No one wishes to be poor, unless they chose such a life-style for religious or philosophical reasons. Most of the world’s billions are striving to be rich as the ultimate stamp of success and security.
Our Lord drew a parallel between the rich and the poor at Luke 21:1-4:
1 Now Jesus watched the rich putting money into the Temple treasury. 2 And he also saw a certain poor widow putting in two leptons, 3 so he said: “I tell you [disciples] this truth that this widow put in more than everyone else, 4 because the rich put in from their surplus while this widow put in out of her need all her means of living.” [NCMM]
Thus Jesus defined someone who is rich as someone with a “surplus.” In the Bible the “poor” are those who do not have basic needs, or who must depend on others for subsistence. [Compare 2 Samuel 12:1]
This is the same idea given in Webster’s Dictionary when defining the word “rich” and related words:
“Rich is the general word for one who has more money or income-producing property that is necessary to satisfy his normal needs. Wealthy adds to this connotations of grand living, influence in the community, a tradition of richness. Affluent suggests a continuing increase of riches and a concomitant lavish spending. Opulent suggests the possession of great wealth as displayed in luxurious or ostentatious living. Well-to-do implies sufficient prosperity for easy living.” [1957 edition]
What does the Bible have to say about such “rich” persons?
The word group “rich” occurs about 150 times in the Bible. The first rich person mentioned is Abraham. [Genesis 14:23] The word “rich” occurs only once in the Law of Moses at Exodus 30:15 when both rich and poor were equally taxed for tabernacle worship. Likely the richest person mentioned in the Bible was Solomon. [1 Kings 3:11; 10:23]
The rich have a tendency to trust in their wealth, but Psalm 49:6, 7, 16, 17 cautions: “Now regarding those who trust in their wealth -- and their boasting in the abundance of their riches - they cannot redeem a single brother. … Never fear when someone becomes rich - when the glory of his house increases - for he will take nothing with him when he dies.” [NCMM]
Of all the Bible books the rich with their riches are mentioned most often in the book of Proverbs. The wise sayings of the richest man who ever lived gives sound advice and warnings about riches.
To become rich one must be diligent and such view their riches like a fortified city. [Proverbs 10:4, 15] A person who trusts in riches will ultimately collapse. [Proverbs 11:28] The rich person may pretend to be poor in order to hide such wealth. [Proverbs 13:7] A rich person is often like an alcoholic in denial and millions in the Western world would never claim to be rich when in fact they are. The rich tend to have many more friends. [Proverbs 14:20] The possessions of the rich are imagined to be a source of security. [Proverbs 18:11] The rich tend to have a loud voice in many matters. [Proverbs 18:23] No matter how rich a person is they will one day meet their Maker. [Proverbs 22:1, 2] Proverbs 23:4 cautions: “Do not toil to gain riches.” [NCMM] The rich tend to be wise in their own eyes. [Proverbs 28:11] Often the rich are discovered to be guilty of illegal dealings: “The person who wants to get rich quick will not remain innocent.” [NCMM] Proverbs 30:7-9 actually suggests not praying for riches, for such material satisfactions may cause one to deny God. The rich are often never satisfied. [Ecclesiastes 4:8] Riches may cause one to worry so much sleep is ruined. [Ecclesiastes 5:12]
The prophet Jeremiah exposes some rich persons whose homes are “full of unrighteous gain” and it is because of this illegal income some become very wealthy. [Jeremiah 5:27] Jeremiah 9:23 says, “The rich man should never glory in his riches.” [NCMM]
The subject of the rich and riches is high on the list of the Nazarene’s teachings. The subject occurs in one way or another in all the Gospels. Consider just some of the things Jesus taught about the rich and riches.
Matthew 6:24 “No one can slave for two lords, for either he will hate one and love the other or embrace one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Riches!” [NCMM]
Matthew 13:22 “Now, the one sown among thorns -- this is the person who hears the message but the anxieties of that Period and deceptive riches choke the message and the person is unproductive.” [NCMM]
Matthew 19:23, 24 “I tell you this truth: Rich people will only enter the Realm of Heaven with great difficulty. In addition I tell you this: It is easier for a camel to enter through a needle’s eye than for rich people to enter the Realm of Heaven.” [NCMM]
Luke 6:24 “But, woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your full consolation now.” [NCMM]
Luke 16:9 “Also, I tell you [disciples], make friends for yourselves from your illegal riches, so that when riches fail they will welcome you into everlasting dwellings.” [NCMM]
Luke 18:24, 25 “Only with great difficulty will those with money enter God’s Realm. For it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s Realm.” [NCMM]
Paul also both warns about the danger of wealth, but also instructs Timothy to “give orders” to rich Christians. Compare his words in 1 Timothy 6:9, 17-19:
“However, those desiring to be rich fall into temptation and a trap as well as many foolish and harmful lusts, which plunge humans into ruin and destruction. … Command the rich in the present age not to be high minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but [trust] in God -- the One granting us richly everything for our enjoyment -- to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, saving for themselves a good foundation for the Future, that they may lay hold on the Real Life.”
