This will be the last share of the chapter from Ron Sider’s super-challenging book, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’ [do yourselves a favour and get hold of a copy and let it ruin you in the best of ways!]
We ended the last post with:
The threat of a curse always accompanied the promise of blessing (Deuteronomy 6.14-15; 28.15-68; 8.11-20). As we discovered in the last to chapters, one of God’s most frequent commands to His people was to feed the hungry and to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. For repeatedly ignoring this command, Israel experienced God’s curse. Israel’s prosperity in the days of Amos and Isaiah was not the result of divine blessing. It was the result of sinful oppression of the poor. God consequently destroyed the nation.
The Bible does teach that God rewards obedience with prosperity. But it denies the converse. It is a heresy, particularly common in the West, to think that wealth and prosperity are always a sure sign of righteousness. They may be the result of sin and oppression as in the case of Israel. The crucial test is whether the prosperous are obeying God’s command to bring justice to the oppressed. If they are not, they are living in damnable disobedience to God. On biblical grounds, therefore, one can be sure that prosperity in the context of injustice is not a sign of righteousness.
Let’s finish this chapter…
= = = = = = = = = =
The connection between righteousness, prosperity and concern for the poor is explicitly taught in Scripture. The picture of the “good wife” in Proverbs 31 provides one beautiful illustration. She is a diligent businesswoman who buys fields and engages in trade (vs.14, 16, 18). She is a righteous woman who fears the Lord (vs.30). Her obedience and diligence clearly bring prosperity. But material possessions do not harden her heart against the poor: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (vs. 20).
Psalm 112 is equally explicit:
Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
who greatly delights in His commandments!…
Wealth and riches are in his house…
the Lord is gracious, merciful and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice…
He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor.
(Psalm 112.1, 3-5, 9)
The righteous person distributes his riches freely to the poor. He works to establish justice for the oppressed. That kind of life is a sign that one’s prosperity results from obedience rather than oppression.
God wills prosperity with justice. But that does not mean that wealthy persons who make Christmas baskets and give to relief have satisfied God’s demand. God wills justice for the poor. And justice, as we have seen, means things like the Jubilee and the sabbatical remission of debts. It means economic structures that check the emergence of extremes of wealth and poverty. It means massive economic sharing among the people of God. Prosperity without that kind of biblical concern for justice unambiguously signifies disobedience.
We have seen that the Old Testament teaches that material possessions sometimes result from divine blessing. But is this view compatible with Jesus saying: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20)? Does Jesus consider poverty itself a virtue? Furthermore, how can one reconcile the Lucan version of this beatitude with Matthew’s version: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5.3)
The development of the idea of the “pious poor” in the centuries just prior to Christ helps answer these questions. Already in the Psalms the poor were often identified as the special objects of God’s favour and protection precisely because they were oppressed by the wicked rich (see, for example, Psalm 8). When Greece and then Rome conquered Palestine, Hellenistic culture and values were foisted upon the Jews. Those who remained faithful to Yahweh often suffered financially. Thus the term poor came to be used to describe faithful Jews. “It was virtually equivalent to pious, God-fearing, and godly and reflects a situation where the rich were mainly those who had sold out to the incoming culture and had allowed their religious devotion to become corrupted by the new ways. If the poor were the pious, the faithful and largely oppressed, the rich were the powerful, ungodly, worldly, even apostate.”
In such a setting the righteous are often poor, hungry, and sad, not just “in spirit” but in reality. Matthew has not “spiritualised” Jesus’ words. He has simply captured another aspect of Jesus’ original meaning. Jesus was talking about those faithful persons who so hungered for righteousness that they sacrificed even their material prosperity when that became necessary. Jesus then did not mean that poverty and hunger are desirable in themselves. But in a sinful world where frequently success and prosperity are possible only if one transgresses God’s law, poverty and hunger are indeed a blessing. The kingdom is for precisely such people.
Jesus’ comment in Mark 10.29-30 adds further clarification. He promised that those who forsake all for the kingdom will receive a hundredfold even in this life. And he even included houses and lands, part of the good creation intended for our enjoyment. In the same sentence, however, He also promised persecution! Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – the wicked, powerful and rich will persecute those who dare to follow Jesus’ teaching without compromise. Hunger and poverty often result. In such a time the poor and hungry disciples are indeed blessed.
I fear that we may be at the threshold of such an age. The time may soon come when those who dare preach and live what the Bible teaches about the poor and possessions will experience terrible persecution. If the wars of redistribution envisaged by Heilbroner become a reality, if affluent lands go to war to protect their unfair share of the world’s food and resources, then persecution in affluent countries will inevitably occur.
In such an age faithful Christians will continue to assert that property rights are not absolute. They will courageously insist that the right of individuals and nations to use land and resources as they please is subordinate to the right of all people to eat and to earn a just living. They will understand more profoundly than today Jesus’ carefree unconcern for possessions. As they see fellow church members choose security and affluence rather than faithfulness and persecution, they will realise how dangerous indeed are possessions and wealth. Certainly they will not despise the good gifts of creation. But when forced to choose between possessions and the kingdom, they will gladly forsake the ring for the Beloved.
= = = = = = = = = =
There ends the chapter… challenging stuff hey? But what do we do now? Clearly this end piece is quite optimistic by Ron. And also remember this book was written in 1977 and yet still rings so true in so many ways.
If you missed any of the other parts of this passage, make sure you catch up: