“Whose side would Jesus be on, the wealthy businessman’s, or the poor farmer’s?” In the many discourses about Christianity and politics, questions like this one often come up in order to make the case that God cannot be tied to popular right-wing political ideologies (a point which, as I discussed in the previous message, I happen to agree with).
The question is certainly legitimate. After all, Jesus did forcefully confront misuse of wealth and power, and He also called us to show sacrificial compassion to the poor. Unfortunately, questions like this one are often aimed not at lifting the poor out of poverty, but at stirring up strife and class warfare. Ultimately, this sort of rhetoric does more harm than good, as it appeals not to Christian compassion, but to sins such as envy and covetousness, which are the direct opposite of what Jesus taught.
As we will see, God looks at much more than how much money a person may or may not have. In His Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus teaches us how proper stewardship of our material goods can lead to tremendous blessing, and how God is actually displeased with us when our lives are not productive. It is not a matter of pitting one economic (or racial, or gender) group against the other. We are reminded of this in the famous list of “Cannots,” which are commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
- You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
- You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer…
- You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich…
- You cannot promote unity by inciting class hatred…
- You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves (1).
The church of Jesus Christ is to be a place where rich and poor meet together (Proverbs 22:2), where racial and gender prejudices are cast away (Galatians 3:28), and we embrace the common goal of “…coming in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13). It is in this sort of environment that mature, stable disciples are made who can learn to rise above their circumstances, whatever they may be, and can become fruitful, productive members of society. An important part of this is learning biblical principles of proper education (Deuteronomy 4:9; Proverbs 10:14, 2 Timothy 4:13) and a strong work ethic (Proverbs 10:4; Ecclesiastes 3:13;5:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:10). It also involves learning proper financial stewardship, which would include tithing and giving, (Malachi. 3:8-10; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 8, 9; Hebrews 7:8), saving and investing (Deuteronomy 28:5; Proverbs 6:6-11) and understanding that it is God who gives us the power to acquire wealth in the first place (Deuteronomy 8:18). These are the very laws that Jesus’ compassion for the poor are based upon (see Matthew 4:4).
Given the common misconception that “poverty is spiritual,” some will no doubt be surprised that these sort of concepts are taught in the Bible. Society today tends to look very sporadically at Jesus’ teachings, often isolating certain tenets, then stretching them into concepts that are totally the opposite of His true message. This is especially true of His teachings on money. The popular notion that Jesus was indiscriminately against all rich people is simply not accurate. In fact, He had numerous wealthy followers including Joanna, a woman whose husband worked for the King (Luke 8:3), and Joseph of Arimathea, who provided Him with a burial place (Matthew 27:57-60). Being an observant Jew, Jesus also revered the Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 8:11; 22:32; Mark 12:26), all of whom were very rich men (Genesis 13:12; 26:14;33:5).
Drawing on a faulty interpretation of Jesus’ statement that He “had no where to lay His head” (Luke 9:58), it is generally concluded that Jesus was a poverty stricken intenerate preacher who lived His life as a homeless beggar. However, the Scriptures show us that quite the opposite is true. As we shall see, Jesus lived His whole life in the Father’s abundant provision for Him. The context of the above mentioned Luke passage is seen in verses 52-53: He had entered a Samaritan village, and they would not receive Him. In this instance, He had no where to stay, i.e. “Lay His head.” This does not imply that Jesus had no home at all.
Jesus, in fact, did have a home, large enough to house overnight guests (John 1:35-39). He had a donor base of people who “ministered to Him of their substance (Luke 8: 2-3).” He had a treasurer, Judas (John 12:6; 13:29), which would indicate that His ministry handled large sums of money. Jesus wore a seamless robe, which was a very costly garment (John 19: 23-24), so costly that the soldiers who were crucifying Him chose to gamble for it rather than to divide it between them, which was their usual custom.
This is certainly not to say, however, that Jesus held an irresponsible, self-indulgent view of riches. When a rich young ruler approached Jesus seeking the way of eternal life, Jesus boldly confronted the young man’s idolatrous attachment to his possessions (Luke 18:18-23). In an act that stunned His disciples, Jesus told the young ruler that in order to become His disciple, he must sell everything He had and give the money to the poor.
With this in mind, it is important to note that Jesus did not make this a requirement for everyone He ministered to. In fact, He even followed this statement by saying that, had the rich young ruler obeyed His command, he would have received bountiful return IN THIS LIFE, not just in Heaven (v. 29-30). The young man’s problem was not simply that he was wealthy. Rather, by walking away from Jesus’ call, he showed that money was more important to him than following Jesus. God expects to absolute first above everything else in our lives, including how we steward our money and material goods. By doing that, we show God that He can bless us with real prosperity, and that he can trust us to use it as a blessing to others. This is how the Biblical concept of charity operates, which is a far cry from the victimization and class warfare tactics employed by many politicians.
The fact is that anyone, even a heartless thief like Judas Iscariot, can give lip service to the poor in order to further their own agendas (see John 12: 4-6). Virtually every dictatorship in history has risen to power by promising to be champions for the poor and oppressed. Adolf Hitler rose to power because he convinced the German people that he could rescue them from devastating poverty. Similarly, Mao Tse Tung’s infamous “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” was designed to unite the working class and purge China once and for all of the influence of the bourgeoisie. As we well know, both of these endeavors left millions of people dead.
We can see some alarming parallels in modern liberal politicians who, while touting their alleged compassion for the needy, also champion heinous causes such as abortion (2). Of course, many of these same people conveniently tell us to ignore moral issues altogether because, after all, “Its the economy, stupid.” Although I am certainly not saying the economy is unimportant, we cannot choose our leaders based simply on getting a few extra dollars in our paychecks.