Perhaps it is the disciple James who has the harshest words for the rich:
“Because [the rich person] will pass away like a flower of the field. For the sun rises with its burning heat, and the field dries up and the flower’s petals fall off, and its beautiful appearance perishes. Just so, also, the rich person will fade away in his very way of life.” [James 1:10, 11 NCMM]
“For you have dishonored the poor person. Do not the rich oppress you? Are not the rich those who drag you into law-courts?” [James 2:6 NCMM]
“Come now, you rich men, weep, howling over your anguish coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted and your clothes have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded and their corrosion will be a witness [against] you. Your flesh will be devoured. You have stored up fire as your treasure in the last days. Behold, the earnings of the laborers who mowed your fields has been withheld by you. And the cries of those crying out who reaped [your fields] have entered the ears of Yehowah Sabaoth. You lived indulgently and luxuriously upon the earth. You fattened your hearts for slaughter. You condemned, you killed the Righteous One. Does he not oppose you?” [James 5:1-5 NCMM]
In summary, then, regarding what the Bible says about the rich: A few of God’s ancient servants were rich. The rich are warned throughout the Bible to use their wealth to help others and make friends with God. In the Christian Bible it is Jesus who warns of the difficulty of the very rich to gain entrance into God’s Kingdom. Paul instructs “orders” be given to the rich to be liberal in their sharing, not to allow their riches to make them behave arrogantly, and to involve themselves in good works. But, what does the Bible say about the poor?
The word “poor” is mentioned over 100 times in the Bible and “poverty” about a dozen times. The word is often associated with the needy and oppressed.
The first mention of a poor person is in the Law of Moses where a warning is given not to “pervert justice” in dealing with such persons. Also, the poor were permitted to glean from fields left fallow during the sabbath year of rest in the land. [Exodus 23:6, 11]
Leviticus 25:35-37 commands how the poor are to be treated:
"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. … 39 And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave.” [Revised Standard Version]
Deuteronomy 15:3-11 has Moses teaching that if Israel obeys God as a nation there will never be poor among them. However, if there are poor they should be treated kindly and charitably. Read his words:
“However, if there should be poor in their midst they are to look after them. 4 But there will be no poor among you (for the Lord will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess), 5 if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment which I command you this day. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. 7 If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, "The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” [Revised Standard Version]
Deuteronomy 24:14, 15 also commands the kindly treatment of the poor and the daily paying of their wages. [Compare James 5:4.]
"You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; 15 you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you.” [Revised Standard Version]
Rich persons, particularly those who have lived around riches all their lives, are often oblivious to the needs of the poor having never been poor themselves. The poor live from day to day and often they cannot wait for a week or two to receive their just payment. It never dawns on the rich that just a little bit of money can greatly relieve the poor. It has been observed that some rich Christian employers have held off paying a poor worker while the rich person leaves on a luxury cruise and only pays the wages upon return. God will hear the cries of such poor individuals.
The Psalms mention the poor more than any other Bible book and often associate them with the afflicted.
