Rich and Poor in the New Testament
By Robert Reese
World Mission Associates has long advocated self-reliance, or better, reliance on God for mission-established churches and institutions. Most of these churches and institutions are located in poorer nations, so the temptation is for the founding missions to carry these daughter institutions financially past the time when they should be independent. The wide gap between the wealth of the missions and the poverty of the new churches often creates dependency. Dependency is an unhealthy reliance on foreign funds and personnel to conduct normal operations.
Some think that too much emphasis on self-reliance with regard to poor people is a cloak to disguise indifference toward the plight of the poor. Scripture teaches that the rich should give to the poor. The implication is that the Scripture supports the idea of poor churches and Christians remaining dependent on those with more resources. But does it?
This article examines the New Testament teaching on the rich and the poor, exploring the relationship between these two groups. This study is limited to the New Testament because of space, since the inclusion of the teaching of the entire Bible might easily necessitate a book-length treatment. The New Testament is replete with teaching on this subject, and it carries the same emphasis as the Old Testament on the special place that the poor hold in God’s heart.
Jesus spoke of the blessedness of all who are “poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). In Luke 6:20, a parallel passage, He drops “in spirit,” and simply says to His disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” One of Jesus’ parables in Luke 16:19-31 tells about a poor man named Lazarus who was transformed from a beggar to a saint when he died. No explanation is given, except the words, “Lazarus received bad things [in his life on earth], but now he is comforted here [by Abraham’s side]” (Luke 16:25). God is abundantly generous to the poor: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor” (2 Cor. 9:9, quoting Psalm 112:9).
We might wonder why this partiality, or at least this concern, toward the poor? James 2:5 gives a strong clue: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” The poor are more open to trusting God for their salvation and to depending on Him. Thus, James says in James 1:9, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.” Here is the dependence that Scripture supports: the dependence of the poor, or the poor in spirit, on God by faith to supply their needs and to save them. Lack of material possessions may open up a greater opportunity to trust God for everything.
Conversely, the New Testament warns the rich about complacency due to their wealth, which may cause them to neglect their faith in God. Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). The rich man in the parable of Luke 16 is told that he is in torment in hell because “in your lifetime you received your good things” (Luke 16:25). The rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) is told that God will take his life and “then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).
James is scathing in his indignation against the uncaring and unredeemed rich in James 5:1-6. He accuses them of hoarding wealth in the last days, of failing to pay their workmen, of living in luxury and self-indulgence, and of condemning and murdering the innocent. Like fattened cattle, God will slaughter them and their wealth will do them no good. In James 2:6-7, he says that the rich exploit Christians and drag them into court even while “slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong.” James also warns the rich Christian in James 1:10 to “take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.” Riches are not permanent, so they are not to be trusted. They are not a sign of God’s favor; indeed, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).
Jesus sees wealth as a potential obstacle to faith: “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” (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). Similarly, Paul tells Timothy, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Even the poor may love money and be drawn into temptation, but the rich learn to love the money they have already acquired. Thus, Paul continues, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God” (1 Tim. 6:17). That was the problem with the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus rebuked the church there, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Wealth often hardens the heart toward God and His priorities. No wonder Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Greed is in fact idolatry (Col. 3:5), because it places material possessions in God’s place.
What then is the Christian’s response to abundant possessions? Is it even possible for a rich Christian to be “poor in spirit”? Is “rich Christian” actually an oxymoron? Although the New Testament warns repeatedly about the way that wealth tends to dull the spiritual senses, it is also clear that there were wealthy followers of Jesus. For example, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy disciple who had Jesus’ body placed in his own tomb (Matt. 27:57). Paul tells Timothy to command rich Christians in Ephesus “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
The rich can use their wealth to lay up treasure in heaven. This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-9. Jesus summarizes, “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
Jesus commands us not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19). Rather, we should store up treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). This teaching on the use of wealth is crucial for our understanding, because it shows how God wants our hearts centered on things above, not on our possessions.
How exactly does one “store up treasure in heaven”? In the case of the rich young ruler, Jesus saw that his attachment to wealth would prevent him from entering the kingdom of heaven, so He told the young man, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22). But it was not the rich young ruler alone who needed such teaching, because Jesus gives the same instruction to all His disciples in Luke 12:33. Similarly, Jesus told one of his dinner hosts not to invite those who could invite him back and repay his hospitality. Rather, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14). Clearly, God expects our generosity to focus on those less privileged. Indeed, this is the meaning of storing up treasure in heaven.
A Christian is one who lives in the light of God’s gracious gift of a Savior and of the need to give account before a heavenly judge. Some, like Zacchaeus, who exploited the poor before conversion to Christ, show the fruit of repentance by giving back to the poor (Luke 19:8). All are expected to have an open heart and hand: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). Having been reconciled to God when we were His enemies, we can understand the need to love our enemies, “do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35).
Both Jesus and the early church habitually gave to the poor. Judas, as the disciples’ treasurer, must have often donated money to the poor, since the other disciples thought he had perhaps gone to do that the night he exited to betray Jesus (John 13:29). Similarly, the disciples criticized the woman who poured perfume on Jesus, saying the perfume could have been sold to help the poor (Matt. 26:9; Mark 14:5; John 12:5). Jesus’ reply, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8) is not an attempt to institutionalize poverty, but simply recognition that conditions in this world are conducive to poverty.
