Neither Poverty nor Riches
by Craig Blomberg. Part of New Studies in Biblical Theology, No.7. Published by Apollos, 1999.
What's the Purpose of the Book?
The setting: Despite various social and political systems and interventions 1) poverty is increasing 2) the gap between rich and poor is widening 3) unemployment is rising and 4) the environment is increasingly under threat. Meanwhile Westerners prefer to spend their money on video games, holidays, clothes and diets. Are the labour and resources of the Third World therefore contributing more to the opulence of America’s cats and dogs than to the elementary health of those who live in poverty?
What is a proper Christian response to poverty? Whilst there are already many commentaries on the subject, Blomberg argues that his is the first systematic analysis of what the Bible has to say on the matter across both the Old and New Testaments. Blomberg comes to this analysis without any prior agenda or point to prove; he attempts to lay down his own preconceived opinions on the matter to unpack what the Bible actually has to say, drawing widely on other existing commentaries.
Blomberg’s aim? “I hope that all readers…may realise the substantial disparity between the biblical mandates [on poverty] and contemporary issues of stewardship of material possessions in their own lives, joyfully, not out of a gloomy sense of externally imposed guilt, but in recognition that a large part of our world today…may well be called to repent of past apathy and self-centred indulgence…the increasingly acute needs of the poor worldwide…may well demand nothing less than a significant change of spending priorities on the part of many affluent Westerners.” (p.32).
What's in the Book?
Chapters 1 to 7 take us very systematically through the Old and New Testaments, highlighting every situation or reference involving money and material possessions. What Blomberg does well is to draw into one place other existing commentaries (at the time of writing - 1999) on the various books of the Bible and what they have to say about wealth and possessions, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what the Bible is really saying on the subject. At times it feels as though he has gone too far in his thoroughness in picking up every single reference (particularly in the New Testament), but nonetheless he still succeeds in identifying some general themes and at times to offer a refreshing take on a parable or proverb.
If you find yourself preparing a sermon on a particular Bible passage then this might indeed be a useful reference tool. Being so dense, it’s not a light read nor one that’s going to sock you between the eyes when it comes to conviction and application. That said, since the chapters are unrelated (each is self-contained in dealing with a particular part of the Bible) you can dip in and out at leisure - perhaps using it when you want clarity on a particular passage’s interpretation.
What's the Application?
Although it’s not the most inspiring book, you can be sure that what Blomberg is saying about wealth and possessions is grounded in what the Bible says; as such, we should confidently and willingly embrace his key messages. We must be willing to examine ourselves and our patterns of spending honestly - not with a view to justify them - but in acknowledgement that a life spiritually transformed should likewise be materially transformed: saving faith should lead to transformed living. As Blomberg challenges us:
Professing Christians today who have surplus income…who are aware of the desperate human needs local and globally…and who give none of their income…ought to ask themselves whether any claims of faith they might make could stand up before God’s bar of judgement…it is the demonstration of a changed life, a heart begun to be transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God, which thereby produces an outpouring of compassion… (p.155).
The above point notwithstanding, one of Blomberg’s key messages is that God made a material world for us to enjoy, so don’t feel guilty every time you do so! But Old Testament laws guarded against the excesses of wealth, exploitation and poverty. So too today, we should be trying to avoid both extremes (hence the title ‘Neither Riches nor Poverty’). While Jesus certainly wasn’t averse to the occasional displays of excess / luxury as he dined at rich people’s houses and permitted Mary to anoint his feet with expensive perfume, these should generally be exceptions and one-offs rather than the general rule.
As such, a key message is the idea of disposing of our surplus wealth to benefit those who are less well off. And in the West today, nearly all of us can be sure that we do indeed have a surplus.
But what makes us so reluctant to get rid of our ‘surplus’, instead storing it away for a rainy day? We must evaluate our motives here. Do we really trust God for our future, that he will provide us with what we need? If we do, then this should allow us to be generous with what we have today. In this context Blomberg makes useful reference to the ‘manna economy’. God provided for the Israelites on a daily basis (literally daily bread). Each household was expected to gather what they needed and no more; and those who attempted to hoard it found that it quickly spoilt.
What it may come down to is that we don’t really trust God. And if we don’t trust God, who are we really serving? We all know we can’t serve two masters. You’ve got to choose: is it God or is it mammon?
Blomberg isn’t however calling us to a radical overhaul of our lives (although some of us certainly might be convicted in this way). What he is saying is that we should avoid the extremes.
It is important for professing Christians today to ask themselves how many unused surplus goods, property or investments they accumulate without any thought for the needy of our world…If we hold that true wisdom is to be rich toward God, then work will have a limited place in our lives. We shall work hard enough to provide the necessities; we shall leave the future in God’s hands. We will not make work a means of securing ourselves against all possible calamities (p.119-20, also quoting Purdy 1985: 48-49).
Blomberg points out that the Bible does not lay down any rules when it comes to how much we should give - there is no 'one size fits all’. This is something each of us needs to decide for ourselves, allowing the Holy Spirit to loosen our grip on money where necessary. Whilst Jesus told the rich young ruler to get rid of all of his possessions (see Mark 10) in order to follow Him, he doesn’t say the same to Zacchaeus. The difference is that Jesus knew the young ruler’s wealth was standing in the way of his faith…while Zacchaeus voluntarily gave generously more than he was required to in response to his changed heart. (Not to mention Mark’s account of the widow who voluntarily gave the last of her coins…no one was commanding her to do so.) Which one of these characters do you identify with most? On this Blomberg is relatively gentle with us:
It goes too far to say that one cannot be rich and be a disciple of Jesus, but what never appears in the Gospels are well-to-do followers of Jesus who are not simultaneously generous in almsgiving and in divesting themselves of surplus wealth for the sake of those in need (p.145).
As the book drew to a close, one of the questions I found myself asking was ‘what’s my surplus?’. Here Blomberg offers some examples from his own life. At the most basic, if our lifestyles are not distinctively different (in a good way) from those around us who are not Christians when it comes to how we spend our money and the sort of lifestyle we maintain, then we should be asking ourselves why. Blomberg certainly has a sobering conclusion:
The implication for Western Christians whose lifestyles differ little from their surrounding culture in the accumulation of unneeded possessions and material luxuries is staggering…Paul proclaims…[that] such people simply won't inherit the kingdom of God (p.184).
Evaluating our own personal surplus is certainly a challenge, but this book has encouraged me to start evaluating my individual decisions about how I spend my money as and when they arise. For example, in booking a holiday, is it excessive both in terms of cost or frequency? Is another new item of clothing really necessary/ a one-off expense or representative of a general pattern of over spending? Broken down to this level, it’s a useful tool to keep in mind as we are bombarded with material temptations and a natural desire to keep up with the Joneses.
You shouldn’t be afraid of picking up this book, because I think the way of life Blomberg advocates is truly achievable for us. What he is warning us against is excess and what he’s pointing us to is compassion and generosity towards those who don’t have enough, within the context of a life transformed by our faith in God and his salvation.
** Readability (2/5): To be fair, the author does a good job of making a dense review relatively readable.
*** Application (3/5): More broad principles than specific life applications
* General appeal (1/5): Not really recommended unless you want to pick apart exactly what the Bible says about money in every context & reference. That said, it’s concluding messages apply to all of us.
**** Weekend read or major commitment (4/5): Major commitment!
** Challenge (2/5): The author is relatively gentle when it comes to challenging what we as Christians should do with our money, but he is firm that we can’t ignore what the Bible has to say about wealth.
* Would you pass it on to a friend? (1/5): I’d probably just summarise the key messages!