Guest post by Stephen Waldron. Originally published on his blog at Theology Corner.
In some parts of the Bible, rich people are portrayed as the worst kind of criminals. They grind vulnerable people into dust, and they are the enemies of all that is good and holy. But wait…
Surely you’ve heard there are also good rich people in the Bible. So the problem of wealth must relate to some sort of internal sin, a “problem of the heart.”
It is true that one thing that Jesus points out is that people’s hearts are often in the wrong place. They are. But the point Jesus was making by linking hatred to murder and greed to wealth wasn’t “The tangible expression of wickedness isn’t all that bad after all.”
Rather, his point was that the moral sickness runs much deeper than his listeners might have suspected. The wealthy are not off the hook just yet. Their greed only compounds an already unjust situation.
Another part of the religious defense of wealth stems from the Just World Hypothesis, the psychological desire that people have to think that the world is just and that people generally get what they deserve. That hypothesis is false, but it is also extremely attractive, especially to religious people who believe in an infinitely good and powerful God.
That false hypothesis is popularly linked to the idea that there are rich people in the Bible who, like God (or at least Spider-Man), combine great power with great responsibility. On closer examination, this improvised defense of economic inequality falls apart.
Before dismantling biblical defenses of the rich, though, let’s remember just how harshly biblical authors condemn accumulated personal wealth. Biblical texts that critique those who hoard wealth are found across time periods and literary genres, and they are not easy reading for millionaires and billionaires.
The Torah, a collection of five books traditionally associated with Moses and sometimes called the “Law,” envisions an Israelite society in which wealth is equally distributed among families and periodically redistributed to prevent inequality from happening. For the ancient Near Eastern context, it is a fairly radical vision of how wealth should be treated.
Land, which was the main form of wealth (along with domesticated animals), was to be held by each family in perpetuity. Any sale of land by one family to another was only a temporary purchase to be undone every 70 years during a Year of Jubilee. (As with most great ideas in the Bible, no one seems have tried this one out.)
That’s one reason why it was so appalling that King Ahab killed his neighbor Naboth to steal his vineyard (his “ancestral inheritance”). It’s also why the Israelite prophets were so angry at those who “join field to field.”
Their stone houses and pleasant vineyards are linked to their theft of wealth from those who have been made poor. There’s little more vivid in the Bible than the descriptions of the idle rich that we find in Amos: their beds of ivory (how many elephants were killed!?), their idle songs on the harp, their bowls of wine, their simultaneous lounging and revelry. The Hamptons are nothing new.
The prophet Micah even uses the metaphor of war to describe what the rich and powerful have done to their neighbors. Those driven from their houses by elites are depicted as war refugees, and even religious officials were complicit in this class warfare. Wealth is connected to violence.
Well, maybe the ancient prophets had some issues with wealth accumulation, but Jesus was a nice guy, right?
For the most part he was, but not really to rich people. It’s kind of embarrassing how rude he was to them. It started with his mother predicting that, with the arrival of Jesus, the rich would be sent away empty-handed.
And they were. In a story that made it into 3 of 4 gospels, Jesus told a rich man that he had to give up his possessions to inherit eternal life, then he delivered his classic “camel through the eye of a needle” line. That guy apparently didn’t inherit eternal life. In contrast, when the rich man Zacchaeus gave his wealth to the poor and repaid those from whom he had stolen, he became a shining example of what “salvation” looks like. Apparently, it looks a lot like economic redistribution.
As if this was not enough, in one of the few stories in the Bible about hell, a rich guy goes there for being rich. We have no idea what his religious beliefs or practices were, just that he was rich, that another man was poor, and that the rich guy went to hell. In this story, it seems that God literally afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
That gives a concrete image to the declaration Jesus made that his followers who were poor would be blessed and those who were rich would be cursed. Jesus also told his followers not to invite rich people to dinner, and he pointed out the foolishness of accumulating wealth for yourself because you’re going to die anyhow.
