The Blessing in Poverty
When the people heard Jesus teach, they were amazed.
For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
The people were accustomed to hearing rabbis from the party of the Pharisees. In the Talmud, which preserves the oral traditions of the Pharisees, we find that the rabbis were constantly citing each other. Also, they were preoccupied with trivial questions about minor points of the law. And they had contempt for the common people. But Jesus spoke on His own authority, cut directly to the ultimate questions of life, and associated with the poor.
His first Beatitude, the opening declaration of His moral program, gives the poor preeminence over the rich.
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
If the Pharisees had written it, it would say, "Blessed are the rich, for they are God's darlings." But Jesus announces at the outset that God's special favor rests not on them, but on the poor.
Why? Every victim of grinding poverty knows one thing. This world is an evil place, affording no true happiness or satisfaction—that there is not enough pleasure here to quiet the soul's yearning for a better world.
Some people who are not actually poor have nevertheless come to sense the emptiness of life here and now. So, on another occasion, Jesus stated the same Beatitude in a slightly different way.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
He means, "Blessed are they with the spirit (the attitude, or the outlook) of a poor man." Many commentators have misread the First Beatitude as a blessing on the lowly in spirit, the humble. But this interpretation misses the point. The First Beatitude is distinct in meaning from the Third, which says, "Blessed are the meek." The First and Second are alike in that they urge us to view life in the same way a man views it who has suffered a hard blow. In the First, the hard blow is poverty; in the Second, the hard blow is a loss provoking great sorrow.
Because the poor and the poor in spirit long for a better world, they are receptive to the gospel, which promises eternal life amid the joys of heaven. So, there is a special blessing in poverty—the blessing of openness to gospel truth. The gospel has always been especially successful among the poor.
- Jesus Himself gave the poor His chief attention.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
- And it was the common people, the poor, who rejoiced to hear Him.
David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son? And the common people heard him gladly.
- Paul's many admonitions to servants and bondslaves shows that the gospel made great headway among them.
- Throughout church history, revival fire has often broken out among the poor classes first. For example, the Wesleyan revival started among coal miners in Wales, considered the dregs of British society.
- Among the most receptive people today are the masses of urban Latin America.
The pattern of history counsels us to ask whether we are doing enough to reach the poor here in North America.
What does Jesus promise the poor and the poor in spirit? He says, "For theirs is the kingdom of God [heaven]." To them Jesus promises a world where they can find true happiness and satisfaction. He calls that world a kingdom—the kingdom of God—to emphasize that it will be a place of abundance, endowed with all the king's riches, where they will find everything they lack in this world.
Our supreme example of a man poor in spirit is, of course, Jesus Christ. He is the perfect picture of every virtue. Though He could have held on to the riches of heaven, He was not ashamed to become poor for our sakes. He was doubly poor, for He was deprived of this world's riches as well as heaven's. He sacrificed all these because He counted our salvation as having greater value. Likewise, we should view our salvation as more valuable than anything this world has to offer.
The Dangers in Wealth
In the previous lesson we examined Proverbs 30:8-9
8 Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:
9 Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.
The same text that authorizes us to petition God for our material needs also warns against seeking wealth.
All of Scripture unites in the verdict that the pursuit of wealth is wrong.
19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
8 And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.
9 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.
10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:8-10
How bad is the pursuit of wealth? According to Paul, a man greedy for money should not be permitted to remain in the church.
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
1 Corinthians 5:11
He includes covetousness among the gross sins which are grounds for disfellowship.
Does it follow that possession of wealth is a sin? Paul gives the answer.
Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy;
1 Timothy 6:17
He does not charge the wealthy with sin. The reason is that a man can obtain wealth without especially desiring it or aggressively pursuing it. It may simply be the result of conscientious work. Or it may come into his hands by inheritance, unusual appreciation of investments, windfall profits, or other means which are essentially acts of God.
The Bible teaches that although to be wealthy is not sinful, it is not safe. There are four principal dangers in wealth, and a wealthy person must be constantly on guard against them.
- In the text quoted above, in 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul cautions the wealthy not to be "highminded"; that is, not to be proud.
- Also, he tells them not to "trust in uncertain riches." The danger is that they will acquire an attitude of self-sufficiency, and with this attitude a failure to be grateful to God for His blessings, and a failure to trust God for future provision.
- Another pitfall for the rich is stinginess. Paul continues,
That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;
1 Timothy 6:18
- The greatest danger is that a wealthy man will trust in his riches for passage to heaven, as if God will prefer to associate with people who were once important on earth. But so far from respecting worldly status, God holds the rich at a disadvantage.
24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!
25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?
27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.
There is absolutely no basis for the common idea that the needle's eye was a small gate of Jerusalem. Jesus was saying that to gain heaven by means of earthly riches is not difficult, but impossible.
Psalm 49 is a rich source of divine wisdom concerning riches.
1 Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world:
2 Both low and high, rich and poor, together.
3 My mouth shall speak of wisdom; and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.
4 I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.
5 Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?
6 They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches;
7 None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him:
8 (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:)
9 That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.
10 For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names.
12 Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.
13 This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings. Selah.
14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.
15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah.
16 Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased;
17 For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him.
18 Though while he lived he blessed his soul: and men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself.
19 He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.
20 Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.
In concluding his admonition to the wealthy, Paul shows them how to use their wealth wisely, in a way that will earn divine favor and blessing.
18 That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;
19 Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.
1 Timothy 6:18-19
Paul's sermon to the rich rests upon Jesus' teaching in the Gospels. Jesus said to His followers,
32 Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
33 Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.
34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Jesus urges those who believe in Him to sell their possessions, yet not necessarily "all" of them, a word He might have included, but omitted.
The early church took His advice.
44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,
37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
The church had recently received an outpouring of the Spirit, who imbued them with supernatural power to accomplish the will and work of God. So, in sharing their material belongings, they were doing the Spirit's bidding. They were not subordinating God's will to some quirky human agenda.
The common idea that early Christians adopted a primitive form of communism has no basis in fact, however.
- The sharing of wealth was voluntary, not compulsory.
1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
- Nobody was forced to yield his possessions to a higher authority.
- The wealthy sold excess houses and lands, but retained needed possessions. What they kept remained private property. There was no system of communal ownership.
- The church distributed proceeds according to need, so that the greatest portion went to those most deserving of help. The only regular dole went to indigent widows.
1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.
3 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
So, the limited redistribution of wealth within the church did not resemble communism, which makes everyone dependent on payments from higher authority.
Tests of Materialism
A few practical questions might help you assess whether you have fallen into the trap of materialism.
- Do I judge a man by his clothes, his car, his bank account—by anything he owns?
- Do I envy my neighbor's possessions?
- Do I have a mania for collecting things?
- Is shopping one of my chief joys in life?
- Does it hurt me to part with my money for charitable purposes?
- Do I mix business and religion?