Theology 101

This Is How the Bible Deals with the Unrighteous Rich

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While it sometimes seems as though the category of “unrighteous poor” is in danger of being forgotten altogether, this is certainly not the case for the “unrighteous rich.”

Indeed, we can scarcely go a day without hearing some comment about how the rich are oppressing the poor. There really are many rich people who are greedy and unscrupulous, and from a Christian standpoint, perhaps the reason why “unrighteous” is often associated with “rich” is because of the long litany of charges made against those who are rich in the Old and New Testament.

Ahab, Jezebel, and the Murder of Naboth

The story of Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and the acquisition of his vineyard is a classic story of theft by the rich and powerful.

King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, which was close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange another vineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (I Kings 21:3).

Jezebel found Ahab sulking on his bed and devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. She proposed a feast with Naboth as the guest of honor, “at the head of the people” (I Kings 21:9). During the feast, “worthless men” would be seated around him to accuse him of cursing God and the king.

The plan was executed and Ahab acquired his coveted vineyard. Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed. This story goes down as an epic example of the unrighteous rich and rightly gives Jezebel a reputation for evil parallel to Judas (Revelation 2:20).

What Did Jesus Say about the Unrighteous Rich?

In the New Testament there are numerous warnings to the unrighteous rich.

James 1:9-11 says,

But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

It almost seems like the rich are to be judged solely because they are rich, but later we see a specific indictment that explains why they are judged:

Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you…. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure… You have condemned and put to death the righteous man and he does not resist you (James 5:4-6).

Because of their unrighteousness, that which does not rust, namely “silver and gold,” rusts (James 5:30). In other words, even their most precious things are doomed to decay. Their soft luxury has sapped their moral fiber. They have cultivated a lewdness to satisfy their lusts.

Jesus particularly addresses the unrighteous rich in the parables of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

In the former parable Jesus warns against “every form of greed.” The rich fool lived his life for himself without regard for God or others. He speaks to “himself” about “my crops,” “my barns,” “my grain,” “my goods,” and “my soul.” God says, “You fool. This very night your soul is required of you.” Jesus summarizes at the end of the parable, “So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

In the latter parable, the rich man lived a luxurious life, but especially failed to notice or help poor Lazarus sitting at his gate. After they both die, Lazarus is pictured in Abraham’s bosom and the rich man in Hades, in torment, with the “great chasm fixed” between the two places. Again, the rich man is judged primarily because of his neglect of Lazarus.

To Condemn or Not to Condemn?

These are but a few of the portrayals of the unrighteous rich. It is interesting to note that in Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger there are more than sixty verses quoted – all on the unrighteous rich, but none on the righteous rich. He does make this qualification:

We must, however, beware of overstating the case. Abraham seems to have been well off. Moses lived in Pharaoh’s court for 40 years. Not all the early Christians were poor. Paul and Luke were educated and at least reasonably well-to-do. God does not work exclusively through impoverished, oppressed people. There is, nonetheless, a sharp contrast between God’s procedure and ours.

But he nevertheless leaves the impression that the rich are to be condemned, not commended. They certainly are to be condemned if they make their riches unjustly, but not if they make their riches justly. That may seem impossible, but it’s not, as we’ll see in future posts.

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