In part one, I gave a picture of how stuff is distributed in our world. I wanted to do that because after reading this book, the biggest take away is as people who follow Jesus we should be very concerned about economic inequality. In the book (aptly titled Neither Poverty Nor Riches, by Craig Blomberg ) the author is attempting to create a textbook that is a Biblical theology of possessions. Biblical Theology is a big word, but what it basically means is he’s going through the whole Bible, taking every mention of possessions, money, wealth, etc. and figuring out what those passages are saying. Basically he’s trying to answer the question: What is the Biblical view of stuff?
And he literally does this—which is why I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who doesn’t want to dig in to the nitty gritty (if you do— great! read it!). I, however, will give you the cliff notes version. Here is (in mostly my own words) his summary of the view of stuff in the Bible:
First, the material world is good, and created for us to enjoy. No ascetics here, please.
Everything from the Creation narrative (where God repeatedly pronounces “this is good”), to God’s commands to feast and celebrate when offering sacrifices to him in the Old Testament (yeah, you get to eat that sheep you slaughter and have a big party), to Jesus providing more wine at the Cana wedding, eating feasts with “tax collectors and sinners”, to Paul’s comments to the early church that they are to share with those in need but not put themselves in extreme discomfort because of their sharing (why would there be any exhortations to give money to the poor if the poor are somehow more saintly than the rich?)— it is clear that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal, appreciating beauty, or spending money.
“[The Old Testament] assumes throughout that there will be some with relatively more possessions. This is no scandal, for wealth is to be prized as one of the good gifts of God (Prov 22:4). What is a scandal, as many texts have shown us, is when those who do not have so much are deprived of what is rightfully theirs by those whose consciences do not bother them.” pg 68.
Second, even though the material world is good, possessions are one of the primary ways our hearts are drawn away from God.
A lot of people have heard Paul’s statement that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”, but if you go all the way back to the Old Testament, you see this is a major emphasis in much of the law, wisdom literature, and the prophetic writing. The problem is people worshipping the material world, which leads to exploitation of other people. Built into the laws God gave Israel are many provisions to care for the poor, but also provisions to curb a competitive, slavish productivity. Keeping the Sabbath and taking the Year of Jubilee off was a protection to keep the land from being exploited, as well as the poor who would end up in debt. There’s not really evidence God’s people ever did this very well. When the Israelites get kicked out of Israel for disobeying God and the prophets come on the scene, God’s people are equally chastised for making lavish idols and worshipping them rather than God as well as greed and unjust economic practices. These two things go together- stop trusting God for your provision, and end up exploiting everyone around you.
Third, a sign you’re being transformed as you follow Jesus is that the way you treat your stuff changes:
You stop seeing your stuff as yours to do with as you like, but instead see it as a gift from God at the disposal of the common good. Acts shows the early church was very economically diverse, but those who were wealthier voluntarily gave for the benefit of the poorer in their midst. It wasn’t a giant commune, there was individual ownership- but there was sharing. In Luke, Jesus asks the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and come follow him— and the rich man walks away. Yet not long after that, Luke gives the account of the rich tax collector, Zacchaeus (who made his money ripping off other Jews) voluntarily gives back over and above to those he has cheated. The fact that this is followed by one of Luke’s central summaries of the gospel makes this moment highly significant. Restitution and repentance go together.
Fourth, there are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable.
Both the Old Testament (Law, prophets, and wisdom literature) as well as Jesus and Paul address this idea of extreme wealth or “hoarding.” Beyond the fact that being very wealthy is a danger to the individual because it can slip into practical atheism (as seen in James -people living and planning their lives as if they don’t have to depend on God, because they have their money as a security) it is also a danger to the community. It is one thing to wisely provide for your family and think about the future, but there comes a point where the possessions will spoil/disappear before being put to good use, therefore this surplus (if given) could improve another’s standard of living (therefore by hoarding you are robbing the community around you). Don’t misunderstand, Paul and Jesus have things to say to people who think if you just give money to God or his work you don’t need to look after the needs of your own family. That’s important.
Given that we live in an extremely unequal world and extremely unequal countries, this is something we need to consider. Are our purchases and our savings benefiting only ourselves, or the community as well? A Hummer would be an example, I believe, of material idolatry, because it seems to me immoral to spend that much on a vehicle when some people can’t eat, plus it has a massive carbon footprint so it’s part of destroying the environment for everyone else as well. More on this later, though.
Last, in the bible, material and spiritual are inextricably intertwined.
As seen in #2, idolatry (what we think of as a spiritual problem) was bound up in the way humans treated the material world, too. Jesus healed people’s physical bodies and met their material needs as well as their spiritual needs. When Peter met the beggar at the beautiful gate, he didn’t just give him money, rather he got to the root of the problem- and brought total healing.
In summary, Blomberg says:
“It goes too far to say that one cannot be rich and be a disciple of Jesus, but what never appears in the Gospels are well-to-do followers of Jesus who are not simultaneously generous in almsgiving and in divesting themselves of surplus wealth for the sake of those in need. This free attitude to possessions may be expressed in a disposal of private property, though this is not mandatory. It will certainly find expression in an almost reckless generosity, motivated not by a dour sense of obligation but by a warm an unselfish compassion. There is room for the periodic celebration of God’s good material gifts, even at times to a lavish extent. But these celebration will be the exception, not the norm.” (145)
In the next section I’ll share some more of the practical ideas this view of possessions inspired.
3 thoughts on “Neither Poverty nor Riches (book Summary)”
Regarding “stuff” I have seen that poor people have a lot of it, and rich people also have a lot of it. Just the cost of their stuff varies. I have seen houses or apartments so full of stuff that the space is practically unusable. Doesn’t seem to correlate with income level.
One “lesson” of backpacking is that we learn it is possible to survive (for a few days at least), with only the “stuff” I carry on my back. A truly liberating experience. For the next four days, everything I need to survive is on my back. On-the-other hand, that semi-lightweight backpacking gear in my backpack probably cost me (over the past 8 years), about $1000.
Agreed that the amount of material possessions isn’t an indicator of wealth or income- but as you’ve pointed out, perhaps the “type”of stuff they have is. I guess I’m using “stuff” here as a catch-all for possessions, income, wealth etc.