Think back to the last time you heard someone from the pulpit in your church talk about money, the Bible, and your spiritual life. On those occasions when pastors venture into this area, the focus is often, and rightly, on matters of the heart and one’s attitude toward money and possessions. But in that emphasis often lies an unexamined assumption that goes something like this: Given that the Bible focuses on attitude, not accumulation per se, that materialism is fundamentally about attitude, not amount, and that the human heart has not changed since the Bible was written, little significant difference exists between people in biblical times and people today when it comes to money. Hidden in that assumption is the notion that the ancient world and the world of today are also similar when it comes to money, wealth, and possessions. Though it is true that the fundamental nature of the human heart has not changed since biblical times, it does not follow that the financial world of the Bible and that of today have limited significant difference between them. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine two worlds that are more different from each other.
The Bible’s teaching on wealth and economics was set in an ancient economic system that was quite unlike the system of today. That does not mean that the Bible has nothing of relevance for today’s economic world, only that we must use the Bible carefully when applying its general principles of economic life to current times. As many biblical scholars have suggested, a direct application of many biblical commands relating to economic life would be impossible today, because the system to which those commands were addressed has dramatically changed. Rather, we are seeking from Scripture general principles or norms that govern economic life and can be applied to different economic arrangements. Of course, some commands apply directly, for which the differences between the ancient world and today’s society do not affect the application of the text. For example, the repeated admonitions of Scripture to take care of the poor remain directly applicable, even though the means by which that is done may have changed. By contrast, the Old Testament commands the people of God to keep the Sabbatical year, in which the land was to lie fallow for one year in seven (Lev. 25:1-7), the year of Jubilee, in which on the 50th year, all land was returned to its original owners (Lev. 25:10-17), and the right of redemption, in which property had to be returned to an impoverished family member in order to give him or her the opportunity to make a living (Lev. 25:47-55). These principles cannot be directly applied today, because they were written to a society that revolved around subsistence agriculture, not a modern information age economy in which very few people are tied to the land to make their living. Rather, we must glean a general principle from each of these commands that can be applied to the different setting of today.
At first glance, the Bible appears to condemn the accumulation of wealth. Classic passages of Scripture such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:25) and “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20) suggest that possession of wealth is suspect while poverty is virtuous. These texts should be balanced by others that present wealth in a different perspective. These include the sayings of the Old Testament wisdom literature that regard wealth as God’s blessing to be enjoyed (Eccl. 5:18-20) and a result of one’s diligence (Prov. 10:4-5). Similarly, in the New Testament, while Paul counsels Timothy to keep wealth in proper perspective (1 Tim. 6:6-19), Paul acknowledges that God gives liberally to his people for their enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17). Yet this acknowledgment is balanced by admonitions not to trust in one’s wealth because of the temptation to arrogance and of the uncertainty involved in retaining wealth (see also Eccl. 5:8-6:12), and thus, conversely, to be content with one’s economic station in life.
The Bible distinguishes between possession of wealth and love of wealth. Only the latter is condemned (1 Tim. 6:10). The love of wealth and desire to become wealthy bring a variety of temptations and have the potential to shipwreck one’s spiritual life (1 Tim. 6:9). Yet the members of the early church and the crowds who followed Jesus entailed the socio-economic spectrum from the poor to the wealthy. From what we know of Jesus’ background and his trade as a carpenter, it would appear that he lived a modest middle class lifestyle in contrast to many portrayals of him in poverty. It does not appear that the possession of wealth per se is problematic in Scripture, but hoarding one’s wealth when surrounded by poverty is a sign of selfishness and greed. Throughout Scripture, the wealthy are condemned for their callousness to the needs of the poor (Amos 4:1-4; James 2:1-7). The early days of the church were characterized by an extraordinary generosity toward the poor, many of whom constituted the majority of the membership in the early church (Acts 2:43-47). Though the pattern of the early church did not involve a socialistic style of holding property in common, it did involve heightened sensitivity to the needs of the poor. Though the Bible affirms the right to private property, this right is not absolute. It is tempered by the reality that all property belongs to God and that we are trustees or stewards of God’s property. God has entrusted his property to us, both for our personal needs and enjoyment and for use to achieve God’s purposes (such as meeting the needs of the poor).
The pursuit of wealth in the ancient world was fraught with potential problems, which made it easy to view those who possessed wealth with moral and spiritual skepticism. Though the temptations facing the pursuit of wealth today should not be minimized, some important differences exist between the modern and ancient economic systems that may partially account for the strong cautions about wealth. For example, in the ancient world, as a general rule, people became wealthy differently than in today’s market system. The ancient economic system was largely centered around subsistence agriculture with limited commerce and trade. Real estate was the predominant productive asset. The ancient economy is best described as what is called a “zero sum game.” The pool of economic resources was relatively fixed, so that when one person became wealthy, it was usually at the expense of someone else. Stated differently, the economy was like a pie. When someone took a larger piece, someone else received a smaller piece. This set up numerous opportunities to attain wealth abusively by theft, taxation, or extortion. One of the most common instances of this abuse was for those who had resources to loan money to the poor at terms they could not repay, requiring what little land the poor owned as collateral. Then when the debtors inevitably defaulted, the lender appropriated their land. The debtors became tenant farmers or slaves or were reduced to dependence on charity. This form of taking advantage of the poor occurred regularly in the ancient world and is one of the reasons why the Bible so frequently condemns exploitation of the poor. In these cases, literally, the rich became richer at the expense of the poor, and when someone was wealthy, more often than not, they had acquired it through some immoral means. Thus, the wealthy were viewed with suspicion and great emphasis was placed on the potential temptations of becoming wealthy, because the ancient world had so few morally legitimate avenues to acquire great wealth.
Though it is certainly true that the poor continue to be exploited, in the market system, the zero sum game type of economic system no longer exists. The market system is in various stages of development in different parts of the world, but in more mature market systems, the economy is anything but a zero-sum game. In modern industrial economies, the economic pie itself is constantly increasing. Wealth is being created instead of simply being transferred. In fact, every time a company makes a profit, wealth is created and the size of the pie grows larger. For this reason, the rich can become wealthy, while at the same time, the poor can also be better off. That is why the incomes of the poor can and have increased at the same time as the wealth of the rich accumulates, though admittedly at very different rates. Someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet simply having extraordinary wealth does not mean that the poor are necessarily worse off. Nor does it necessarily follow that Gates’ or Buffet’s wealth was gained at the expense of someone else. In a modern market economy, wealth is constantly being created, so that it is possible for someone to become wealthy without necessarily succumbing to the temptations about which Scripture warned. Today’s market economy makes it far easier to be wealthy and virtuous than did the agricultural subsistence economy of the ancient world.
Of course, the same admonitions about not succumbing to the temptations that accompany the pursuit of wealth directly apply today, as do the commands to share generously with those in need. One’s attitude toward and generosity with one’s wealth are fundamentally conditions of the heart that have not changed since the ancient world. Regardless of one’s level of wealth, one is still expected to depend on God, not on money for one’s hope, to share God’s heart for the poor, and to be generous toward those in need.
This article originally appeared in the 2002 November and December issue of Religion & Liberty. Dr. Scott B. Rae is currently Professor of Biblical Studies-Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California.