Poverty and wealth

Matters of wealth and poverty are core to human hopes, fears and identity. It is no surprise that they are large and complex themes in the Bible. In many places, wealth is acknowledged as a blessing and poverty as a problem to be tackled. Elsewhere, however, this arrangement is challenged and revised priorities are encouraged. Throughout, righteousness and relationship with God are emphasised as of greater importance.

The blessing of wealth

The Old Testament often identifies wealth as a mark of God’s blessing and provision, and thus a cause for gratitude (e.g. Deuteronomy 8:18). However, righteousness and relationship with God are always to be desired above riches (e.g. Psalms 119:72). Reliance on wealth is considered especially foolish:
Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
  but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.
                             Proverbs 11:28 ESVUK     
According to scripture, the wealthy should honour God with their abundance (e.g. Proverbs 3:9). This principle is encapsulated in the legal instructions about tithing: a tenth of all produce had be given by the Israelites to support the work of the Temple and to help the needy Deuteronomy 26:12-13. Acts of obedient giving could be rewarded with further blessing Malachi 3:10.

Compassion for the needy

Throughout the Bible, God has a special concern for those in need (for example, Psalms 113:7-8; Psalms 68:5-6). He expects that the Jewish people would demonstrate the same compassion and generosity Isaiah 58:6-7. In some verses in the Old Testament, poverty is viewed as the inevitable product of laziness (e.g. Proverbs 10:4). However it is more often presented as a social problem which the community had a responsibility to address together (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:7-8). 
In addition to the practice of tithing, there were special provisions in the law to help alleviate poverty. One example was the commandment to leave the gleanings of the field to be collected by those in need Leviticus 19:9-10. This is how Ruth supported herself and her mother-in-law Naomi when they were both widowed Ruth 2:1-3

Wealth and justice

Proverbs acknowledges that both wealth and poverty can produce temptation: it is better to have ‘just enough’ Proverbs 30:8-9. Undeserved wealth and poverty feature in reflections and discussions about the nature of justice and human suffering (e.g. Psalms 73:12-13). The story of Job is a striking example. A ‘blameless and upright’ man Job 1:1-3, Job loses all his abundance when God gives Satan permission to test him:
Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.          Job 1:10-11 ESVUK     
The rest of the book explores questions about justice and suffering from many angles. At the end, God blessed Job with prosperity beyond what he had at the start Job 42:10.

Jesus’ attitude to wealth and poverty

Jesus challenged popular ideas about wealth and poverty. Whilst the Old Testament made it clear that righteousness and relationship with God were to be prioritised above riches, Jesus took a bolder position, encouraging an active disregard for wealth, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:19-21. He spoke of money as a rival for the love and devotion that human beings should have for God alone Matthew 6:24.

The blessing of poverty

Sermon on the mount by Carl BlochIn his seminal Sermon on the Mount Jesus subverted Jewish assumptions about who was and wasn’t ‘well off’, and what it meant to be ‘blessed’:
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
‘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.
                                 Luke 6:20-21 ESVUK     
Instead of regarding wealth as a mark of spiritual blessing, Jesus warned his followers that it could be a trap:
And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’              Matthew 19:23-25 ESVUK     
Jesus encouraged his disciples (Luke 12:33), as well as a ‘rich young man’ (Matthew 19:21-22), to sell all their possessions and give to the poor. Meanwhile, on seeing a poor widow’s tiny contribution to the Temple offering, he commended the abundance of her gift relative to the little she owned (Mark 12:41-44).

Care for one another

Although Jesus encouraged willing poverty he did not advocate leaving others in need (e.g. Matthew 5:42, Matthew 6:2-3). He even indicated that he would judge people according to whether someone compassionately served another – or not (Matthew 25:31-46).
The first Christians aimed at a communal existence in which there was neither need nor excess Acts 2:44-45. Paul cautioned against the distractions of riches – ‘for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils’ (1 Timothy 6:9-10), instead emphasising contentment and generosity 1 Timothy 6:17-19. The letter of James was especially concerned that no one favoured the wealthy over the poor, but honoured everyone equally (James 2:1-5).


  • Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale includes a lengthy examination of greed, whilst The Wife of Bath’s Tale defends the virtue of poverty 
  • Charles Dickens’ father was once incarcerated in a debtor’s prison. He himself became a harsh critic of the treatment of the poor in Victorian England. Themes of wealth and poverty (and changes in fortune) are prominent in many of his novels, especially Oliver Twist (1837-9), Great Expectations (1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)
  • Tom Wolfe was heavily influenced by Dickens when writing The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). It contrasts wealth and poverty in 1980s New York, following the downfall of the protagonist from one to the other state
  • The backdrop for Umberto Eco’s postmodern murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1980) is a heated controversy over property versus poverty in the medieval Catholic church. The abbey in which the novel is set is extremely wealthy
  • The Beat writers of the 1950s derived their name from the beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), typical of the movement, featured down-and-out characters and subverted worldly notions of prosperity. 

Other cultural references

  • Robin Hood is a hero of English folklore, famous for robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

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