TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].
The Bible has several warnings against the love of money and the snare of wealth (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:10), but in Proverbs 30:8–9 Agur asks that he would have neither poverty nor wealth. Is it more holy, or at least biblically preferred, to be rich or poor?
Agur is certainly on to something here, especially given that his motivation is to honor the Lord. He prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov. 30:8-9).
Paul, writing to the Philippians, echoes this balance, giving God the credit for sustaining him through both poverty and riches: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
These passages share in common the application of spiritual wisdom, but your question seems to be getting at something deeper. Is one of these extremes—wealth or poverty—more blessed? Are some people “closer to God” by virtue of their economic status?
Of course, both the materially poor and the rich are equally in need of a Savior—and Jesus is deeply concerned that both hear and respond to the good news of his kingdom. By his grace, men and women with great wealth can love God and demonstrate his faithfulness through generosity, and brothers and sisters living in poverty can praise the One who provides for and protects them.
Perhaps, though, the poor have a leg up in understanding the simple power of the gospel message. In experiencing material poverty, the effects of sin and brokenness in the world—and the need for the restoration of all things—is apparent. For the gospel to be truly good news to the rich, who enjoy many comforts in this present life, it must first be “bad” news: Wealth is no indicator of spiritual status, and Jesus’s call to take up a cross requires greater sacrifice from those who benefit from the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus himself raises these questions, especially in Luke’s Gospel. He begins his ministry in a synagogue reading Isaiah 61 and boldly declaring its fulfillment: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
Are some people ‘closer to God’ by virtue of their economic status?
In Luke’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, he records Jesus’s blessings on the poor and woes on the rich in rapid succession:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:20–22, 24–25)
This is such a consistent theme of Jesus’s ministry that it sends away sad a rich young man seeking salvation on his own terms. Truly, Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). “Then who can be saved?” the disciples ask (Luke 18:26). Full of grace and truth, Jesus replies: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Indeed, in the next chapter, a rich man (and a cheat) is brought into the kingdom as Zacchaeus repents and believes.
Ultimately, Jesus’s special concern for the poor shows their role in the bigger story God is telling.
Ultimately, Jesus’s special concern for the poor shows their role in the bigger story God is telling. Back in Isaiah 61, we see he’s in the business of turning the world’s categories on their heads. To his believing people who are poor and oppressed, he promises:
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Isa. 61:3–4)
Those on the bottom of the present system are precisely the ones God will use to rebuild what humanity’s sin has ruined. The glories of his upside-down kingdom demonstrate his sovereignty over all.
And “the year of the LORD’s favor” that Jesus references? It’s the year of jubilee, when the inequities between his rich and poor people are leveled, and every believer is given a fresh start so that those who have become poor “can continue to live with you” (Lev. 25:35, 36).
The God who has always made it his purpose to dwell among his people, and who is coming again to make all things new (Rev. 21:5), desires that both rich and poor dwell together now as a symbol of this promise. In a church that seeks to live this promise out, Agur’s prayer is answered, and Paul’s contentment is fulfilled.
You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.