Public Square & Theology 101

Who Are The Rich & The Poor?

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty. Today begins chapter one, “Who Are the Poor,” by Dr. Glenn Sunshine. Dr. Sunshine’s chapter examines poverty from a biblical perspective in an effort to better understand the biblical call to care for those who in different conditions of poverty, both material and spiritual. 

At first glance, the Bible demonstrates that God cares about the poor and about how they are treated. Should we conclude from this that God is on the side of the poor and opposes the rich? This is a tempting conclusion, but is it supported by a careful reading of Scripture? Answering these questions requires determining what the Scriptures mean when they talk about the poor and the rich.

Who are the Poor?

In a vast majority of cases, poverty refers to material poverty – the situation when people are hungry, naked, homeless, etc. Economic poverty is typically accompanied by a broader lack of resources and connections that makes the poor particularly vulnerable to oppression and abuse.

While the Bible clearly promises to judge those who oppress the poor, the poor are not de facto virtuous. To be sure, poverty is not necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure. The poor can be blameless (Proverbs 28:6) and wise (Ecclesiastes 9:15). But other scriptures verses warn us that drunkenness, gluttony, and laziness can cause poverty (Proverbs 23:21).

A telling passage that sorts out the difference between different types of poor people is 1 Timothy 6:9-10, which says,

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

This passage is frequently associated with those who are already rich, but the people being addressed are those who desire wealth, and specifically those who are not yet rich. This is an important reminder that greed and worship of money are not vices peculiar to the rich.

So why are the poor described as blessed? The issue is not poverty per se, but rather the attitude of humility and reliance on God that it can produce in us. We need to place our hope in God alone, not in personal wealth.

Who are the Rich?

Just as poverty doesn’t guarantee virtue, wealth does not guarantee vice. Scripture has some very harsh things to say about the wealthy, but this does not mean that all of them are evil or under divine judgment.

  • Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were rich, yet were also approved by God.
  • Scripture tells us that God gives us the power to make wealth.

A careful reading of the texts attacking the rich demonstrates that the condemnations are almost inevitability connected to either how the rich made their wealth or how the rich rely on wealth for their security rather than the Lord.

Having money does not make the rich bad; rather, money reveals what is inside of us and magnifies our character for good or for ill. Why, then, the condemnations of the rich in Scripture?

In a fallen world, the power money gives people is usually used for ill. Historically, the rich and powerful have taken advantage of their power to increase their privileges at the expense of the poor and weak.

To put it differently, the rich are not always oppressors, but oppressors are almost always rich. And that is why they incur condemnation in Scripture.

Once again, the issue isn’t really wealth or poverty per se. Leviticus 19:15 tells us,

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

God’s concern is for righteousness and justice, but this verse tells us that justice does not mean being partial to the poor. Justice means judging fairly according to the law and on the basis of truth without regard to social class.

Next week we will extend this argument further by discussing how we should best go about imploring justice. Specifically, we will discuss the responsibilities of the rich, the state, and the Church to the poor as their roles are biblically defined.

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  • Peter TeWinkle

    I appreciate the need for a “careful reading of Scripture.” I’d like to suggest that you could have been a little more careful with your reading of I Timothy 6:9-10.

    Paul seems to be contrasting his work and doctrine with that of some men who are interested in stirring up controversy for Timothy’s congregations. That are not “the poor” but people who imagine that they can make a living, and a rich one at that, by coming up with a rival doctrine to steal away the flock.

    Paul’s suggestion that he will be “content with food and clothing” suggests that he’s not trying to become wealthy through his missionary work and that he’s dealing with people who already have enough and still want more. The fact that “food and clothing” is also mentioned by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount seems to acknowledge that they were necessary to be “content.”

    Clearly, the definitions of necessity and decency have changed over the years. And, clearly, “the poor” can be as seduced by gain as can “the rich.” But this post seems to ignore some passages that clearly put God on the side of the poor (e.g. Luke 1:51-53; Luke 4:18). The kingdom is good news “to the poor” because when Jesus is Lord, people will be willing to part with their possessions to make sure no one has need.

    While I appreciate your description of the negative side of wealth, one passage that expands your definition is Luke 16:19-31 (perhaps this is coming up later). The rich man (who has no name) passes by Lazarus day after day. He is not accused for the way he got his wealth or for oppressing Lazarus. He simply ignores him. God IS partial to the poor because people tend not to be.

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