Greed & Oppression of the Poor (Bible Study) – Part 2

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

Deuteronomy 17:17, “And he [the king of Israel] must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.”
Context: God provides guidelines for future kings of Israel.
Analysis: Even the king of Israel was to avoid materialism.

Proverbs 23:4, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist.”
Context: Proverbs don’t really have a context. Most of them were written by King Solomon, and each one is usually unrelated to the verses preceding and following it.
Analysis: Many Evangelical Christians subscribe to the politically conservative belief that there’s no such thing as working too much, that the person who works 15-hour days, six or seven days a week, is the kind of righteous person who makes America great.
God disagrees. It’s a sin for us Christians to be slaves to business success. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work hard when we work. But we must realize that God didn’t put us here to get rich and to meet the world’s requirements for success. Rather, we need to put relationships and serving God, neither of which pay money, ahead of worldly business.

Proverbs 23:6, “Do not eat the bread of the stingy; do not desire their delicacies;”
Analysis: The eating of bread mentioned here is reminiscent of Jesus’ warning to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus, of course, cleared up His disciples’ confusion by explaining that He was warning of their teachings. Therefore, this proverb is similarly a warning against the teachings of the stingy.
Christians today often love the teachings of the stingy, many of which blame the poor for their poverty and credit the wealthy for their successes.

Proverbs 28:22, “The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come.”
Analysis: Misers are not generous, so they resist helping the needy. This proverb tells us that those of us who are devoted to pursuing riches will lose them in the next life or, very possibly, in this life, so it’s vain to devote ourselves to the pursuit of riches.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money, nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat [‘consume’ in the NASB] them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”
Analysis: This is why trickle-down economics—in which the wealthy voluntarily pass their economic gain down to the workers and consumers—doesn’t work. When the wealth of the wealthy increases, the wealthy desire even more wealth. In fact, people at all income levels fail to be satisfied with increased prosperity.
This verse also addresses the pointlessness of buying expensive mansions, cars, clothes, etc., which provide no more tangible benefits than ordinary houses, cars and clothes. All we can do with these over-priced items is look at them or hope that others will look at them and be impressed.

Ecclesiastes 5:13-17, “There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have for toiling for the wind?”
Analysis: We are often fascinated with the fall of the wealthy, from people who strike it rich and lose everything, to seemingly brilliant businessmen whose ventures nose-dive amidst the shifting winds of the economy. This Bible quote reminds us how fleeting wealth can be, and what a waste it is to work our lives away in order to acquire it, since we can’t take it with us when we die.

Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Context: This is one of Jesus’ various teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
Luke 12:33-34, “Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
Context: This quote caps off Jesus’ instructions to His disciples not to worry.
Analysis: Yet again, the Bible reveals how is easy it is to lose earthly riches and how it’s far better to focus on things of eternal value.
Today, we may not worry so much about thieves, moths and rust, because we have insurance to restore our losses. But those worries have been replaced with concerns about losing one’s home due to job loss or losing all that one has ever worked for thanks to medical bills from an illness or injury.

Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Context: This is one of Jesus’ various teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This same quote also appears in Luke 16:13.
Analysis: Having worked in corporate sales for fifteen years, I’ve often had to choose between serving God and serving wealth. Nearly all corporations deceive potential customers through their marketing and sales tactics, because they will do whatever it takes, and hurt whoever they have to hurt, to reach their financial goals. The rallying cry of most sales executives is, “We must hit our numbers at any cost! No excuses!”
A recent example of this is the mortgage industry from approximately 2005-2007. When the housing boom cooled off around 2005, the mortgage bankers were unwilling to lower their sales objectives. Like almost all corporations, they raised their sales quotas year after year, never satisfied with their wealth, threatening to fire managers who failed to achieve them. Therefore, managers created a new way of obtaining lots of business—offering adjustable rate mortgages to those who couldn’t afford to buy a home and convincing them through aggressive sales pitches that they’d be able to refinance when the interest rates went up after two years. Some sales reps failed to inform their borrowers altogether that their rates would increase.
These companies and their employees placed their love for their true master, wealth, ahead of God’s law, and multitudes of unsuspecting people lost millions of dollars.

