Monday, February 27, 2012

Theologies of Poverty and Prosperity

"Every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to use it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God." - Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 5:19
There is a great conversation in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Perchik is talking with his future Jewish father-in-law, Tevye.  Perchik, as a good Marxist, thinks economic inequality is the cause of all social ills.  His outspoken opinion leads to the following conversation:

“Money is a curse from God.” -Perchik
“May He smite me with it, and may I never recover.” - Tevye

     That line always makes me laugh, but it's actually not the best theology.  Solomon wrote, “Two things I ask: Keep deception and lies far from me,  give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me my portion, that I do not become full, deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Don’t let me be in want and steal, and profane the name of God" (Proverbs 30:7-8).
     Solomon, who is legendary for his wealth, learned a lesson that is hard for those of us without his money to grasp:  money is not the answer.  In fact, money can make us forget the One who brings us true wealth.  On the the other hand, poverty's not that desirable either, because our temporary lack can make us bitter toward the One who is apparently not interested in our wealth at all.  That middle ground of wealth is one of provision without excess; needs without hardship.

     The New Testament does not focus as much on the connection between physical abundance and God's blessing.  In fact, the New Testament clearly establishes that any situation in life can be a blessing. At the beginning of the book of James (perhaps the first epistle written to the early church), we read that wealth and poverty can both be a trial - and a blessing:  "Let the poor who lead a humble life rejoice when they are raised to a higher position; but the rich should rejoice in being brought to a  lower position of humility.  It is a good reminder that riches will pass away like flowers in a field.   The sun rises with his scorching heat and dries everything up, so that flowers drop their petals and the beauty of their appearance perishes.  In the same way rich with all their prosperity will fade away." (James 1:9-11)

 Point #1: If you’re poor and you get rich, awesome.

    I think we instinctively agree with this.  Any time we overcome a trial and come out the other side, that’s awesome.  It doesn’t have to just be money.  It could be working through a difficult situation in your marriage, or having a season where you and your kids find peace; maybe you are finally pain-free, or you reach a point where the lingering effects of your past addictions or sins fade more then ever before. Those are all good things.
    If you were once poor, but are now rich, that’s reason to rejoice.

Point #2: If your rich and you become poor, that’s awesome too.  It’s a great reminder that money is a bad savior.
    This is not so instinctively correct.  Is James serious?  Losing ground is a blessing?  Well, yes.   This falls under the “consider it all joy” category at the beginning of James.  It reminds us that we cannot worship the wrong things.

Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is "finding his place in it," while really it is finding its place in him.  -  C. S. Lewis

    Rough spots in marriage can sometimes be a blessing. Maybe we will start looking to God instead of our spouse to “complete us.”  Pain can sometimes be a blessing – maybe it makes us seek medical help we need, or it reminds us that our bodies are temporary things, and we shouldn’t worship health and beauty either.  In the same way, if you were once rich but you are now poor, you have reason to rejoice.

Wealth is a thing God can give or not give.  A Theology of Poverty (everybody who follows Christ should be poor since money is so bad) is no more biblical than a Theology of Prosperity (everybody who follows Christ should be rich because money is so good).  Neither one sees the message of scripture in its entirety.  



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