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A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty
Andrew PerrimanThe covenant with Moses was intended to establish the basis on which the people of Israel would successfully inhabit a naturally bountiful land. A simple rule applied: if the people kept the law of God, they would enjoy the prosperity that would accrue to them from the land:
The language both here and at several points in the patriarchal narratives (eg. Gen. 16:10; 17:2, 5-6; 22:17; 28:3; 35:11-12; 48:4) suggests that the presence of the people in the land is conceived as a restarting of the story of humanity. The command to Adam to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land becomes a promise to Abraham to make him fruitful and to multiply his descendants in the land which God would give him. Prosperity, therefore, must be understood not only in material but also in relational or familial terms: it is a measure of the general well-being and productiveness of a community, it is shalom.
Failure to observe the terms of the covenant, however, would result in hardship and suffering in the form of the loss of the prosperity of the land – through disease, famine, military conquest – and ultimately in the form of the loss of the land itself through exile (cf. Deut. 28:15-68). The analogy with the creation narrative continues: just as humanity had originally lost the prosperity and security of the garden as a consequence of disobedience, so disobedient Israel would forfeit the material prosperity of the land that had been promised to Abraham.
Prosperity, poverty and the law
Prosperity for Israel is conceived primarily in national terms. The law required giving in various forms and active concern for the plight of the poor, but it did not enforce economic equality or the redistribution of wealth within the community. In view of this, there were bound to be persistent disparities of wealth within the nation: as Jesus said, the poor would always be with them (Mark 14:7). The problem was to be addressed, however, at two levels. On the one hand, Israel’s rulers were expected to defend the interests of the poor and helpless. On the other, individuals within the community could enter into a virtuous circle of giving and receiving. Acts of righteousness, prominent among which was generosity towards the poor, would lead to prosperity, which would spill over into further acts of righteousness (cf. Ps. 37:25-26).
There is no systematic bias towards the poor. Private property was protected by the law; theft and covetousness were prohibited in the decalogue; both the poor and the rich were entitled to judicial impartiality (Ex. 23:2-3). There are, however, various constraints imposed upon the possession of wealth. Property rights were not absolute: the people in the last analysis were only ‘aliens and tenants’ in a land leased to them by God (Lev. 25:23; cf. Ex. 19:5). The law of Jubilee, the sabbath year, and the sabbath itself had a moderating effect on the acquisition of wealth and built into the economic system a requirement of trust in God as provider. A significant proportion of personal wealth was taken in taxation.
The failure of prosperity
Perhaps inevitably, Israel failed to maintain the standards of economic justice required by the law. The theological response to this failure comes in various forms. There are general warnings in the Wisdom literature about the moral and spiritual dangers of wealth. A more substantial critique emerges from the prophetic writings. After idolatry the refusal to deal justly and compassionately with the plight of the poor is the most significant factor in the judgment that comes upon Israel and Judah (cf. Is. 1:21-25; Amos 2:6-7).
Although at an individual level poverty may be attributed to laziness, at a social level it is seen as a consequence of the failure of the rich to act justly and provide for those in need. The unrighteous wealthy will suffer eschatological judgment on a ‘day of punishment’:
Under these circumstances the helpless poor, victims of abuse and neglect, will receive divine favour: He is ‘a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress’ (Is. 25:4). In some respects, therefore, the poor are closer to God than the wealthy: they are more likely to look to the Lord for help (Ps. 9:9-10; 69:32-33), they are more likely to be found in the company of the righteous (Ps. 14:5-6). There is the beginning here of an inversion of the covenantal association between righteousness and prosperity which will become more sharply evident in the Gospels.
Poverty and crisis
As we approach the Gospels we need to keep in mind the fact that Israel is in just that state of eschatological crisis that was foreseen by the Old Testament prophets, and that this state of crisis has implications for how wealth and poverty are assessed theologically.
First, because of economic injustice, at both a personal and a systemic level, we are in a situation in which the righteous are much more likely to be poor. This obviously brings into question the covenantal link between torah observance and prosperity, but the issue here is not that the formula no longer applies but that Israel has failed in torah observance and therefore has brought judgment upon itself, the imminent loss of well-being. Failure at the national religious level has resulted in a fundamental distortion of the covenantal framework: the whole theology of prosperity has broken down. The accumulation of wealth had become a substitute for trust in YHWH. At a time when Israel needed to be saved from its sins, and from the consequences of its sins, the nation was serving mammon rather than God (Matt. 6:24), was storing up grain in its barn not realizing that destruction was imminent (Luke 12:21), was feasting at its table to the neglect of the poor but within a generation would suffer the punishment of gehenna (Luke 16:19-31). Wealth offered no prospect of escape from this national disaster.
