Wealth and poverty

“Two things I ask of You, LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:7,8)

How should we define wealth and poverty? It’s not as easy as it sounds. When we speak of someone as being ‘poor’, we probably mean that they can’t afford all the basic necessities of life. But what counts as a ‘basic necessity’ varies from country to country, and also over time.

Poverty is not confined to the Third World; it exists in rich countries as well, but here it is a different and less extreme kind of poverty. For the ‘poor’ in the UK have the benefit of the rich world’s infrastructure: they have access to free healthcare, free education, an effective sewerage system, and many other less obvious benefits that the poor in many developing countries can only dream of.

The Bible is very realistic about the damaging effects of poverty, which it describes as “the ruin of the poor.” (Proverbs 10:15) “The rich rule over the poor” (Proverbs 22:7), who “are shunned even by their neighbours” (Proverbs 14:20). Poverty is a state to be avoided if humanly possible! But we should be careful not to err in the opposite direction either. “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” (I Timothy 6:9,10) The pursuit of wealth is like a wild goose chase – never-ending, and ultimately frustrating (Proverbs 23:4,5). And it has disastrous consequences for our spiritual health.

Wealth, if we have it, is not our birthright but a gift from God – a God who is both unimaginably rich and amazingly generous. Such a gift is not without risk. We shall be tempted to trust in ourselves and our money, rather than in the God who gave it all to us. We shall be tempted to flaunt our possessions and to despise those who are less well off than we are. So we must handle this gift with great care.
The rich young man

There is one saying of Jesus that makes us all feel very uncomfortable: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24,25) Indeed, people feel so uncomfortable that much effort and ingenuity has been expended in attempts to make out that Jesus didn’t really mean it! That what He actually said was a ‘cable’ rather than a ‘camel’ (in Greek the two words are very similar); or that there was a narrow gate in the wall of Jerusalem known as ‘the Eye of the Needle’, which a camel could only just squeeze through! Anything, in fact, to make it difficult – rather than impossible – for us rich people to enter the Kingdom!

As with all of Jesus’ teachings, these words must be looked at in context – both the immediate context and the wider context. They were spoken shortly after an encounter with a devoutly religious (and extremely wealthy) young man, who seems to have been sincerely puzzled by his lack of a real sense of belonging to God. Something was missing from his religious experience, and he came to ask Jesus what it was: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) He probably expected to be given a specific task, or a better set of rules to live by; but instead Jesus challenged him with a complete re-orientation of his priorities: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Luke 18:22) Faced with this stark choice between his money and eternal life, he realised that the price he was being asked to pay was too high. Although he wanted eternal life, he wanted it on his own terms – not God’s. And because he could only have it on God’s terms, he turned it down…

We must of course remember that Jesus didn’t tell everyone He met to make themselves destitute in order to enter the Kingdom. Most of those who believed in Him continued to own their own homes (like Martha and Mary) and follow their normal occupations. It is by following Jesus, not by becoming poor, that we receive eternal life! But in this particular man’s case, his money was standing in the way of his commitment to Jesus. So he had to give all his wealth to the poor – not because they needed it (although they did) but because he needed to get rid of it. This is a salutary reminder that nothing – absolutely nothing – must be allowed to come between us and Jesus. He must be Lord of all if we are to pass through the eye of the needle (Luke 14:33).
The rich fool

Why is wealth so dangerous? Because it allows us to convince ourselves that we are self-sufficient and do not need God (Deuteronomy 8:17,18). The parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) illustrates this attitude:

This rich farmer had no sense of gratitude to God for his bumper harvest. Instead, he thought only of the problem of insufficient storage space! Although he had more than enough for his own immediate needs, he never considered any option other than to hoard it; it never occurred to him that he might use some of his surplus for the benefit of other people.

Too late, he discovered his mistake. He had really believed that his overflowing barns allowed him to control his destiny. He had genuinely thought that his future was taken care of – but then the grim realisation came to him that he had no future in this world at all! “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20) He had invested everything in this life, but had made no provision at all for the next life, where he was spiritually bankrupt…

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