Does the Bible Condemn Wealthy People?
Writing a daily column for this website is a perilous enterprise. While most of the emails I get in response are complimentary, there are always a few spoilers. One letter writer was stridently opposed to my article on “Let’s Stop Taxing the Rich More in the Name of ‘Fairness.'”I just got back from having my eyes examined. There were five high-tech optical machines being used. This does not count the manufacturing division that will make the lenses for my new glasses. These machines are a technological marvel. I was able to see an image of the interior of my eyes. The image taken today was compared to two images made in the past six years.
It took millions of dollars to develop and manufacture these machines. Poor people do not invent, develop, and manufacture machines like these. The non-rich, however, benefit immensely. As I point out in “Let’s Stop Taxing the Rich More in the Name of ‘Fairness,'” there is a trickle-down cost benefit in price and service to everyone.
Like most socialists, the letter writing critic quotes the Bible sparingly and most often out of context in an attempt to disparage the rich. Here was my response (with some modifications):
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Thanks for writing in response to my article on “Let’s Stop Taxing the Rich More in the Name of ‘Fairness.” I notice that you are using a computer. Those who developed the computer are rich. If you are borrowing a computer, then you are guilty of participating in a culture of richness and contributing to a market-based economy that you seem to oppose. If the computer you are using is your own, that is, if you own it, then by the standards of the rest of the world, you are rich.
The same is also true if you own an automobile, have air conditioning and central heating, and shop at a grocery store where you can purchase foods from around the world at relatively low prices. If you have a refrigerator and a freezer where you can store food for long periods of time, you are living in luxury. Sorry to have to tell you this, but you are richer than King Solomon ever was! So I guess the Bible’s condemnation of the rich is only directed at people who are richer than you are.
It’s true that the “love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), but money in and of itself is not. “love” is the operative word. The Rich Young Ruler loved his money more than he loved God (Matt. 19:16-22). In his case, money was an obstacle that needed to be removed (Matt. 6:20). The same is true for power, fame, prestige, respectability, and any other self-before-God worldview.
The Bible has a great deal to say about power. Is all power bad? Not that I can see. Power that’s misused is immoral similar to the way money can be misused for evil purposes. You mention Zaccheus as someone who was rich and condemned. He was rich because he was a thief. He misused the power of government—the taxing power of government—to line his own pockets and sell out his fellow-countrymen. But according to your standards, Zaccheus should be singled out as a good guy because he taxed rich people. Maybe he’s only a bad guy because he kept so much of what he collected for himself. If he had turned the collected taxes over to Rome, and Rome redistributed the money to the poor, you would nominate him for sainthood.
All types of sexual practices are condemned in the Bible. Does this mean that sex, like riches, should be condemned? Is sex itself condemned or only the misuse of sex? Maybe we should all be celibate so we can avoid the Bible’s condemnation of sexual sins. Better safe than sorry.
You mention Joseph of Arimathea in your list of verses about the rich. You are correct in describing him as “a rich man.” Why wasn’t he condemned by Jesus? I don’t see any condemnation of him anywhere in Scripture. Why didn’t he give all his money away if, as the text says, he had become a “disciple of Jesus” (Matt. 27:57)? Why didn’t Jesus tell him he needed to dispose of his wealth? It was his wealth that enabled him to care for the body of Jesus (27:59). Maybe the Roman government should have been responsible?
I did not notice Job in your list of verses. God made Job rich:
What was God thinking? I guess He didn’t know the Bible as well as you do.
Then there’s the woman of Proverbs 31. She invested in real estate (31:16), and horrors of horrors, made a profit and planted a vineyard (31:16b). Does she turn the grapes into wine to sell and make even more money? Because she has wealth, she has the means to help the poor (31:20). She also is involved in the textile market (31:24). By your standards, this is a very bad woman.
By the way, Abraham “was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold” (Gen. 13:2), and so was Isaac (26:12–13). God made them that way. It’s those who envy the rich as well as those who abuse their wealth that the Bible condemns (26:12–17).
The Bible offers the following warning:
“Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. It shall come about if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God.”
Wealth is not condemned; it’s a gift from God. What is condemned is the claim that man is the source of wealth and the things that are used to gain wealth.
Governments are not exempt from these laws. Our founders expressed the nature of liberty in biblical terms.
But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it (Micah 4:4).
It was George Washington’s “favorite Scriptural phrase,” quoting it “on nearly four dozen occasions during the last half of his life,” as Daniel L. Driesbach points out in his newly published book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers:
The vine and fig tree represent contentment; that is, freedom from want and covetousness … This image is also a symbol of freedom from fear, especially the fear of war and rumors of wars. More generally, the vine and fig tree motif represents the security to produce the fruits of one’s labor undisturbed by either lawlessness or the usurpations of the civil state. The metaphor, in this sense, contends for the rule of law (the protection of one’s own vine and fig trees from lawlessness) and repudiates a civil state so expansive that it invades the people’s private lives, liberties, and properties. A society without the rule of law and wreaked by an intrusive civil state threatens all vines and fig trees with theft and plunder.1
There’s more. Consider the following from the always prophetic Benjamin Franklin. He saw what we as a nation are experiencing today. Again, from Dreisbach’s must-read book:
In a June 2, 1787, debate on salaries for executive branch officers … Franklin voiced concern that paying executive officials, even “beginning with moderate salaries,” will feed “a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.” The dangers of monarchy, Franklin warned, is that rare is the king who would not follow, if he could Pharaoh’s example, as recorded in Genesis 47:13-26, and “get first all the people’s money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever.” Franklin feared that “by making our posts of honor, places of profit … will only nourish the foetus of a King … and,” he continued, referencing Deuteronomy 17:14, “a King will the sooner be set over us.” (85).
Without the rule of law, the State can feed off the envy of others and consider itself a pious benefactor instead of a righteous judge.
- New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 211, 93-94. [↩]