Gospel & Culture blog
Poverty is a blessing. Poverty is a curse. Riches are a blessing. Riches are a curse. Throughout scripture, all four of these concepts are taught- how can such contradictory ideas be all found in the Bible…sometimes all in the same book (like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes)? If all four are true, depending on context, what is the take home message- how would this affect our own responsibility concerning wealth, equality, and justice?
Poverty is a blessing:
Jesus said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.” (Luke 6:20-21). Some spiritualize the verse, as if the only “good” kind of poverty is spiritual poverty (especially based on Matthew 5:3)…but if you look at how Jesus willingly took on poverty (he had no home, Matt 8:20), and encouraged others to forsake riches and comfort, it’s clear Jesus was teaching us that poverty has an upside: It can keep us humble, teach us our dependence on God, and safeguards us from trampling the rights of others.
Poverty is a curse
If poverty were monolithically a blessing, there would be no talk about equality, justice or development. Poverty is quite visibly a curse- whether it’s something people bring on themselves (A sluggard's appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.- Proverbs 13:4). The LORD promised Israel that if they disobeyed the commands in the Torah, their crops and livestock would fail (Deut 28:18). Amos 8:11 foretold an impending famine and drought- poverty, basically – due to disobedience. Poverty is often the result of being treated unjustly (as in the unjust scales in Amos 8:4-5), but at other times scripture describes poverty as the natural or even supernatural consequence of bad decisions.
Riches are a blessing
While Scripture warns against the trap of wealth, and extols the virtue of being brought low, at times Scripture also describes wealth as a blessing. “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22). Zacchaeus used his wealth to bless others, as did Joseph of Arimathea (when he gave a tomb for Jesus to be buried in). Lydia the merchant must have had some wealth to use for the ministry of the early church (Acts 16:14). Ecc 5:19 says “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil--this is a gift of God.”
Riches are a curse
But Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 also warns that riches can be a curse: you can become addicted to wealth and its corollaries (power, for example) that you are never satisfied. Plus riches are temporary and can be lost at any time. Jesus warned that it would be hard for a rich person to enter heaven, Paul said the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, and James 5:1-6 gives a severe warning to the rich (maybe rich Christians even) who use their money and position to oppress others.
Flourishing = the key to interpreting the Bible’s teaching on riches and poverty
The point is that scriptural teaching on riches and poverty is as complex as “real life.” Is there any over-arching principle to guide our theology of riches and poverty? I think a point that could summarize all four principles (riches are a blessing and a curse, poverty is a blessing and a curse) is that poverty and riches can be a blessing when the situation causes people to flourish. When people have enough to eat, they flourish. When they lose their riches and turn to God, they flourish. When they close a big business deal and praise God for his provision, and they use their money to meet the needs of their own family and those around them, they flourish. When you use your time and money to bless a poor widow in a distant nation, you and she both flourish.
But when the poor blame God, they wither. When the wealthy are smug, they wither. When a rich man swindles others and loses his wealth through fines and lawsuits, he withers as do those around him. When a less fortunate youth turns to drugs or gangs, he withers with those around him. When wealthy people fence themselves off from the suffering around them, they wither along with those around them.
Talk about human flourishing is based on the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, to fill the earth and subdue it- to make the most of creation – to be fruitful and multiply. That’s what flourishing means- bearing fruit and growing. All of the Bible’s complex teachings on the blessings and curses of wealth and poverty are pointers for how we encourage human flourishing.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor