Continuing with a read through of this chapter from Ron Sider’s ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’ starting where we left off:
Possessions are highly dangerous. They lead to a multitude of sins, including idolatry. Western Christians today desperately need to turn away from their covetous civilisation’s grasping materialism.
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THE RING AND THE BELOVED
Possessions are dangerous. But they are not innately evil. Biblical revelation begins with creation. And created things, God said, are very very good (Genesis 1).
Biblical faith knows nothing of the ascetic notion that forsaking food, possessions, or sex is inherently virtuous. To be sure these created goods are, as St Augustine said, only rings from our Beloved. They are not the Beloved Himself. Sometimes particular circumstances – such as an urgent mission or the needs of the poor – may require their renunciation. But these things are part of God’s good creation. Like the ring given by the Beloved, they are signs of His love. If we treasure them as good tokens of His affection instead of mistaking them for the Beloved, they are marvellous gifts which enrich our lives.
God’s provision for Israel’s use of the tithe symbolises the scriptural perspective (Deuteronomy 14.22-27). Every third year, as we saw earlier, the tithe was given to the poor. In the other years, however, the people were to go to the place of worship and have a fantastic feast. They were to have a great, big, joyful celebration! “Before the Lord your God, in the place which He will choose, to make His name and dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and flock” (Deuteronomy 14.23). Those who lived far from the place of worship could sell the tithe of their produce and take the money with them. Listen to God’s directions for the party: “Spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves; and you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice” (Deuteronomy 14.26). God wants His people to celebrate the glorious goodness of His creation.
Jesus’ example fits in perfectly with the Old Testament view. Certainly He said a great deal about the danger of possessions. But He was not an ascetic. He was happy to join in marriage celebrations and even contribute the beverage (John 2.1-11). He dined with the prosperous. Apparently He was sufficiently fond of feasts and celebrations that His enemies could spread the rumour that He was a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11.19). Christian ascetism has a long history, but Jesus’ life undermines its basic assumptions.
A short passage in 1 Timothy succinctly summarises the biblical view. In the latter days people will forbid marriage and advocate abstinence from foods. But this is misguided, “for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be neglected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4.1-4).
The biblical teaching on the goodness of creation does not contradict the other biblical themes we have explored. It is also true that possessions are dangerous and that God’s people must practice self-denial to aid the poor and feed the hungry. But it is important to focus the biblical mandate to liberate the poor without distorting other aspects of Scripture. It is not because food, clothes and property are inherently evil that Christians today must lower their standard of living. It is because others are starving. Creation is good. But the One who gave us this gorgeous token of His affection has asked us to share it with out sisters and brothers.
RIGHTEOUSNESS AND RICHES
Does obedience guarantee prosperity? Is it true that “in the house of the righteous there is so much treasure” (Proverbs 15.6)? Is the reverse also true? Are riches a sure sign of righteousness?
The Bible certainly does not romanticise poverty. It is a curse (2 Samuel 3.29, Psalm 109.8-11). Sometimes is it the result of sin, but not always. A fundamental point of the book of Job is that poverty and suffering are not always due to disobedience. In fact they can be redemptive (Isaiah 53). Even so, poverty and suffering are not inherently good. They are tragic distortions of God’s good creation.
Prosperity on the other hand is good and desirable. God repeatedly promised His people Israel that obedience would bring abundant prosperity in a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 6.1-3).
All these blessings shall come upon you… if you obey the voice of the LORD your God… And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground (Deuteronomy 28.2, 11; see also Deuteronomy 7.12-15]
That God frequently rewards obedience with material abundance is a clear teaching of Scripture.
But the threat of a curse always accompanied the promise of blessing (Deuteronomy 6.14-15; 28.15-68; 8.11-20). As we discovered in the last to chapters, one of God’s most frequent commands to His people was to feed the hungry and to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. For repeatedly ignoring this command, Israel experienced God’s curse. Israel’s prosperity in the days of Amos and Isaiah was not the result of divine blessing. It was the result of sinful oppression of the poor. God consequently destroyed the nation.
The Bible does teach that God rewards obedience with prosperity. But it denies the converse. It is a heresy, particularly common in the West, to think that wealth and prosperity are always a sure sign of righteousness. They may be the result of sin and oppression as in the case of Israel. The crucial test is whether the prosperous are obeying God’s command to bring justice to the oppressed. If they are not, they are living in damnable disobedience to God. On biblical grounds, therefore, one can be sure that prosperity in the context of injustice is not a sign of righteousness.
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Let’s leave it there for now and i think we have one more section to go… if you missed any of the parts up til now, make sure you do a quick catchup and if you found this challenging and inspiring at all, why not tag a friend in it and have a conversation afterwards about what jumped out at them? Or even invite a few friends to a meal and let this be reading material beforehand with the purpose of discussing reflections around the meal?