“For the needy is not forgotten for ever, nor for ever does the hope of the poor come to nothing.” [Psalm 9:18] “’For the poor who are plundered, the needy who groan, now will I act,’ says Yahweh.” [Psalms 12:5] “Poor and needy as I am, the Lord has me in mind.” [Psalm 40:17] “For God listens to the poor.” [Psalm 69:33]
The poor can be greatly discouraged by the rich: “That is what the wicked are like, piling up wealth without any worries. Was it useless, then, to have kept my own heart clean, to have washed my hands in innocence?” [Psalm 72:12, 13] The poor servant of God relies on Him: “Listen to me, Yahweh, answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard me, for I am faithful, save your servant who relies on You.” [Psalm 86:1] The poor have God on their side: “[Yahweh] stands at the side of the poor, to save their lives from those who sit in judgment of them.” [Psalm 109:31]
The Proverbs also mention the poor. How the poor are treated bears on God’s judgment: “He who oppresses the poor insults his Maker; he who is generous to the needy honors Him.” [Proverbs 14:31 NEB] The godly woman cares for the poor: “She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.” [Revised Standard Version]
Jesus was a poor man himself. Of him Paul writes, evidently alluding to Christ’s pre-existence: “For you are aware of the charitable kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, that in your behalf he became poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich through that One’s poverty. [2 Corinthians 8:9 NCMM; compare Philippians 2:5-7] On one occasion when Jesus illustrated the need to pay the Jewish Temple tax, he did not have the equivalent of 16 cents, so Peter became involved in a fishing miracle in order to pay this obligation. [Matthew 17:25-27]
Jesus mentioned the poor often. Indeed one of his great sermons begins, “Blessed are the poor.” [Luke 6:20] The poor often composed his audiences. [Matthew 11:5] The way to spiritual perfection involves the poor: “If you want to be perfect, leave, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” [Matthew 19:21] As long as the Christian Church exists there will be poor disciples: “For you will always have the poor among you.” [Matthew 26:11] Jesus cautions his disciples to invite the poor to their homes for hospitality. [Luke 14:14]
Based on the teachings of the Nazarene the 1st Century Church placed great emphasis on caring for the poor. In the first few years there was no one in need among the Nazarene community. The Acts of the Apostles records this accurately: “And all those believing were gathered at the same place and they had everything in common. They would sell their possessions and went to distributing the money to everyone as each had a need. And daily they continued in harmonious devotions in the Temple area sharing their meals in private homes. They shared food with jubilation and sincerity of heart, praising the God and finding favor with all the people. … Great charity [and a willingness to share] permeated the whole community. For there was no one needy among them, because anyone who owned lands or houses sold them, and they continued bringing the value of the things they sold, placing them before the feet of the apostles. The apostles then distributed to each person as they had need.” [Acts 2:44-47; 4:33-35 NCMM]
The apostolic body in Jerusalem gave instructions to Paul: “Only they urged that we should remember their poor -- a thing which was uppermost in my own mind.” [Galatians 2:10 Weymouth Translation] Several times Paul writes about the care of the poor. Churches with more material blessings helped those poor in the fellowship: “For [the saints of] Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make some contribution to those poor saints in Jerusalem.” [Romans 15:26 NCMM] Individual Christians were encouraged to save something for the poor: “Regarding the collection for the Saints: just as I ordered the congregations of Galatia, so also I do you. On the first day of the week let each one of you save something as you may be prospering, so that whenever I arrive collections do not occur then.” [1 Corinthians 16:1, 2 NCMM] A former thief who had now become a Friend of the Nazarene was encouraged to save for the poor. [Ephesians 4:28]
The disciple James also writes powerful words about the poor ad how they were treated by some: “For if a man in splendid clothing, with gold rings on his fingers, enters your synagogue -- and also at the same time a poor man in shabby clothing -- and you look on the one wearing the splendid clothing, and tell him, ‘You sit here in this good seat,’ and to the poor man you say, ‘You stand in the back or squat here by my footstool’ --- are you not making distinctions among yourselves and have become judges with evil thoughts?” [James 2:2-6 NCMM] For this reason James writes that the failure to care for the poor renders faith dead: “My brothers, what is the profit if anyone says, ‘I have conviction,’ but does not have works? Is just his conviction able to save him? [For example], if a brother or sister is living without adequate clothing and lacks daily food, and anyone of you says, ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed’ -- but do not give them their bodily necessities -- what is the profit? Just so, conviction without works is dead by itself.” [James 2:14-17 NCMM]
Paul tells Timothy to “give orders to the rich” to be “liberal and ready to share.” [1 Timothy 6:18] But the difficult question has always been - How liberal? How much should I share? The famous British author C. S Lewis suggested an answer in his marvelous work, Mere Christianity. It boils down to this: the rich Christian should consider how much is spent on leisure and luxuries. If the same amount is not given to the poor, it is likely not enough is being given.
In other words, if someone rich buys a luxury yacht and does not give the same to charity, it is highly unlikely such a Christian is giving enough. If a rich Christian takes an expensive vacation on a luxury cruise ship and does not give the same to charity, it is unlikely such a person has found a friend in God.
Let the Christian woman with dozens of shoes and dresses sell some of them a give to the poor. If a Christian woman has drawers of jewelry, let her sell some and give to the poor. If a Christian household has five television sets, let them sell three and give to the poor. If a Christian drives luxury automobiles, sell them and drive a modest car, and give to the poor. If a Christian wears an expensive watch, let him sell it and give to the poor. If a Christian spends money on the lottery or gambling, let him instead give the money to the poor. If a Christian has a sudden windfall, let him first “keep the poor in mind.”
With these thoughts about the rich and poor in mind how much more can we appreciate the promise of Proverbs 22:1, 2: “A good reputation should be chosen over great riches, and self-esteem more than silver and gold. The rich and poor stand side by side but Yehowah is the Maker of both.” [NCMM]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
Back to Index to Biblical Articles