Now, a more important set of objections, variously expressed, was that I was acting like it’s bad to be rich. These I think are misunderstandings of my point. One person, for example, said, “And you are missing the backdrop assumption of Proverbs, which is that virtuous life, rightly lived, will generally result in wealth. That backdrop assumption -- that the righteous rich need to guard against unrighteousness (e.g. a bribe) -- is a very different assumption than saying they need to guard against wealth itself.”
I never said that they need to “guard against wealth itself” and never denied that “the virtuous life, rightly lived, will generally result in wealth” (though I would suggest that, in the New Testament, this Old Testament promise is tempered with the expectation that the faithful will suffer much persecution, which often means poverty). My contention was quite simply against the claim that Proverbs is primarily concerned with the sins of the poor—on the contrary, Proverbs spends a lot more time dealing with temptations and sins that are most characteristic of the rich. Indeed, this is what we would expect given the backdrop assumption you raise. If a righteous man will normally end up wealthy, it makes perfect sense that Proverbs would take a good deal of time warning such righteous men of the temptations they will face: “If you follow the Lord, he will grant you riches; therefore, make sure you are not like other rich men, who put their confidence in riches and begin to oppress the poor.”
Another objector (Luke) said:
”Your conclusion at the end seems a guilt-trip for Americans. I think you're over-generalizing Americans; most wealthy Americans are the individualist-success-story type who work their butts off for their money, and idolize their work. While that's a ditch in and of itself, those Christians who have worked hard for a good-sized, honest living (which is many of us) need feel no guilt just because we have something that others don't have.
Many, many Americans have gained their wealth through hard labor (consider the farmers!). Many of us are not relaxing on our plush armchairs denouncing the hard-working souls in the ghettos. Rather, many Americans are hard-working, industrious people, and God blessed our Christian fore-fathers with prosperity which we still experience. You're over-generalizing America. From the Lord come riches and honor (1 Chronicles 29:12).”
There are a number of interesting issues raised by this remark, some of which I am still sorting through. I think there’s great danger in the typical conservative reaction that as long as someone gained their work through decent, honest labor, everything is fine and dandy. For one thing, capitalist ideology has taught us to treat the “profit motive” as morally neutral, rather than as being, at best, on a fine line bordering on greed. In the Old Testament, all kinds of laws were laid down limiting how much property and wealth one could acquire—not how you were allowed to acquire it, but whether you were allowed to require it. The jubilee laws which returned fields to their original owners every fifty years meant that no family could acquire a disproportionate amount of wealth in the long-term, no matter how honestly they went about it. To seek to keep on acquiring land and riches, even if it was by good, honest work, would have been considered a form of greed in the Old Testament. Some of the prophets’ most vicious condemnations are aimed at the city of Tyre for their greed, and they were a peaceful trading people! They didn’t conquer and pillage; they were simply shrewd merchants, but because they were fixated on acquisition, they were condemned. The Bible frequently does not make this neat distinction between acquiring riches and acquiring them by evil means—it roundly condemns the rich either way. I’m not sure what we are to make of that in every case and how we are to apply it to modern America, but it’s there in the Bible. Part of the reason, no doubt, for such blanket condemnations are that the Bible recognizes how readily greed follows upon wealth. It doesn’t matter if Americans gained their work by hard, honest labor; they can still be condemned for being repulsively greedy now (not every single one, of course, but most of us, me included). So I guess I would happily accept that my conclusion is a guilt-trip for Americans. That does not mean that I am trying to say that Biblically, every single American and every single wealthy person stands condemned—of course not, and God blesses the righteous with riches—but Biblically, every single American and every single wealthy person stands in need of self-examination on this issue. Luke’s objection and another objection seem to suggest that guilt-tripping is a bad thing. Paul certainly didn’t think so: “Having food and raiment, let us therewith be content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness.” (1 Tim. 6:9-11). James is considerably less tactful: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.” (Jas. 5:1-3)
Though this may have the appearance of a trivial dispute, I don’t think it is. Conservatives tend to be particularly suspicious of the poor and their sins, and rather comfortable that the many appearances of greed among wealthy American Christians are simply a healthy manifestation of the profit motive. We need to recover a Biblical emphasis, which is that God is much more concerned that the rich will oppress the poor or begin to idolize their riches than that the poor will become lazy or will begin to idolize their poverty. And if someone tries to say that, “Actually, that’s a misrepresentation of the Biblical emphasis; there’s plenty of parts of the Bible with the opposite emphasis”; I think it’s very important to see what those parts of the Bible actually say. And what they actually say, of course is not, “The poor are pure and innocent, and the rich are rotten sinners,”—of course they’re concerned about sins on both sides; but the warnings to the rich are clearly more frequent and emphatic than warnings the other way. And thus our warnings must be too.