The early church ministered to the needs of poorer members through large collections (Acts 2:45). People like Barnabas sold fields to give the proceeds to the apostles who then oversaw the distribution of goods to the poor (Acts 4:36-37). As a result, “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34), at least for some time. Paul took part in two recorded collections where churches outside Judea made donations “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26; Acts 11:29-30). James went so far as to say, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
The New Testament is clear that Christians who are better off should share resources with those who are not as well off. But what about the poor themselves? Are they to be recipients only? Is giving limited to the wealthier Christians? Evidently not, because Jesus commended the poor widow whom He saw giving two small copper coins to the temple treasury, even though it was “all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44; Luke 21:4). He noted that she had given more than anyone else, because it was out of poverty and thus was a higher percentage of her net worth. He drew the disciples’ attention to her, not to suggest she was wrong to give her money, but to give her as an example of a generous spirit.
In the last collection that Paul organized to keep his promise to the Jerusalem leaders “to remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10), he traveled extensively to encourage Gentile churches that he had planted to set aside money every Sunday in preparation for his visit (1 Cor. 16:2). As the large collection came together, Paul commended the poorest churches in Macedonia: “Out of the most severe trial, their overwhelming joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Cor. 8:2). Poverty is not necessarily a barrier to giving, since the poor may, like the Macedonian churches, give themselves first to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5). Self-giving bears fruit in generosity, even if possessions are few.
Among the seven churches of Asia this same principle can be seen. Whereas the church at Laodicea was materially wealthy, it was spiritually lukewarm (Rev. 3:16-17). The church at Smyrna was just the opposite. Jesus says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (Rev. 2:9). This is why James is adamant that rich and poor should be treated as equals in public worship services (James 2:1-13). He condemns favoritism based on fine clothing, saying that such discrimination breaks the royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). We tend to judge a poor person harshly, assuming he or she must deserve poverty because of bad choices, but James emphasizes that the poor are often “rich in faith” (James 2:5). Far better to be poor yet rich in faith and generosity than wealthy yet lukewarm in spirit.
Being rich or poor is not seen as a value judgment on character in the New Testament. Paul says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12). Paul expected either extreme but saw neither wealth nor poverty as crucial to his wellbeing. He could do all things through Christ’s strength. When he was poor he could still make many rich and having nothing he still possessed everything (2 Cor. 6:10).
Wealth and poverty swing back and forth in time’s pendulum. Paul indicated to the Corinthians that need is always relative and giving should not only flow in one direction: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there may be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13-14).
If giving is always in one direction, then the recipients become dependent and lose the spirit of giving. Even the donors get “donor fatigue.” Paul carefully set an example of hard physical labor in the cities where he evangelized. He lived by tentmaking so he would not become dependent on anyone (1 Thess. 2:9). He expected the churches he planted to take care of their widows, but he did not include all widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16). “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need” (1 Tim. 5:3). Those who had families to look after them should not become dependent on the church, nor should young widows who could remarry. The church list for widows in Ephesus was only for those over sixty who had served the church well and been faithful to their husbands (1 Tim. 5:9-10). Paul was concerned that less responsible widows would become busybodies and gossips, giving the church a bad name. Dependency creates idleness which distorts the gospel for those outside the church. Paul had much to say about this in the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-13). He exhorted Thessalonian believers to work with their hands “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess. 4:12).
He urged other Christians “to keep away from every brother who is idle” (2 Thess. 3:6) and he set a rule that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Such strong admonitions were meant to curb the developing dependency among some Christians at Thessalonica. Why the deep concern? First, dependent people became busybodies in the church (2 Thess. 3:11), spreading confusion. Second, dependency gives Christianity and the church a bad name in the community, hindering evangelism. Paul did not want anyone, inside the church or outside, to think that Christians should “eat anyone’s food without paying for it” through physical labor (2 Thess. 3:8).
The New Testament ennobles the poor by urging that they receive the gospel, work with their hands, and contribute to God’s work. Jesus epitomized this by abandoning heaven’s riches to become poor, work as a simple carpenter, and die for the sins of the world. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus introduced His earthly ministry by reading from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). When John the Baptist sent disciples to question whether Jesus was the promised Messiah, Jesus told them to report back to John what they witnessed in Jesus’ ministry: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:22). Preaching the gospel to the poor was a mark of the Messiah’s work and it remains a key to world evangelization for His followers.
Since the gospel elevates the poor by counting them worthy recipients of God’s grace, all Christian giving should likewise promote the dignity of the poor. Paul insisted that the way the collection for the poor was conducted should bring praise to God: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Cor. 9:12). The way we give to the poor is as important as what we give:
1) Our giving should never make the poor seem inferior—Jesus dignified poverty by living as a poor person, and the poor are often rich in faith.
2) Our giving to the poor should be temporary in order to help them out of a crisis, but not to make them dependent.
3) Our giving should never be condescending as if our wealth were an indication of God’s favor—wealth is temporary and not to be trusted; poverty is not necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure.
4) Our giving should never cause the poor to cease giving. People with Christian dignity are always able to show generosity.
5) Our giving should never create dependency, which creates idleness and gives the gospel a bad name—dependency robs people of their dignity.
6) Our giving should be with the kind of love that God has. Agape love considers the other person’s best interests. “If I give all I possess to the poor, . . . but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). Giving without personal involvement can be damaging.
7) The most important need that the poor have is the gospel, which gives them hope and a reason to live and work.