Secondly, Jesus’ critique of the possession of wealth and his preference for the poor and marginalized cannot be detached from the context of the judgment and salvation of Israel. The preference arises because, by and large, it is those on the margins who are willing to receive healing and forgiveness and who will form the community of renewed Israel gathered around Jesus. It is on the margins that new life begins to break through.
Thirdly, personal wealth would be of little value for those who were called to share in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the kingdom of God, who faced ostracism, the confiscation of property, imprisonment, expulsion and possibly death. It would be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23-24). The rich young ruler could not bring his abundant possessions with him along the difficult and dangerous road of discipleship (Matt. 19:21-22). None of them could: ‘whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:33). The disciples who had left their homes and their livelihoods were promised the abundant blessings of a new community centred around Jesus – this was the only form of prosperity that would sustain them during a period of persecution (Mark 10:29-30).
Poverty and wealth in the New Testament church
The same basic eschatological framework must be taken into account when we consider the teaching and praxis of the early church. Jesus’ insistence that his followers, the core of renewed Israel, should sell their possessions is directly implemented in the communal life of the early church. Land and property were sold and the money distributed to those in the community of believers who had need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). It appears, though, that this was done only when the need arose: it was not a requirement of discipleship that personal wealth should be automatically abandoned. Ananias and Sapphira were given the option of keeping part of the proceeds from their land (Acts 5:3); the description of Tabitha as a woman ‘devoted to good works and acts of charity’ seems to imply that she acted independently, giving from her own resources (Acts 9:36); Mnason was an ‘early disciple’ who had his own house in Jerusalem (Acts 21:16).
It seems likely that there were contextual social reasons that at least encouraged this practice, in addition to a strong recollection of Jesus’ example and teaching: the openness of the poorest in Jerusalem to the gospel, the large numbers of diaspora pilgrims who converted on the day of Pentecost, the possibility that the earliest followers of a discredited messiah were barred from the usual sources of public charity. There is no evidence that churches outside Palestine adopted the same radical model of economic communalism. One easily imagines that there was a high level of mutual support within the communities, but nothing suggests a systematic renunciation of personal wealth. Churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons, believers continued to hold public office (Acts 13:6-12; Rom. 16:23) or run businesses (Acts 16:14; 18:2-3).
The sharp criticism of the rich that we find in James’ letter to the ‘twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ (James 1:1) cannot be detached from the later warnings about an imminent day of judgment (5:1, 8-9). John warns his readers not to love the things that are in the world – ‘the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions’ – because ‘the world is passing away along with its desires’ (1 John 2:15-17). Material possessions will be of no value in a time of eschatological crisis. In general terms, though, wealth is seen as damaging to the spiritual integrity of believing communities.
Paul invokes the Old Testament principle of charitable giving when he urges those who are ‘rich in this present age’ to ‘do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share’ (1 Tim. 6:17-18). What differentiates giving within the New Testament from Old Testament practice is the connection with grace: giving is not simply a mark of righteousness under the law but a gift of grace, a charism (Rom. 12:8; cf. the emphasis on ‘grace’ in 2 Cor. 8:4, 6, 7, 19; 9:14). We do not, however, entirely lose the Old Testament connection between giving and receiving, between doing what is ‘right’ and prospering in the fullest sense of the term. The Corinthians can expect to reap what they sow (2 Cor. 9:6; cf. Prov. 3:9-10; Mal. 3:9-11; Luke 6:38; Gal. 6:7-8). The ‘sufficiency’ (autarkeia) with which God will bless them will provide the material basis for them to ‘abound in every good work’ (2 Cor. 9:8). The quotation of Psalm 112 in the next verse invokes the conventional paradigm of the righteous man who acts justly (5), gives freely to the poor (9), and in whose house are ‘wealth and riches’ (3).
1. As a general matter of biblical interpretation questions relating to wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, etc., need to be investigated primarily not as abstract ethical issues but as problems posed within a narrative and essentially eschatological framework. Critically, this connects our thinking with the calling and experience of the people and establishes a distinctly missional orientation.
2. If we are right to understand the renewal of the people of God in Christ as a ‘new creation’, a new humanity, the question arises – a question posed to us not least by prosperity theology – whether we should not also take seriously the material dimension of that renewal. Although we must remain awake to the treacherous nature of wealth, its power to corrupt and deceive, we also need to accept that as the people of God we are not always in a state of eschatological crisis. If the church is in a position to be fruitful, multiply, labour and be prosperous, this must be understood under the rubric of ‘new creation’.
3. From a missional point of view, perhaps one of the key questions to ask as we think about where we locate ourselves socially and economically is: Where does the renewal of creation, both as prophetic sign and as proleptic reality, show up best? Where does new life become apparent? This question must be carefully demarcated from two traditional vocations: on the one side, the evangelization of individuals, and on the other, social-humanitarian assistance.
This essay is based largely on material found in A.C. Perriman (ed.), Faith, Health and Prosperity, Paternoster 2003 (a report for the Evangelical Alliance).