Christians Are Not Obligated to Poverty

January 16, 2010

One of the problems with Christianity is its size and complexity. If someone says something negative about the Church, that statement is almost certainly true at some level: there will be believers who commit the sin that has been observed. What’s more, the Bible is an incredibly complex, challenging, and altogether confusing document, leading people to think they know what it means even if they do not. Stereotypes abound about Christians and our religion, and these are applied en masse with the assumption that they are true. Christians shouldn’t smoke, shouldn’t drink, shouldn’t curse or dance. They should always give to the poor, never commit violence, and never accumulate wealth. And if someone doesn’t do these things (or does the things they oughtn’t), they aren’t Christian.

Each of these stereotypes is, of course, upheld by the Bible. To be more correct, we should say that each of these stereotypes is upheld by a verse in the Bible, and maybe even by a few verses. We have all heard the admonishments about “cherry picking” verses though, and as critical scholars and earnest Christians, we should examine the Bible with complete openness and honesty. We need to take the entire book into account and in context.

On the matter of poverty, a few assumptions have become common:

  1. If someone asks for something from a Christian, be it money, food, a coat, etc., the Christian ought to give it to them
  2. Christians should not be wealthy–if they are, it’s because they’re not doing what God told them to
  3. If a Christian does not give their material possessions away, they’re not a good Christian (or perhaps aren’t a Christian at all)

While the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, advises us to support the poor, widows, and orphans, and we should certainly give to anyone who needs help, the above assumptions aren’t entirely correct. Let’s look at some of the key verses and consider each of these points.

For reference, I am using the English Standard Version Study Bible by Crossway. Though my work is copyleft under the Creative Commons, everything from this translation falls under the following copyright statement:

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

If someone asks for something, give them everything

It is written in Matthew 5:40-42

And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

There’s an Internet forum I’ve been frequenting the last few months that is ostensibly Christian, but attracts a great many atheists who post questions and shout down the Christians who answer simply because the atheists don’t agree with the concept of deity. One of these posed me the following test: Give me everything you own; if you do not, you are not Christian. I refused him, and he went on to state that I either haven’t read the Bible or simply don’t understand it.

This interpretation of Matthew 5:40-42 (when someone asks you for something, you must give it to them) is an overly-simplistic conclusion based on these verses, rather than the entire Bible. What Jesus is saying here is something altogether more interesting and complex.

We should absolutely give to someone who is in need. The problem is judging when someone is “in need,” though, and the Bible differentiates between these two states (“in need” vs. “not in need”). If someone is forced to beg and is in need, we should help them, no questions asked. We are not obliged to help those who fall into the latter category.

First, Christians should not give foolishly. The ESV Study Bible cross-references Matthew 7:6 in regards to the above passage, where Jesus states

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

In a specific sense, Jesus is referring here to the message of the kingdom of God. The study notes additionally relate:

Pearls symbolize the great value of the message of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 13:45-46). Believers are to be merciful, forgiving, and slow to judge (7:1-5), yet they should wisely discern the true character of people and not indefinitely continue proclaiming the gospel to those who adamantly reject it, so that they can move on and proclaim the gospel to others (cf. 10:14; also Acts 13:46; 18:6; Titus 3:10-11).

By cross-referencing this passage and Matthew 5:40-42, the scholars who worked on this ESV study Bible suggest that we are likewise to not give of our money or other resources foolishly. We must be wise in our donation so we do not waste our time, talents, and material goods on those who would spurn them, or for whom they would not point to the glory of the kingdom of God.

This does not mean that we should not give to non-Christians. Charity to non-believers is a blessing intended to lead them to repentance (Acts 14:17; Romans 2:4) as well as to serve as common grace that God shows to all people, believers and non-believers. But if what we give will be used to spurn, mock, or attack the kingdom of God, we should spend our resources elsewhere.

Second, Christians should not give to those who are simply lazy. As St. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians, 3:10-11

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.

In my town there are a number of services, shelters, and places where the homeless can receive assistance. I have volunteered at several, donated my time and money, and I have conversed with several of the leaders of these services who are very active in our community. Knowing what I do of these services and their leaders, when I see a homeless person begging, I cannot help but wonder why they are not availing themselves of these services. I’ve studied mental health care in the United States and know the challenges facing the homeless, particularly the mentally ill (a group that accounts for a significant percentage of the homeless in the USA), but I often ask myself, “Why are they here asking me for money, instead of there working to get out of their current situation?”

The answer isn’t the same for everyone, and it’s difficult to know on an individual basis what the answer is, but in many cases it is because there is good money to be made in begging. For every ten or a hundred people who walk past a beggar, someone will give them money. Sometimes it’s a single dollar bill, and sometimes it’s a $10 or a $20. Easier than working, in many cases.

What’s more, there are a number of stories that are used like business cards in our town. “My girlfriend from St. Louis ditched me down here and I just need some money to get a bus ticket home.” “I just need to make a phone call.” “I just need money for gas.” When I have offered to take someone to the bus station to buy a ticket, or to let them use my phone, or to take them to the gas station, I have been rebuffed. What the asker really wanted was cash to do with as they pleased.

These are not the beggars we are called by Jesus to assist, because they are not asking out of need. They are not bereft of options and therefore have turned to begging as an absolutely last resort. People asking for money because they don’t want to work for it are lazy, and we needn’t fund their laziness.

As I said, this isn’t always the case. I wouldn’t even say it’s the majority of the cases (and certainly, I’ve encountered more of the mentally ill category of homeless in larger cities than in my relatively small town–the demographic here is different). But we must be wise in our charity.

Christians should not be wealthy

Christians have often struggled with concepts of wealth, particularly in light of the following passage in Matthew 19:23-26

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would lead one to believe, quite simply, “Rich people can’t go to heaven.” But if the rich are condemned by virtue of their wealth, does that mean the poor are justified by virtue of their poverty? Certainly not! As it is written in Ephesians 2:8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

From verse 23 in Matthew chapter 19, we must understand that “wealth is both deceptive and intoxicating: it fools a person into thinking that he or she is self-sufficient apart from God; and the rich person wants desperately to hold on to that supposed self-sufficiency” (from the Crossway study notes). Certainly, wealth leads one to believe they are self-sufficient more readily than poverty does, but the issue at hand is not being wealthy, but failing to rely on God.

I have referenced elsewhere Deuteronomy 28:1-14, which paints a picture of God’s abundant provision resulting in great wealth. This blessing is dependent upon obedience, however, and without obedience it falls apart. Certainly, there are those who are wealthy or well-rewarded who are not obedient, but material rewards are not the important aspect of a life with God. Rather, we are to consider more directly verse 24 above.

In Matthew 19:24, we are given the absurd picture of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Yes, it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven by virtue of being rich, but we know the truth from elsewhere in the Bible: it is impossible for any person on their own to enter the kingdom of God. That impossibility, rather than the wealth, is the important part of this passage. Wealth does not necessarily indicate blessing (despite Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and Jesus is stating here that it likewise does not guarantee a seat in heaven. But this passage does not intend to state that God’s blessing in the form of material goods therefore precludes one from entering His presence. Rather, all people are unable to enter God’s presence unless God provides the means for them to do so.

Those means are through Jesus, and as he states in verse 26, “with God all things are possible.”

You’re not a good Christian if you don’t give all your stuff away

As you might have surmised, the test, “Give me all your stuff, and if you don’t you aren’t Christian,” simply isn’t a correct interpretation of the scriptures. We are to give wisely, to the glory of the kingdom of God, and not to fund laziness. In regards to allowing people to borrow, we know that we are not to practice usury (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37), and as a general rule I don’t “lend” people money, but rather I just give them what they need. We should note that the same rules that are applicable to those who beg should likewise be used with those who borrow.

But what, then, do we do with verses that admonish us not to store up wealth? In Matthew 6:19-20 it is written

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

The key is in the first seven words: Do not lay up for yourselves… The issue here is one of motivation, and it is one we must be careful with. Evil actions are not justified by good intent, and good actions that arise from evil intent do not wholly justify the evil individual. But if God bestows wealth upon an individual, that is not an indication of sin in their life. Rather, God may lead us to be quite prosperous, and for this we should thank God. If he leads us to be impoverished with little or nothing that we own, we are advised to likewise be thankful and content in God’s provision. As it is written in 1 Timothy 6:6-10

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

It is important to remember that money is not the root of all kinds of evil. Rather, the love of money is responsible for evil.

