The Bible has a whole lot to say about wealth and poverty. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be one consistent, clear unchanging message. There are nuances. It seems advice to one is not given to another so although it may be a treasure trove of comments we have to work our way through.
Throughout the Bible sharing is encouraged. We are to spread what’s available between and among people and groups. In the early church, congregations would take collections for other congregations. Macedonia was not rich but shared with others. “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints ...” (2nd Corinthians 8:3).
Most of us are aware that Jesus said, the poor you always have with you (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). Many of us are not aware that Jesus was not saying, “That’s how it is, how it’s always been and always will be.” Jesus knew that Deuteronomy 15 said: Forgive debts, release slaves, pay people fairly and lend money knowing you won’t get paid back. Even following those admonitions would make a huge difference in our society. Americans tend to research everything, even poverty, then fail to implement the findings.
When the rich young ruler (a conflation of stories in Matthew 19:16 and Luke 18:22) asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him, “Sell all you have and give/distribute it to the poor.” It is clear that the man did not do this immediately, if ever.
St. Francis sold all he had and gave to the poor. Tolstoy tried to sell all that he owned. Had he been successful, he would have left his wife and family penniless. It seems that selling everything would put us on the public dole. I’m not sure that would be beneficial to society.
I am very fond of a book, “Sisters of the Sinai,” about very rich Scots twin sisters in the last century. They would never have emulated St. Francis, yet they felt wealth was something to be used for the benefit of others. They used some to improve the Greek Orthodox seminary where early Christian manuscripts were found. The translation of these manuscripts has given all Christians an earlier picture of the church. They also built a Presbyterian Seminary in Cambridge. Many modern day philanthropists like to have a say on how their wealth is used. Many years after the fact, I realized one of the members of a group I helped to found, Friends of Jungian Psychology Northwest, had paid the fare for various European analysts to come speak in Seattle. Her comfort with old wealth and awareness of how wealth could benefit many was apparent in her actions. We do not always know ways in which others anonymously use their wealth for wider benefits.
In Luke 12:16-21 we are told of a rich man with a good harvest who realizes he doesn’t have big enough barns to store all his crops. He plans to tear the old buildings down and big larger ones. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, take your ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
Are we to take this as a cautionary tale? If so, how? I can think of two things the matter with the story: (1) The man seems to have waited until this moment to consider enjoying his life. We may act like the future is endless, but we don’t know. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (2) This is all about him. He does not seem to consider ways in which his abundance could aid others.
The widow who gave her tiny sum (Mark 12:42 and Luke 21:2) did not contribute a lot of money in objective terms, but she did act in faith that more could be provided. I think our relationship to money is symbolic in how we treat ourselves and others. It indicates our trust that God provides ... or not. As with anything else wealth is distributed unequally, but we can work to make things more equitable. It is not to be hoarded. When we share everyone lives better. That is my take-away from the entire Bible. No matter our circumstances we are to do what we can to help others.
The Rev. Dorothy Price Knudson is retired from active ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but still preaches regularly at various local churches and Presbyterian churches in the Eastern Oregon Presbytery. Reach her by email at email@example.com. Pastors in the U-B circulation area are encouraged to write 500- to 700-word columns. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.