I’ve been out of commission for quite a while due to a blast of out-of-town visitors, finals, graduation, illness, an anniversary, and a friend’s wedding. But I finally have an opportunity to come back to something I posted more than a month ago, which generated some substantive interaction, both on the blog and privately—my post on Poverty and Riches in Scripture.
I wanted to interact with some of the objections I encountered (and this will include some bits from my response to Pastor Wilson’s interaction through email). I really appreciated his feedback, as well as from my friend Ben and from Luke here on the blog, but I think there were a few misunderstandings.
First, a couple caveats—I readily admit that my post was one-sided and oversimplistic…I recognize that most of what I write in these casual settings is…but I also think that it is substantially on-target. The details I point out are quite debatable—the main point is not, I think.
Now, some objections. On the blog, Luke said,
“If the Bible gives a command once versus repeating it 40 times to the hard-hearted, that doesn't mean it's any less important. For example, Proverbs 13:24:
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. - This is the only place in Scripture (that I know of) which commands quick discipline, yet it is SO important in raising a child - crucial, even.
You may be right that the sins of the rich are hammered on more than sins of the poor, but that doesn't mean that the "Bible's not too worked up about it." It means the authors didn't run into that sin as frequently. It probably means that the dangers of being rich are greater than the dangers of being poor, but in no way that God is more approving of the laziness of the poor than of the rich.”
A couple things here. First, I think verse-counting is a rather crude tool to use, and I don’t want to rest more on it than ought to be rested on it. There are few verses that give explicit support for the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. However, if the claim is made “These Biblical authors were much more concerned about Issue X than about Issue Y,” then, while other things will obviously have to be taken into account, it is fair to respond by going to the text and seeing how often, and how explicitly, the author talks about Issue X relative to Issue Y. If Issue Y is dealt with considerably more often and in more detail than Issue X, then it is possible that the claim that Issue X is more important than Y can still be maintained, but certainly there is now a heavy burden of proof on the person making that claim.
Additionally, I never meant to suggest that just because the sins of the poor are dealt with less frequently, they are therefore not really sins, or not as bad, and the Bible is happy to turn a blind eye to them. Of course they are still sins, and must be confronted where they appear. But, for whatever reason, none of the Biblical authors appear to be as concerned about them as they are about the sins of the rich. Probably this is because they seemed to be less frequent, and to have less severe and far-reaching consequences (if a poor man is lazy, he hurts only himself, and perhaps his family; if a rich man is greedy, he hurts himself and anyone weaker than him). And the claim I was responding to was precisely the claim that certain Biblical authors were more concerned about the sins of the poor than the sins of the rich, and so the relative verse-count is relevant.
Now, a couple words about that verse-count. A couple people responded that I seemed to be applying a double-standard—refusing to see verses referring to laziness as aimed at the poor, but insisting on seeing verses referring to greed as aimed at the rich. If the lazy can be found among the rich, then certainly the greedy can be found among the poor. This objection doesn’t work, I don’t think, for quite a number of reasons. First is general experience: a general survey of all times and places in the world yields, I think, the clear conclusion that the sin of greed is most often associated with the rich (though when you create a welfare mentality among the poor, they pick up this sin readily), but not the clear conclusion that laziness is primarily associated with the poor (though again, in welfare states, this connection becomes extremely common). Part of the potential confusion here is that we have what we could call preconditional and postconditional sins that we are talking about, and Scriptural injunctions regarding both. What am I talking about? Well, there’s two ways in which the sin of laziness could be linked to poverty—either as a cause (pre-condition), or as a result (post-condition). Laziness can certainly be adduced as a cause of poverty (though we should be very slow to jump to this conclusion, rather than very fast, as we tend to be in middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America), and so, in this sense, laziness is a sin associated with poverty, but it is not really that accurate to refer to it as a “sin of the poor” in the sense that those who are poor are likely to be tempted to laziness. If this latter were true, we could speak of laziness as a “post-conditional” sin of the poor. In certain cases, it can be; a hard-working man may fall on hard times and then despair, leading him to be listless and lazy; but just as often, someone who has been rather lazy finds themself in poverty and learns to work hard to stay afloat. I don’t see evidence that, in the normal course of affairs (absent paternalism and a welfare state), laziness is particularly a temptation for the poor, although it may be true that a disproportionate number of poor people are lazy, because, being lazy, they became poor. If this is the case, however, what you should do is to warn the lazy against becoming poor, rather than warn the poor against being lazy.
So then how does laziness relate to the wealthy? Not as a pre-conditional sin, certainly—it is quite possible to be lazy and become rich, but not normal. But quite often as a post-conditional sin; that is, if you are rich, it is quite likely that you will be tempted to become lazy. Indeed, innumerable are the stories of wealthy young heirs who through laziness and selfishness found themselves in poverty. Thus, if you are warning against laziness, you might want to particular warn the rich, especially rich young men, since they are particularly likely to fall into this temptation. And indeed, it seems to me that this is what you tend to see in Proverbs’ warnings regarding laziness.
What about greed? How does it relate to poverty? As a pre-conditional sin? Well, sometimes certainly—many have been the greedy who bet too much on a wild scheme and ended up ruined—but not usually. As a post-conditional sin? In our welfare society, I think we would definitely say yes. By treating the poor as if they deserve handouts, no matter what, we teach them to expect handouts, no matter what, and to become greedy for whatever they can get their hands on. And we’ve started doing the same thing to African countries! But poverty, in itself, does not tend to spawn greed (defined as coveting and seeking material goods and pleasures simply for their own sake, in excess of one’s needs). It tends to spawn a desire for enough to survive, enough to better one’s condition somewhat. If the poor person succeeds in bettering their condition somewhat, they may then start to become greedy; or they may not—they may be thankful and become generous. Certainly, there are plenty of poor people who are greedy, but the sin does not seem to be linked with poverty as such; it does not seem to be a common result of being poor.
But how does greed relate to riches? As both a pre-conditional and a post-conditional sin. Those who are rich have often become so through greed. Not all, of course, but many, and in our society, most. Many would jump up here and try to say, “No, that’s just through the profit motive, which isn’t greed—it’s legitimate self-interest! Don’t you understand capitalism?” I’m not sure, however, that the distinction capitalism makes here is one that the Bible makes; a difference of degree, perhaps, but not of kind. But that’s another discussion. So greed is definitely a pre-conditional sin of the wealthy (again, in the sense that it is often, not always, a cause of becoming wealthy). It is also a post-conditional sin. Plenty of natural revelation and Biblical testimony testify to the fact that the simple fact of having wealth creates a temptation to desire more and to become overly fixated with material goods. I think we in America are good evidence of this—we as Americans are on the whole very rich, and nearly all of us would be considered greedy by an observer from any other era, though we try to persuade ourselves that we are not. Given that greed tends to be a result of wealth, we could call it a post-conditional sin of wealth, and thus it is linked with wealth in a way that an exhortation to beware of greed could be taken as applying particularly to the rich.
Thus, based on this analysis of human nature, I think I am justified in treating Biblical exhortations to avoid greed as being primarily (though not exclusively) aimed at the wealthy, and in refusing to treat exhortations to avoid laziness as being primarily aimed at the poor (indeed, if I had been pushy, I would’ve insisted on treating exhortations to avoid laziness as primarily aimed at the rich as well, but I didn’t do that).
Second, I think I can justify this based on the Bible, where, quite frequently, warnings against greed are quite explicitly aimed at the rich (demonstrating that the Bible sees a close link here), and never against the poor—same goes for stories about greedy rich people vs. greedy poor people. I do not see in the Bible explicit links between laziness and poverty; certainly poor people can be lazy, but the Bible doesn’t make a point of linking the two in the way we often try to.
Third, even if I was wrong on this point, it would not change my central point about the relative focus on the sins of the rich vs. the sins of the poor in Proverbs and Paul—I could remove the general warnings against greed from my list and there would still be a preponderance of emphasis on the sins of the rich.
"All good theology is done on the cliff-edge--one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good."
--Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time