The Riddle of Tithing

When attempting to understand the role of wealth and poverty in Christianity, I think a consideration of tithing is an important piece to the puzzle. As I was pondering this essay one day, the language I was attempting to use struck me as incorrect. I believe that everything we have is given to us by God: our health, our jobs, our money, our homes, etc. God gives us everything we have, and when we tithe it is common for us to think, “This ten percent is certainly the least I owe God.” That is true, in a sense, except how can we owe what we never earned? In terms of our every-day world, when we “owe” something it is because something was lended to us.

The concept of debt or “owing” something in regards to our relationship with God doesn’t seem an accurate one to me. Debt is a concept of this world based on borrowing something someone else owns and then needing to pay them back. But from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, 100% of what we have is God’s. He asks us to give 10% back. We are not giving God 10% of what we have earned–we are not bequeathing on our Holy Sovereign a tenth of what we have gotten for ourselves. God gives us 100%, and then asks that we give 10% back.

Why does God do this? Why does he not ask for 20%, or 50%, or 100%? I asked myself, “Why are we not commanded to be completely impoverished, giving away 100% of our time and money to benefit others? Why does God only ask for a tenth of what he has given us?”

The only conclusion I could reach is that God simply doesn’t want to. He does not want us to live impoverished, retaining nothing of what he has given us. I have afternoons where I can sit on my Sumo Sac and read for hours. God does not begrudge me this time, and I can only conclude that God wants me to have time to sit and read and enjoy the life he has given me–that God wants us to have money to travel and eat and have clothes and a warm, wonderful home.

God could have asked for 100%. He could have given me nothing, and he could ask for everything. He is certainly entitled. And he’s not entitled to ask this because I owe him everything, but because everything is already his. God does not ask this, but instead only asks for 10% of what he has given me. Therefore, I must conclude that God wants me to have that other 90%.

I do think that God is OK with us giving more than 10%, though he does not ask it of us. In my consideration, though, I cannot help but wonder if God is similarly OK with those who give up to 100%, particularly if it makes them a burden to others or places unnecessary hardship upon their families. Regardless, I have concluded that God wants us to live and enjoy our lives within the bounds of his scripture, and tithing is an important part of that.

Obligations

In essence, Christians are commanded to be content within the situation that God has placed them. Whether we are given much or little, we need to seek first the kingdom of God and not let our situation lead us to either a sense of self-sufficiency and independence from our Lord or, conversely, a sense of depression and hopelessness. If we are obligated at all (which we surely are), it is to God’s decrees, not to the stereotypes people attempt to force upon us. If we are to give to the poor, it must be within the context of wisdom, the direction of the Holy Spirit, and the guidance of scripture, not simply because someone told us to. And if we are to renounce this world, it must not be because we want to seem holier than others, but rather because God is holier than this world.

The Jews have a saying when faced with the complexities of the Hebrew Bible: “Why would you want a God that is easy to understand?” The Bible is challenging, and we need to be accepting of that. We also need to recognize and make allowances for it, and for ourselves, and by doing so drive ourselves to greater scholarship. No verse within the Bible stands on its own, but is a single thread in a great tapestry. Just as we all are part of the Body of Christ–the Holy Church–a verse in the Bible must be taken in the context of all the books of the Bible.

We have an obligation to God and to ourselves to learn more about this world and the life that he has given us, and to learn what he would have us do with this world and life. Just because God only asks for 10% does not mean that the 90% should be Godless. And as St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:14-17

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Just so, when the stereotypes are trumpeted and our faith condemned, we must be ready to give an account for our faith. We are not obligated to refrain from drinking or dancing, nor from being rich or poor. We are certainly obligated to love God and to love others, and to work to make disciples of all people by means of our testimony, our love for one another, and the truth we have found in Christ Jesus. This above all else we should do and, in so doing, everything else in our lives will fall into place.

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