Matthew 13:22, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth chokes the word, and it yields nothing.”
Context: Jesus explains to His disciples the parable of the sower. In this parable, a person spreads seeds upon the ground, yet most of the seeds fail to produce plants because of various conditions. Jesus then likens these natural obstacles to obstacles in life that keep us from being productive in serving God.
Analysis: For many years I thought this parable’s message is that having wealth keeps us from doing God’s will, because we spend our time enjoying the pleasures money buys rather than serving God. However, I’ve since realized that even the working poor have no time to serve God, because they must work their lives away in order to barely pay the bills. So not having time to serve God isn’t the sin here.
Rather, it’s the “lure” of wealth that chokes the word, not wealth itself, according to Jesus. In other words, it’s the greed, deception, and taking advantage of others that angers God.

Matthew 13:44-45, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Context: These verses are included in a chapter full of parables and metaphors.
Analysis: This is the first of Jesus’ quotes in which he mentions selling all of our possessions. That makes most of us uncomfortable, myself included.

Matthew 19:21-24, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me… Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Context: A wealthy man had approached Jesus with the question of what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, but the man was not satisfied with that answer. So Jesus told him to sell everything he had and follow Him. The man then walked away disappointed, because he was wealthy. Also see Mark 10:17-27 for a repeat of the same story.
Analysis: In the Divorce study, I distinguished between a sin and an imperfection. That theology applies here as well. We do not sin if we fail to give away all of our possessions. But, according to this story, we have a shot at obtaining perfection if we do.
Why is it so hard for a rich man to enter heaven? It’s probably a combination of two things, one of which I’ve already mentioned: people usually obtain wealth by sinful means. The second reason is that wealth is a source of pride, and pride is one of the biggest sins in the Bible (see the study on Pride, Arrogance and Judgmentalism). The wealthy usually credit themselves, not God, for their success and believe themselves to be more deserving of its benefits than the poor. Also, those who grow up wealthy, or easily acquire wealth, rarely have merciful attitudes toward those who don’t, because they blame the poor for their poverty. If our friends and family live a life of ease, we lose touch with those who struggle to support their families. Those who have not experienced or witnessed the struggles of the poor lack empathy and, therefore, neglect the needs of the poor.

Luke 3:11-14, “In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with him who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do? He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.’”
Context: These quotes are from John the Baptist. He would go on to baptize Jesus.
Analysis: These verses can be difficult to apply to modern American life. Thanks to our society’s wealth and organizations like the Salvation Army, few people lack clothing. Likewise, thanks to food stamps and school lunch programs, as well as food charities like Philabundance, few people go hungry. (May God bless those who created these programs.) Similarly, American soldiers don’t threaten people for profit, and the CPA’s and the IRS don’t take more than the law allows.
While I usually take the opportunity to chastise Christians for how we fall short of God’s will with regard to money, this time I just want to give thanks for the fact that we live in a country that grew up on Christian values. We’ve achieved a lot of what God wants in a society. Yes, greed still reeks havoc and the poor still suffer, but our society is not as cut-throat as the Roman Empire, and our poor are much better off than the poor in biblical times.

Luke 12:15, “And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”
Context: Jesus responds to a man who asks Him to force his brother to share the inheritance with him. Jesus then follows this quote with a parable about a rich man who was unable to enjoy his wealth, because he died before he could do so.
Analysis: The man in this story expects Jesus to scold his brother for keeping more than his share of the inheritance. That sounds fair, doesn’t it? Much to his surprise, Jesus chooses not to scold the man’s brother for being unfair, but warns this man who made the request not to obsess over money. To Jesus, the relationship between brothers is of greater importance than fair distribution of money.

