Blessed are the Poor
The portrayal of wealth in the Bible and in the early church fathers is extremely complex, and at times can seem contradictory. This traditional approach to the problems associated with wealth is not necessarily derogatory. Rich men are shown to be quite different than the most perfect followers of God, and later Christ, in cases like Solomon, Ahab, and the rich young man from the gospels. Rather than denouncing these men due to their riches, it seems that these parables and stories are exposing the actors as having a disordered sense of wealth.
In the Old Testament there are numerous examples to support the wealthy. Psalm 112 seems to support the thought that those of the faith would be rewarded with temporal riches, at least on a first reading. The blessed man receiving temporal rewards is not only for his own benefit. He is able to give liberally to his neighbors who are in need, and this reciprocal relationship is a theme among the parables and the early Church Fathers writings. This is a cornerstone of the theology of wealth. Wealth is for giving; sharing your excesses with your community is a boon to both the liberal giver and to the recipient. This theme is typically set alongside the misuse of wealth, especially the love of wealth as an end in itself. Wealth is, within this tradition, a dead thing. It is to be used toward other ends, hopefully virtuous ones. When hoarding wealth becomes the goal it is constantly condemned. This leaves the moral consideration of wealth up to case by case interpretation, based off the wealthy man’s actions toward his riches and toward his neighbors.
The Jubilee is another example of wealth being used for the good, because it is constantly directed towards an end other than itself. Land is returned to the hereditary owners and the poor members of a family are provided for by the wealthy. This goes a step further than the fields being left fallow for the benefit of the poor and the beasts every seven years. The entire estate is subject to the redistribution during the Jubilee year, in which there is a leveling of material wealth. Instead of one family gaining ownership of all the land, it is divided up as it was in the beginning. This prevents extreme wealth from occurring, just as it would prevent extreme poverty. The jubilee seems to set the tone for the type of interaction promoted through the rest of the Bible. The rich do not just get richer, they pursue wealth for a definite end: provision for the poor, great gifts to God, and toward the good of the community as a whole. Stability could also be the aim of the redistribution at Jubilee. This seems counterintuitive on the surface, but maintaining a strict schedule of economic interaction among the Israelites while excluding the Gentiles led to a deep sense of community for the Jews thousands of years after this policy was implemented. It seems that the Jubilee’s basic tenets are what the modern Church is expected to do, more or less. The poor among the Church are to be provided for, those who are in debt are to be assisted. This type of systematic economic interaction would allow easy distinction between the wealthy man who is wicked, and the one who is liberal with is wealth.
Psalms 73 and the Book of Amos both discuss wealth in a much harsher manner, but this is not a discussion of the wealthy man in general, but rather a denunciation of the wicked. In Psalms 73 the vices are all connected back to the wicked, rather than to the wealth itself. The psalm describes the fact that some wealthy men are wholly wicked, but instead of being punished they are rewarded with wealth and health. They receive their reward for what few good actions they may take here. Justice demands that each receive their due, and for the wicked wealthy man his riches are his only reward; a meager one in comparison to the reward which waits for the virtuous man, whatever his socioeconomic status.
In the Gospels we see an the old law blossom into the new, and the attitude toward wealth can become harsher in a gospel where the next kingdom is so clearly defined. In the Old Testament there was no promise of heaven, so the rewards of God were assumed to be of a temporal nature. The fulfilment of the old law allows for the promulgation of the nature of the afterlife within the Church. In Matthew 6 we see that, even if giving to charity, it is possible to give with the wrong intent and to receive a lesser reward as a result. In verse 24 of the same chapter we see that man cannot serve both God and mammon. This is the first really concrete rebuke of the wealthy man in the New Testament, but it is clearly not a denunciation of wealth. Chapter 6 tells the reader to avoid anxiety over the expenses of the day, because the means will be provided.
In the synoptic gospels, the parable of the sower notes that not all seeds would reach their fullest potential, even in the best of soil. The moral of the seeds bearing different amounts of fruit within the good soil is that even people who follow Christ will be rewarded differently for different actions. The rich man in Mark 10 is a prime example where it is not wealth that is viewed negatively, and even the man seems to escape a chastisement in his conversation with Christ who looked upon him and loved him. But immediately following this is the famous line: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” However, Christ goes on to say that all things are possible through God, perhaps indicating that the wealthy cannot merit the reward of Heaven on their own. A distinction may have been necessary here between the old law and the new because there was no true conception of an afterlife in the Jewish tradition, and rewards in the Old Testament were generally believed to be some type of temporal reward. This can be interpreted as being in agreeance with Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for this is theirs kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who do not love their wealth, even if they have a great deal of wealth. These “poor in spirit” are the men which the entire biblical tradition is attempting to create; a wealthy man who is detached from his wealth, so that if he were to lose it he would not be injured. The poor in spirit are necessary to maintain the literal poor through charity. Wealth is a prerequisite for most charity and all liberality, both of which are promoted by the church and one of which is a cardinal virtue.
James 3:13-18 provides another foundation for the teaching on what type of man to be, and by extension it can be viewed through the lens of how to or not to use your wealth. Essentially there are two types of wisdom: one which allows meekness to show through, and another which is rooted in jealousy and ambition. These two types of wisdom are excellent descriptions of the two types of rich men. One, who we can call the poor in spirit, is humble and despite his wealth lives virtuously. The other, who we call wicked, are enslaved by their ambition and greed of wealth for no clear goal. These second type of men are far more common, and when Amon, James, and others are speaking ill of wealth and the wealthy this is the type of man they are pointing to. John in his Revelation speaks of this type in 3:17: “For you say I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” This speaks volumes for the fact that there are two types of wealthy men, in that John tells them that they are poor. Not in material possessions, obviously, but rather in life itself. They will live their temporal life, and for these wicked men that will be all they get. But the poor in spirit will receive rewards in heaven for their virtue. Revelation also shows in chapter 18 that living in luxury is a danger. The passage in chapter 18 has echoes of the destruction of Tyre in Ezekiel 27 and 28. The people of Babylon and of Tyre are both living in luxury and come to ruin. Merchants seem to be the most contemptible people from these two passages, a sentiment which the philosopher would have agreed with. But Revelation seems to be the fulfillment of the destruction of Tyre: “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore” (Revelation 8:1). In the end of this world, materialism will be overcome.
Both the Old and New Testaments are part of a cohesive tradition that, when viewed as a whole, present wealth as a means to other ends. As a means, it can be used justly or unjustly, but wealth is not in itself evil. This is not to say that wealth is beyond corruption of the wicked, but it is also used to great effect by the liberal man to support the poor. The love of money is very clearly despised by all relevant passages of scripture, especially those like Matthew 6:24, which imply that the love of money essentially makes you a slave to it. At its essence, wealth of any sort is a tool which is to be used for the benefit of the community rather than for personal gain. The man who is poor in spirit should be the goal of all wealthy men.