This does not, however, give a “pass” to those on the political right. As we discussed in our previous message, many conservatives promote a very callous, cavalier attitude toward the poor. By either ignoring or scoffing at poverty issues, conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, have allowed the left to steal an issue that we should have been spearheading all along. This has added to the common misconception that Christianity is a religion for “rich white people.” Consider Gandhi’s stinging, yet legitimate critique of modern Christianity: “When will you Christians really crown Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace and proclaim Him through your deeds as the champion of the poor and the oppressed?” As Amos 6:4-7 solemnly warns us, judgement will surely come to those who live in wealth and pleasure while neglecting those in need.
Poverty is a very complex problem which does not have a “one size fits all” solution. The biblical world view requires us to deal with these issues in a way that balances compassion with individual responsibility. It is important to note that when the Bible refers to either “the rich” or “the poor,” it is not describing either group in monolithic terms. For example, although the Bible does speak of many Godly people who were rich, Scripture does indeed condemn the abuse and misuse of wealth. It tells us of the ungodly rich who exploit and oppress the poor (Isaiah 10:1-3; Ezekiel 18:12; 22:29 ). It also warns us that wealth does hold a seductive power and that there are temptations to which the rich are especially susceptible (1 Timothy 6:9). In fact, we are told that all forms of evil are rooted in one thing: The love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).
Similarly, we are told that the poor are special objects of a loving God’s care and compassion. However, even these were not unconditional. Activist and theologian George Grant points out that the Bible describes two classes of poor people: the oppressed, who are victims of poverty due to outward circumstance, and the sluggards, who are poor due to their own laziness and irresponsibility. Throughout the Bible, we see God repeatedly defending the cause of the oppressed, and calling on His people to do likewise. Jesus began His ministry by telling us that the oppressed poor were a primary focus of His concern: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
The sluggards, on the other hand, are a different story. As Grant points out:
Sluggards waste opportunities (Proverbs 6:9-10), bring poverty on themselves (Proverbs10:4)…and are unable to accomplish anything in life (Proverbs 15:19)…A sluggard is prideful and lustful (Proverbs 13:4)…wasteful (Proverbs 12:27)…and lazy (Proverbs 24:30-34)…Though he continually makes excuses for himself (Proverbs 22:13), his laziness will consume him (Proverbs 24:30-34), paralyze him (Proverbs 26:14), and leave him hungry (Proverbs 19:15). (3)
Strong words? Yes, but for a person in this category, help is all but impossible apart from genuine repentance before God and sincere desire to change. As Paul the Apostle solemnly commanded the church at Thessalonica: “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10 ).”
Earlier we quoted from Luke 4:25-29, in which Jesus boldly proclaimed His mission to bring good news to the poor. Interestingly, though, this same discourse reveals a somewhat surprising overview of how this operates . In verses. 26-27, Jesus referred to a time when a horrible famine was in the nation of Israel, but how many people actually received God’s help? Only one, a widow who fed the prophet (1 Kings 17:9). Another time, there were many in the land who suffered from leprosy, yet God’s healing power only came to one person, a man named Naaman, who likewise heeded the Divine directions given to him (2 Kings 5:1-14). The point is that God’s provision is not promised unilaterally to all people. Nowhere in the Bible does God offer special favor to the poor just because they happen to be poor. God is not moved simply by need. Rather, His action is based on how we respond to that need, by taking responsibility and stepping out in bold, aggressive faith to receive His touch. This is what moved God to look past all of the other people to provide for the above-mentioned widow, and likewise to heal Naaman’s horrible disease. God’s grace comes through being in covenant relationship with Him, an invitation He graciously extends to all people. As the late Dr. David Chilton points out:
The Bible declares the God is actually against certain poor people. The sluggard, who is lazy and thoughtless about the future, has no claim on God’s mercy…God certainly is not “on the side” of any lawbreakers who happen to be poor. Just as the rich are often tempted to be proud, denying God’s goodness, so the poor are tempted to covet the possessions of others and to take God’s name in vain (Proverbs 30:7-9)…Whose side is God on? Not the rich; not the poor; not any social or economic class; not any race. The answer can be easily determined when we answer a much more important question…’Who is on the Lord’s side? (Exodus 32:26)’ (4)
Perhaps it is time for you to ask this question of yourself. Are you truly on the Lord’s side? Regardless of where you are in your life, God extends His loving hand to you right now. You might be poor, but if you will sincerely call on Jesus He will hear you and come to your aid (Psalms 34:6). You might be rich, but what will it profit you to gain the whole world, yet lose your own soul (Matthew 16:26 )? Jesus died on the Cross for people of all races, colors, ethnicities and economic classes . If you have never invited Him into your life, why not do it now?
© 2004 JHB
NOTES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1-Some historians are currently questioning whether or not these statements actually came from Lincoln. Regardless, they are still good advice.
2. Yes, abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. See “Issues of Life: Abortion,” http://www.james-dave.com/abortion.html http://www.geocities.com/rhema6/abortion.html
3. Grant, George. “In the Shadow of Plenty: Biblical Principles of Welfare and Poverty.” 1986, Dominion Press, Ft. Worth, Texas and Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. p. 54.
4. Chilton, David. “Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators.” 1981 Institute for Christian Economics, Tyler, Texas. Although I disagree with the post-millinial premise behind Chilton’s work, this book still contains many important insights into these issues, and consequentially, was a key source of some of the material presented.