Perhaps nothing generates greater emotional reaction than a conversation about money and finances. The Bible says a LOT about money. It talks about how we ought not to love money or trust in money. It tells us to be generous and to share. It teaches us to save and invest. It teaches us how to give. It teaches us to put money at risk in our work. It tells us that getting rich can be a blessing from God, but that can also keep us far from God.
I detect something afoot in our culture that I’d like to examine in relation to the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet.” There is an increasing animosity toward rich people simply because they are rich. The idea is that if someone is rich, they have somehow gained it either by some lucky fortune or by some way of cheating it out of other people’s hands. This idea goes further by saying that as the rich have become richer, the poor have become poorer. Thus, the rich have stolen from the poor, and the best way to solve that problem is to take that money from the rich, who can easily afford it, and give it to the poor, who can easily make use of it. According to this thinking, the rich have all this wealth lying around doing nothing that they have taken from the hands of poor people. So, some power must exert the force necessary to pry that money that is “doing nothing” away from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. Generally, that power is identified today as government.
This idea, that rich people are rich only because they have been lucky or because of they have been evil, is going to destroy our nation, if we allow that idea to go unchallenged. Are there people who are rich because they had some chance fortune, like winning the lottery? Are there people who are rich because they did evil and gained from that evil? Of course, that is true. But it is not true of all or even most rich people. Now, figuring out what exactly is “rich” is inexact. Generally, it means anyone who is wealthier than I am! However, for our purposes, let’s just say that a rich person is one who has a net worth of over one million dollars. That person is not as “rich” as some may think. Their wealth may be tied up in a business venture or in farmland or in any number of very productive ways that bring much needed goods and services to others. The average millionaire in America lives in a home of 2600 square feet; 62% of them earn less than $100,000 annually.[i] 61 percent of people who earn $250,000 or more drive Toyotas, Hondas and Fords, not luxury automobiles.[ii] So, be careful about how “rich” you think so called rich people are. They are where they are for the most part because they worked hard, saved and invested passionately, spent carefully, and avoided debt.
This is contrary to prevailing opinion which says that wealth came either by luck or by inheritance or by evil. Only 21% of millionaires received any inheritance at all. Just 16% inherited more than $100,000. Only 3% received an inheritance at or above $1 million.[iii] The vast majority of millionaires are hardworking people. The top five occupations are: engineer, accountant, teacher or professor, management, and lawyers. Eighteen percent of millionaires are self-employed.[iv]
Our government run lotteries bear much of the blame for creating the climate of coveting the rich and the demand for redistribution of wealth. They advertise that wealth comes by chance. They suggest that the way to wealth is by participation in the lottery. And people believe the advertisements. A study by the University of Buffalo revealed that those in the lowest fifth in terms of socioeconomic status had the “highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) and the highest mean level of days gambled in the past year (26.1 days).” The study also concluded that increased level of lottery play was linked with those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.[v]
Is it any wonder then, that there are vast numbers of people who feel “cheated” by their own poverty, who think that luck is the only way out of poverty, and who therefore conclude that rich people owe them their money? The government is actually promoting this idea, and people are believing the lie.
The Bible shouts a loud, “No!” to this lie. First, it tells us that the money that a person earns is his, not his neighbor’s. Some key texts on this are the warnings in the scriptures about not moving boundary stones. (See Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Proverbs 15:25; 22:28; 23:10; Hosea 5:10.) What belongs to your neighbor, belongs to him, not you. Second, it tells us that hard work and disciplined living bring prosperity. Proverbs 13:11, “Dishonest money dwindles away, but whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.”
When I was a child just at the start of summer vacation from school, I enjoyed being lazy, getting up late, not doing my chores, and generally having a bad attitude of entitlement. My mother would always quote to me from Proverbs 6, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!7 It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, 8 yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. 9 How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—11 and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”
We simply must rescue the beautiful truth that one man’s wealth does not mean that he has stripped it from another. Wealth can be created by hard work. According to the World Bank, world poverty has declined by 36% since 1990.[vi] This is not because government has become more efficient at taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. It is because the opportunities for work and wealth creation from that work have grown in powerful ways. We will destroy that engine if we believe the lie that rich people are lucky or evil and that human flourishing can be obtained if only we took rich people’s money and gave it to the poorest among us.
The believer in Jesus Christ is rich beyond measure. This is because although Jesus Christ was rich, for our sake he became poor that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). His coming to this world to die for our sins is a gift beyond measure. As a result, believers in Jesus are known for their generosity. We do not love money, even though many believers work hard and, as a result, prosper. We love to give from that prosperity for God’s glory (Acts 4:32-35; 2 Corinthians 9:7). And even if wrong ideas gain hold and there comes a day when authorities come to strip our wealth away from us, we will joyfully accept that confiscation. As was said of our brothers and sisters centuries ago, so it will be true of us, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:34)
But until that time, not for our sake, but for the sake of the flourishing of our world, let us pray against all forms of coveting, let us not covet ourselves, and let us pray that people will see that hard work, not luck or evil, are the means to material prosperity.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15, 17)