OK, but surely other New Testament authors weren’t as angry at job creators as the writers of the Gospels seem to have been?
They were. 1 Timothy assures us that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation,” while James borders on making death threats against the wealthy. Not content to merely argue that “God [has] chosen the poor,” James further contends that is it “the rich who oppress you.” The gold and silver of the rich are going to… um… eat their flesh, and, by not paying their landscapers, the rich have “condemned and murdered the righteous one” and “fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” Well then.
There are a few “good” rich people who get trotted out every time the wealthy need a defender, but these cases don’t stand up under a little scrutiny.
First of all, the whole point of Paul’s argument about Abraham in Romans was that Abraham didn’t do much that was especially righteous, he just demonstrated “faith,” faithful trust in God. As Hebrews points out, Abraham was significant because he believed God and left his hometown to go on a journey, then later tried to kill his own son.
But still, he ended up owning a lot of animals and slaves, so that means God blessed him with wealth, right? Oh… slaves.
Maybe he was at least a good family man, though? Except that Abraham obtained much of his wealth from the Pharaoh by giving away his own wife because he was paranoid. It all makes sense in the context of the story, though.
There’s also the part where Abraham wanted a son and used his wife’s slave to try to make that happen, which was basically just rape but maybe it was ok because she was a “slave-girl?” Then, once Abraham had a son with his own wife, he sent Hagar and her son into the wilderness to die.
Maybe Abraham wasn’t so righteous and was only blessed despite what a terrible person he was, not because he was somehow good.
Well, then, what about God’s servant Job? He was wealthy before calamity struck, and God made him twice as rich afterward. Surely that’s an example of God blessing a good person with wealth.
First, we have to acknowledge the obvious fact that Job is a completely fictional character. There’s no reason to think that Job existed outside this peculiar book that is supposed give readers wisdom about life, not information about actual events. (Unless you think someone was taking verrry extensive notes on clay tablets as Job scratched his sores with broken pots and complained to his friends in between their grandstanding speeches.)
Furthermore, the point of the book is not about Job’s wealth. Instead, it’s about things like the question of suffering and the frailty of human existence. The fact that Job was wealthy is just part of telling a good story. If he had been at the median wealth level, the story of his downfall and suffering would be far less gripping.
JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA
Although the Gospels don’t say much about Joseph of Arimathea, he is mentioned in all four Gospels as the one who asked for the body of Jesus and buried it in a rock tomb. One Gospel, Matthew, describes him as a rich man, while Luke describes him as “good and righteous.” Mark and Luke say that he was waiting for the kingdom of God, while John says that he was secretly a disciple of Jesus because of his fear.
There’s one simple explanation for how this guy could be both rich and good. He was good from the authors’ perspectives because he did something nice for Jesus. He was rich (according to Matthew) in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53:9:
They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
If Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a tomb for Jesus, was rich, then Jesus would have been buried “with the rich.” This verse from Isaiah offers a clear and unflattering parallel between the wicked and the rich, though. Being buried “with the rich,” like having a grave “with the wicked,” was an undeserved punishment for someone who had been innocent of being either wicked or rich.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Politically, there is plenty that can be done about the accumulation of personal wealth, and you can figure some things out on your own, I’m sure.
On a personal level, you probably shouldn’t spit in the face of every rich person you meet, for many reasons. But the Bible says we shouldn’t treat rich people especially well either.
Most importantly, we should not assume that rich people are good. As much as those who already own virtually everything would also like to own God, that is an unacceptable form of idolatry. It involves remaking God as one who wants people to accumulate wealth at the expense of others and is happy when they do so.
Instead, we have to presume from the teachings of Jesus that the accumulation of personal wealth takes people far from the kingdom of God. Much more than people with average wealth and incomes, rich people ought to repent and save themselves from the coming wrath. Like the man who built larger and larger barns to store his growing wealth, their lives will soon be demanded of them. After all, the only person we see in hell in the Bible went there for being rich.
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