Sunday, May 15, 2016

ET19. The Bible views hoarding wealth as a sin against God and neighbor.

This is the nineteenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
The Bible views hoarding wealth as a sin against God and neighbor.

1. To be sure, there are verses of prosperity in the Bible. God blessed the patriarchs incredibly on a material level. Abraham and Lot became so prosperous that they had to part ways. Their bounty had begun to collide. Job's prosperity was a sign of God's blessing both before and after he lost it. The theology of Deuteronomy 28 suggests simply that as Israel obeys the LORD's commands, it will experience material blessing.

There are at least two important contextual elements to keep in mind when reading these stories. The one is the agricultural nature of their world. The second is deuteronomistic theology. First, we live in a monetary world where dollars and cents (or whatever currency your culture uses) stands at the heart of our economy. The ancient world was more a world of bartering and trade. Wealth was a matter of animals, land, servants and family (cf. Job 1:2). The economy of Abraham's world was quite different from our economy.

A second factor we should keep in mind is that the theology of Deuteronomy and a strand of the Old Testament only gives us the basic connection between obedience to the LORD and prosperity. Deuteronomy 28 tells Israel that they will be blessed in the land, in crops, and so forth if they will serve the LORD. If they do not, they will be cursed in the land and in the other aspects of their lives. This is a less precise understanding than those parts of the Bible showing us that the wicked sometimes prosper and the righteous sometimes suffer (e.g., Isa. 53).

2. At the same time, those who are blessed materially are expected to help those in need. There was no system of welfare or assistance in biblical times. If a widow or orphan did not have family to help them, they were in dire circumstances indeed. The plight of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 suggests that an able bodied man might become someone's servant. But in general, a person who had some debilitating illness or circumstance was entirely dependent on begging or the generosity of others.

So provisions were made in Israel for the poor. A farmer was to leave fallen grapes for the poor, and a field was to be left for the poor and even for the wild animals in the seventh year. Israel was commanded to "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land" (Deut. 15:11), especially when the LORD blessed them.

One of the primary indictments of the prophets against Israel is the fact that Israel neglects the poor. "The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts" (Isa. 3:14-15).

3. In the New Testament, the indictment of wealth becomes acute at many points. The situation of the audiences has changed. In the Old Testament, Israel is in possession of its own land and its kings are wealthy. In the New Testament, the Jews were under Roman rule and subject to the taxes of a foreign regime. Paul's audiences tended to live in big cities. In Palestine, the accumulation of wealth usually involved complicity with the Roman regime or the power to take from others.

So it is little surprise to find that the New Testament is generally negative toward the accumulation of wealth. There was an Arab proverb a few centuries later that perhaps caught the sentiment of many in that day: "Every rich person is either a thief or the son of a thief."

Jesus says Luke 12:15, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he tells a parable about a rich man whose land produces a great abundance. The rich man thinks to himself, "I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." God's response to this man is, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you." Jesus concludes, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves" (Luke 12:15-21).

The book of James echoes Jesus' warning when it chastises a traveling merchant who thinks he can go from place to place and make money in his own power and by his own plans. "Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring" (Jas. 4:14). James goes on to say, "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you... You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter" (5:1, 3-5).

Earlier in the letter, James warns synagogues from trusting or showing favoritism to the rich. He tells them, "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?" (2:5-7).

Similarly, Jesus tells the crowds that, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24). Instead, Jesus urges the crowds to "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven" rather than on earth (6:20). 1 Timothy 6:10 generalizes this teaching: "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

4. The concept of limited good is usually mentioned when looking at the generally negative view of the New Testament toward those with wealth. Say there are only twenty apples in a room and each of twenty students each have one at the beginning of class. But then say at the end of class only one student leaves with twenty apples. In that case it is quite clear that the one student's gain is the other students' loss.

This is the idea of limited good or what we might call a "zero-sum" game. If there is a scarcity of resources in the world and one person has excess, then someone else by implication will be in need. In that case, the hoarding of wealth directly implies the deprivation of someone else. This is largely the economic perspective in play during the time of the New Testament. [1]

And there is a great deal of truth to this model, especially in Palestine. The ordinary person worked hard to produce just enough to subsist. Then the nature of Roman rule siphoned off the top layer in taxes. No wonder those involved with the collection of taxes were usually viewed negatively. Meanwhile, those who collected created wealth for themselves by unjustly adding on to those who had already added on.

