What Does the Bible Say About Wealth and Poverty?
Wealth, poverty and income inequality is a dense and relevant topic.
Everyone everywhere deals with issues related to it. Wealth is a path to idolatry and poverty is a symptom of a fallen society. Any society deals with these issues and navigating them properly can help Christians act maturely and missionally. Sadly, Christians’ views on wealth and poverty are more likely to be shaped by Suze Orman or a political party than grounded in scripture. The best way to have a biblical view of wealth and poverty is to look at Scripture.
In the beginning God created a material world and walked with man in perfect fellowship. The material world cannot be evil since it existed before the fall and was created good. As a result of the fall, for Adam, providing for his needs became increasingly difficult. This does not mean that work was absent before the fall. Adam was charged to be fruitful and multiply, to take care of the garden, and even to help name the animals.
After the fall, poverty can be seen in the increased difficulty of the work itself or in those who are unwilling to labor. It has also opened the door for people to amass wealth as work techniques and specialties develop.
Old Testament Law
One important set of laws in the Old Testament was the Sabbath laws. They ultimately pointed to the rest that will be found one day for those who are in Christ, but they speak to wealth and poverty also. The Sabbath day provided rest for people and animals once a week (Exod 20:8–11, 23:12; Lev 23:2; Deut 5:12–15; David Jones and Russell Woodbridge; Health, Wealth, and Happiness). The origins of the Sabbath go back to creation. Just as God had rested on the seventh day, so God’s people must rest from labor at the end of the week (Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches).
The Sabbath Year provided rest for people, animals, and the land (Exod 23:10–11; Lev 25:1–7; Deut 15:1–18; Health, Wealth, and Happiness). It included the cancellation of debts between Jews and occurred every seven years. The year of Jubilee was like a large reset button. It happened once every fiftieth year and allowed for the people, land, and animals to rest as well as for property to be returned to its original owner. This kept people from over pursuing riches and saved people from falling into a cycle of poverty (Lev 25:8–55; 27:16–25; Health, Wealth, and Happiness). The laws were a protection mechanism for the Israelites.
Through this cycle of labor and resting, the virtue of trusting in God to meet material needs was instilled in the people of Israel. The economic laws did not discourage personal possessions or the accumulation of wealth. They did, however, help correct overreaching for wealth and provide mercy to those who found themselves in poverty.
The Prophets and the Writings
The wisdom literature and historical books echo what was said in previous sections of scripture. The book of Proverbs especially extols the virtue of labor. Diligent labor is described as providing riches and plenty. There is also an emphasis placed on avoiding debt and oppressing the poor with verses like Proverbs 22:7 and Proverbs 31:9. Additionally, a good work ethic is praised in the same verse that hasty decisions are derided in Proverbs 21:5.
God’s providence is also displayed as he is suggested to be the deliverer of the poor in Proverbs 21:13. These proverbs warn against the pursuit of wealth, the danger of debt, the reward for the hard working, and the virtue of justice.
The Gospels and the Teachings of Jesus
Considering all accounts, Jesus was neither wealthy nor impoverished. His personal finances were really not on record. It is known that he was a tradesman from Mark’s gospel and his parents were poor from the fact that they offered two pigeons as a sacrifice in Luke 2:24. Christ was relatively poor but was never in any material need. He sympathized with the poor but also was comfortable enough around the rich and religious elite to attend dinners and parties.
There are two main themes on wealth and poverty that can be seen from the life of Jesus. First, believers have a duty to care for those who are impoverished as seen in Matthew 25:34–40. Poverty itself is not inherently sinful, but the causes and effects of poverty can sometimes be sinful. There would have been no poverty before the fall. Working to alleviate poverty is Christ-like and is a depiction of God’s redemptive plan to restore all things.
Second, wealth can be a spiritual stumbling block. Matthew 19:23 warns of the difficulties of the rich obtaining eternal life. There is no inherent sin in wealth but the love of money easily becomes an idol. A good summary of the gospel’s teaching on this matter is Matthew 6:19–21. Jesus warns his listeners not to store up treasures on earth but to instead store up treasures that have eternal worth.
Acts and the Epistles
Paul understands that working to meet material needs is a normal part of the Christian life. His famous quotation in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is evidence of that. As for caring for the poor, some of the strongest language is stated by James when he describes true religion as caring for orphans and widows in James 1:27. Caring for the poor was an essential point of fact for the life of a Christian, but it was a voluntary response to having received God’s grace. Paul also warns Timothy that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. This message corresponds to the teachings of Jesus that wealth has the dangerous potential to become an idol.
Implications and Conclusions
There are three general conclusions that can be made from this biblical survey. First, labor is necessary to meet material needs. This reflects the image of God and allows the diligent to serve his fellow man out of his production. Second is the duty of the Christian to help the poor. This is a Christ-like practice that imitates the gospel.
Finally, wealth has great power to be a spiritual stumbling block. Wealth can be a way that humanity can finance its own self-idolatry. How one uses wealth, or any material resources for that matter, can accurately reflect one’s spiritual condition.
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