Poverty and the Bible

We've all heard Skeptics and critics raise objections to rich televangelists (or even "normal" Christians) driving fine cars, eating the best food, and smoking the best cigars. In contrast, they note, Jesus advocated the giving up of wealth (Luke 14:33, Matt. 19:21, Mark 8:34, Matt. 19:23-24). So why, it is asked, aren't Christians all poor and giving away what they have?

Most such objectors commit a common error of supposing that advice given to one man (the rich young ruler) is universal. It is not -- it is given to him alone. Zaccheus was a tax collector, wealthy by the standard of the time, but was recognized for doing as much only as refunding several times over any person that had been cheated by him. Nicodemus was wealthy as a member of the Sanhedrin, but was not told to give up his riches. Abraham was a wealthy tribal chieftain, but was depicted by Jesus as being in paradise. Clearly the matter is not so simple as rich = hell, poor = heaven.

Critics actually get it closer when they cite Luke 3:11 which tells us to share our excess. But even so the matter is not so simple. Let's look at a few relevant social factors, courtesy of Pilch and Malina's Handbook of Biblical Social Values.

The first factor is altruism [8-9]. In the social world of the Bible it was normal to share one's surplus with others in order to support your social group. It was considered an obligation and a point of honor to give of your surplus.

This leads to the second factor, the concept of limited good [122-3]. In the ancient world, the world was seen as a "zero-sum" game. Resources were not inexhaustible, as we tend to believe today ("there's always more where that came from"), but were seen as limited. Practically speaking this was true, since there was no industry to unlock the resources we today take for granted. Mineral resources for example could only be painfully extracted from the earth using manual labor.

Finally, there is the factor of the client-patron relationship in which the wealthy sort of "adopted" the poor and provides basic necessities for them, in exchange for favors. Though the terms "client" and "patron" can refer specifically to Roman positions, the reciprocality of the relationship is reflected in a similar way in many cultures, including the Biblical one.

The reader will note that all three of these factors are non-existent in modern America. It will moreover be noted how things have changed in the interim. Governments today take taxes from us to support the poor and infirm; in the ancient world there were few if any such social services and their scope was limited ("bread and circuses" to keep the city of Rome happy). A patronage relationship is unusual; if this ministry, or Billy Graham crusades, could be supported by the favor of one or two people, and if their work could be supported by hospitality, that would be very nice, but it just doesn't happen.

Hence any objections to modern crusades and ministries not following Jesus' command to take little on missionary journeys misses the mark. Hospitality rules simply are no longer the same as they were in the Ancient Near East.

We live, moreover, in a society where capital can be put to work for us. In the ancient world there were no investment industries. In the long run, is Bill Gates better off giving away all his wealth now, or letting it work for him so he can provide sustenance for others in the long term -- or doing a mix of both?

Skeptics do not err in condemning personal indulgences such as gold Rolls Royces. However, they do err in seeing the matter of poverty in the Bible as offering lessons that can be readily and devoid of context be applied today. It is not valid to generalize from these particulars.