5. The book of Acts presents us a model of an ideal community where "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." This was not a forced communalism. In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira are not condemned for not giving all of their money. They are condemned for trying to lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:4).

Nevertheless, Acts does idealize a community where its members sell their excess possessions and contribute them to those who are in need (e.g., Acts 4:34). "Everything they owned was in common" (4:32). We see this emphasis of the Jerusalem community when Paul visited James and Peter in Galatians 2:10. James exhorts Paul to remember the poor, presumably of Jerusalem, as he goes about the world on his missionary journeys.

Many would draw a connection between this concern and the offering that Paul collected and brought back for the Jerusalem church. We can see from 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 that this offering was of great significance for Paul. He may even have seen it as the fulfillment of prophecy, the bringing of the wealth of the nations into Israel (e.g., Isa. 61:6).

And Paul's churches did probably have some individuals of some resource. For Gaius to host the whole church of Corinth, he must have had a large house (cf. Rom. 16:23). Similarly, it is unlikely that Erastus could be the city's treasurer unless he was a man of some means. You can still see a paving stone in Corinth that he may have funded. Lydia was a merchant of purple, an expensive dye. Paul himself was a Roman citizen, suggesting he was a man of some social status.

So Paul's philosophy of abundance seems a little different from Luke's. In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul suggests that some of us will have abundance at some points, and some of us at some times will be in need. Paul teaches that it is fitting for those who have abundance at one point in time to help those who are in need at that point. Then when fortunes reverse, those who received on that occasion can help those who are now in need.

Paul puts it this way. "You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need [in the future]” (2 Cor. 8:9, 13-14). In other words, it is important for those who have extra now to help those who are in need now. Then when the situation is reversed, they will reciprocate.

Interestingly, Paul does not consider such giving a matter of force. "The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:6-7). The idea of tithing was not part of Paul's mission (Mal. 3:8-10). [2] Rather, there was a general principle that those with abundance should help those in need.

4. John Wesley perhaps captures the spirit of Scripture when he suggested the following maxim: "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can."

First, "earn all you can." There are individuals who are gifted at multiplying resources. [3] The Parable of the Talents points to such individuals (e.g., Matt. 25:14-20). God does not ask those who have such gifts to hide them in the ground. It should be obvious of course that this ability must be exercised in love. It would be sinful for such a person to make money in a way that is harmful to others or that abuses others in the process. The Bible has nothing good to say about such individuals.

By "save all you can," Wesley did not mean to hoard resources. He meant to be frugal. Do not be extravagant in the money you spend on passing material possessions or the treasures of this world. Eat to live rather than living to eat. Why waste God's resources on expensive things when you can have enough and give the extra to God's mission and those in need?

Here it is important to recognize again that everything we have belongs to God. We are stewards of his possessions. Will we take God's possessions and selflishly waste them on earthly pleasures? God loves us. There is a time for feasting and celebration (e.g., Luke 15:32). Even Jesus let the woman anoint his feet with costly perfume (Mark 14:7).

But "give all you can." When God blesses a person with abundance, we have an obligation before God to help others who are truly in need. The New Testament has nothing positive to say about those who hoard their abundance. The person who has material possessions and ignores those who are in need is a murderer, 1 John 3:15-17 implies.

Jesus sums up the situation: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). The problem is not the abundance itself but the selfish human tendency to hoard our resources and to lavish abundance on ourselves. The Bible views such hoarding of wealth as a sin against God and our neighbor.

Next week: ET20: The economic structures of society can be more or less loving.

[1] Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, ***).

[2] Tithing was not part of Christian tradition until the turn of the twentieth century, when American churches adopted the Old Testament tithing model in order to stay financially afloat. See William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010), ***.

[3] Those communities in history that went entirely communal and abandoned the normal means of subsisting have often found themselves in dire economic straits later on. If they had simply committed to giving away all their excess rather than the means of subsistence themselves, they might have lasted much longer.

No comments: