It has been very interesting to see how Jesus has been adopted by the protestors outside St Paul’s Cathedral, who have clearly assumed that he is an anti-capitalist who would automatically endorse their views. There is much that we read in the gospels that clearly shows Jesus was profoundly opposed to the exploitation of the poor and that he cared deeply about justice, and it’s not only in the gospels that we see God’s attitude to poverty.
But does it follow from this that poverty is always a more godly state than wealth? I fear that a very profound and challenging message of Jesus has been turned into a rather shallow and simplistic message that it is better to be poor than rich and that God is inevitably more pleased with the poor than the wealthy. But is that really the case?
Jesus was obviously concerned with people’s physical condition, which is why we see him healing the sick and feeding hungry crowds, but actually his concern for people’s physical condition always seems to have been secondary, with his concern for their spiritual condition being rather more important. When he met a paralysed man who had been lowered through the roof he firstly addressed that man’s spiritual needs by forgiving his sins. He then went on to heal him, but his reason for doing so, he tells us, was to prove his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). Similarly when he fed the hungry crowds he did so not just to satisfy their hunger but in order to show them their real need, which was not bread but himself, the ‘bread’ that leads to eternal life (John 6).
The Bible is often misquoted as saying ‘money is the root of all evil’, but actually that’s not what it says at all. What it says is “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). The comparison is not between rich and poor, but between those who love money and those who don’t. It’s not only the rich who might love money – the poor can long for it just as much, or perhaps even more so. The real issue in the Bible is not whether or not we have money, it’s whether or not we love the money that we may or may not have more than we love God.
It’s not just the capitalists that Jesus would point his finger at, but actually he calls everyone to evaluate our attitude towards money, and if we love it more than him, if we trust it or any of our other material things for our security or comfort instead of trusting him for those things, then he calls us, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, to repent and to see him as our greatest treasure and our only hope.
There seems to be a contradiction in Deuteronomy 15. V.4 says “there will be no poor among you.” V. 11 says “there will never cease to be poor in the land. So which is it to be? Will there be no poverty, or will there always be poverty?
If God’s people rise to the challenge of vv. 7-8 there will be no contradiction. God instructed the Israelites to be generous in their support of the poor. “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” If God’s people rise to that challenge there will be no contraction: there will always be poor people in our midst but they will be so well cared and provided for that their poverty will be brought to a quick end.
Two quick reflections on these verses. Firstly God’s instruction is to our thinking as well as our action. We are called to respond to poverty with both our heart and our hand. We should be moved by it, and we should do something about it. We should have compassion, and take action. It’s no good having one without the other. It’s probably obvious to us that having compassion but not doing anything about it is no good to anyone, but it might come as a surprise that being generous, but without really caring, isn’t good enough either.
Secondly, a word about lending. In this context lending is no different from giving. The chapter is about the Sabbatical Year. Every seven years the Israelites were to write off all their debts. If you lent in the first year you had the best part of seven years in which to be repaid. If you lent in the seventh year, well the chances were that you wouldn’t be repaid. But God is very clear in vv. 9-10: the fact that you might well not be repaid was certainly not a valid reason for not lending. “Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near’… you shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him…” We have the same point made more forcefully on the lips of Jesus in Luke 6:35 “…lend, expecting nothing in return…”
God’s people, then, are called to care about poverty and to do something about it. This should come as a great challenge to those of us who care a great deal about evangelism but who care and do little about poverty. It is of course right that we never allow social justice to take place of evangelism: what good is it to set people up for life if they remained ruined for eternity? But if we think that evangelism means that we are excused from caring about, or doing anything about, poverty, then we deservedly come under God’s rebuke.