none naked and in want. It is the unfaithfulness of men that brings about the state of suffering in which humanity is plunged. If those whom God has made stewards would but appropriate their Lord’s goods to the object for which He gave to them, this state of suffering would not exist. (p. 17)

Honestly it’s hard to choose just two quotes, but I’ll stop there because I don’t want to lengthen this post with too many quotations, and also because I don’t want to rob you of the experience of reading this book for yourself. If you haven’t already, get Welfare Ministry and read it!

Then very recently, thanks to a sermon by Dwight Nelson, I came across another powerful quote from Ellen White. The sermon was actually preached in 2007, but I didn’t hear it until a couple days ago. You can download the video here. In describing the needs of the poor around us and imploring us to help them, Dwight Nelson quoted two sentences from Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing that absolutely blew my mind:

So also with the gifts and blessings of this life: whatever you may possess above your fellows places you in debt, to that degree, to all who are less favored. Have we wealth, or even the comforts of life, then we are under the most solemn obligation to care for the suffering sick, the widow, and the fatherless exactly as we would desire them to care for us were our condition and theirs to be reversed. (p. 136, emphasis supplied)

Wow! I’m still reeling from that. Anything we have more than our fellow human beings places us in their debt! And notice she says it is our “solemn obligation” to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. It is not optional. If we are to fulfill Jesus’ command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then we must help the poor.

After being repeatedly slapped upside the head with passages like this, the truth of the matter is finally beginning to sink into my brain. God has been cutting through layers of culturally comfortable deception and powerfully convicting me that I need to make some changes in my life if I intend to be faithful to His commands. Now, I’ll be among the first to try to excuse myself by arguing that I’m not really wealthy. Let’s face it: no one goes into pastoral ministry in the Adventist church for the fat paycheck. It’s actually easy for me to feel sorry for myself and think that I’m rather poor. Comparatively, I am. But comparatively, I am also quite rich. I certainly enjoy the comforts of life. Regardless of how poor I may feel, I have abundantly more than many people around me. What am I doing to repay my debt to them?

I do not claim to have all the answers on this issue; I’ve only just begun the study. And I do not claim to know what changes you may need to make in your life as you seek to be faithful to God’s commands. I don’t even know exactly what changes I need to make yet. I hope that something I’ve shared here will motivate you to do your own study and soul-searching.  If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that our use of the material blessings God has given to us is a serious matter that deserves our sober reflection. I want to hear Jesus’ affirmation that I have been a good and faithful servant. I know that you do, too. So, my friends, what shall we do to repay our debt?

Cash

For some time now I’ve wanted to do a study on the Bible’s teachings about wealth and poverty. While I was in school I was always writing papers about other topics and never seemed to find the time for this one. Now that I’m out of school it has occurred to me that I can choose my own research topics (although finding time is a perpetual challenge).

I believe such studies are vitally important because our society’s values and God’s values do not always line up. It could be argued that they rarely line up. Unless we withdraw to a remote, internet-free wilderness and become hermits, society’s influence on us is inevitable. The solution to the potentially negative influence of society is not to retreat to a hermitage, but to align our values, attitudes, and beliefs with God’s instead of with the world’s. Unfortunately, when it comes to wealth and poverty I’m not sure we’ve done such a good job of that.

Thus I’ve decided to write a series of blogs on this subject in which I’ll chronicle my study and findings. I’m not proposing that I’ll find all of the answers; maybe I’ll just end up with more questions. But I think the study is worth undertaking. It’s a rather daunting task, though, because even with the little research I’ve already done I’ve learned that the Bible has a lot to say on the matter, so much so that it would take a dissertation-level research project to thoroughly cover everything. I’m not setting out to do that (yet). Others undoubtedly already have, more ably than I ever could. That’s why the blog series is named “Toward a Biblical Theology of Wealth.” I won’t claim that what I present will be exhaustive and conclusive. Hopefully it will be informative, though, and indicative of God’s values.

It’s risky to venture into this area because it is often controversial. Start talking about our responsibility to care for the poor and some people will assume you are a liberal socialist bent on redistributing their wealth to lazy moochers who want a free ride through life. It’s true that when taken to the extreme the fight against poverty can become an end unto itself (the social gospel). But the Bible says far too much in favor of caring for the poor for Christians to dismiss the idea outright. May I humbly suggest that our resistance to the concept is influenced more by our capitalistic society than by biblical values? I’m not undertaking the political question here; that’s for someone else to tackle. I’m looking at the biblical evidence and asking what the Christian’s response should be. What is God’s view of wealth and poverty? How should a Christian manage their financial means? What should be our response to those in need? These are a few of the questions to which I hope to find biblical answers.