Luke 19:8-9, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’”
Context: Jesus was headed to Jericho, and Zacchaeus was so eager to see Him that he climbed a tree for a better view. After Jesus requested to stay with him, the man repented, as we see here.
Analysis: Thanks to this verse, we may now wipe the sweat off of our collective brow. Zacchaeus only gives up half of what he owns, and Jesus appears to be content with that. Jesus rejoices not over the giving of money, but over Zacchaeus’ repentant heart.

1 Timothy 6:5-10, “…and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. Of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Context: Paul instructs Timothy on running a church.
Analysis: Verse 10’s revelation that some have left the church in their “eagerness to be rich” suggests that wealth is often obtained by means contrary to biblical teaching. Yet today, many American Christians see wealth as God’s reward for good behavior, and they tie faith and prosperity together into an anti-biblical theology.
God’s call to us is to be content. That doesn’t mean we may never try to improve our financial situation; the desire to do so is not true greed. It means we must be satisfied with what we have when financial gain is only possible through sinful acts that “plunge people [others] into ruin and destruction,” like selling investments designed to fail or sneak-charging customers with fees they don’t expect.

2 Timothy 3:1-2, “You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money…”
Context: Paul warns Timothy about a future increase in sinfulness.
Analysis: Loving ourselves and loving money go hand in hand. When we love ourselves more than others, we make our desires our priorities, and then we seek money at the expense of others, and spend it on our pleasures rather than on the needs of others.

Hebrews 13:5, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”
Context: The writer of Hebrews gives various instructions to the Jewish Christians in the last chapter of this letter.
Analysis: This call to contentment emphasizes the fact that our relationship with God is of greater importance than our financial status.

James 1:9-11, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat, and withers the field; its flower falls and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
Context: This quote appears to be unrelated to the messages preceding and following it.
Analysis: The Bible is pretty hard on the rich, and it makes every attempt to destroy their arrogance and prove them to be no better than others if not worse than others. Unfortunately, many conservative American Christians today see the rich as heroes who create our jobs, yet the Bible never speaks of them in this light, even though the rich were employers in biblical times just as they are today.

[Economic Note: Contrary to what some say, the wealthy don’t create jobs; consumer spending is the only thing that can create jobs. The wealthy (and even small business owners) merely seek to maximize profits. If demand for their products and services increases, they add jobs to take advantage of that demand – in an effort to maximize profits. If demand for their products and services falls, they cut jobs rather than pay idle employees – in an effort to maximize profits. The wealthy are not heroes who choose, out of the kindness of their hearts, to convert their money into jobs. The wealthy, rather, invest their money in whatever gives them the best return on investment (ROI), and in an economy like ours where consumers have seen their spending power cut in half, the best ROI is definitely not from job creation, but rather from investing in gold, oil futures, short-selling stocks, high-end real estate, etc.]

1 Peter 2:16, “…for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the father, but from the world.”
Context: Peter warns against living by our fleshly desires rather than by living as God desires. The next verse states that the world is passing away, but those who live by God’s desires live forever.
Analysis: Wealth is temporary. Not only may we lose it in this life, but we are certain to lose it when we move on to the next life.

Greed of the Poor

Exodus 23:2-3, “You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”
Context: This is one of many laws that follow the 10 Commandments.
Analysis: This verse opposes lawsuits in which groups of poor people attempt to steal from the wealthy by making false claims.
Today, winning a big lawsuit is the new American dream. Thanks to the growing popularity of victim mentality, we blame others for our problems, especially when they have money that we desire. We sue corporations for accidents resulting from our own negligence. And we sue the government and school districts for their employees’ mistakes and, in turn, sue our neighbors, since the government and schools are funded by taxes which we all pay. Not all lawsuits are evil, but we may only sue with just cause and honest testimony.

Proverbs 30:15, “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give, give,’ they cry. Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough.’”
Analysis: While the Bible opposes oppression of the poor, it also denies the poor permission to demand unnecessary handouts. The poor must do the best they can and not develop the attitude that society owes them a living.

Proverbs 21:25-26, “The craving of a lazy person is fatal, for lazy hands refuse to labor. All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.”
Analysis: Those who work hard and are generous please God, while those who are lazy and desire riches disappoint Him.