The New Testament merges philosophical, economic, and political thoughts into a single fascinating work. As one of the most important and influential texts in the entire world, the New Testament is of the utmost importance for any scholar of the social sciences. This sample research paper on money in the Bible deals with the relationship between wealth, poverty, and faith in early Christian writings. Religious studies is just one of the many subjects covered by our talented writers at Ultius.
Wealth and Poverty in the New Testament
The relationship between wealth, poverty, and faith is a major component of the New Testament, particularly in the historical Jewish context upon which the Bible is based. Though there are some universally agreed upon beliefs or interpretations among the various New Testament texts, there are passages that are more difficult to reconcile and connect to a larger interpretation. The fact that there has been disagreement among scholars, theologians, and readers of the New Testament is not surprising. Many are tempted to choose one specific interpretation and emphasize certain passages over others. This is also understandable, given the clarity and quality of the words attributed to Jesus. Each of the approaches considered here (Clement of Alexandria, William Lawrence, or Gustavo Gutiérrez) offers a central thesis that makes sense in the context of a particular set of passages. They each offer suggestions for living and for addressing wealth and poverty that make sense in the time they were written and in the present day. Of the three approaches, the one I agree the most with is that of Gustavo Gutiérrez, for reasons having to do with Gutiérrez’s interpretation of the New Testament and the approaches he has taken in his life to teach and promote the liberation theology perspective.
Lawrence’s view on wealth for philanthropy
Clement, Lawrence, and Gutiérrez have in common the view that material wealth is not sufficient for life or for faith. Though they may give this topic different amounts of attention and though the language they employ varies, they seem to agree that spiritual wealth is more important to work toward. Those that achieve some measure of spiritual wealth benefit from it more than they do from material possessions. The views of the three men diverge somewhat when it comes to the dangers of material wealth. Lawrence has the deepest connections to secular ideals, spending a lot of time explaining why the striving for and collecting of material wealth is beneficial, especially as it relates to working and contributing to society. He speaks of “honest enterprise and business,” going as far to mention that:
“material prosperity is in the long run favorable to morality”
He then returns to a spiritual vantage point, warning readers not to take this statement too far by saying that:
“neither a man’s nor a nation’s life consists in the abundance of things that he possesseth.”
Though he gives us this caveat and he speaks of the “immoral rich man,” it seems that Lawrence is mostly concerned with discouraging personal behavior or societal actions that would get in the way of the march toward material wealth.
Clement and Poverty
Clement’s interpretation seems more in line with the way some New Testament texts present poverty and wealth–not as a means to promote material prosperity or business, but as a clear reminder that one may be able to use material wealth as a means to help those in need. Clement says that as long as a rich man uses his possessions and wealth to help those in need, the rich man can be saved. This seems a sensible and even honorable position at first. Upon further thought, it becomes difficult to reconcile this position with the story of the “rich young man” from Matthew 19:16-29. Jesus is not merely saying that as long as the young man shares his wealth with those in poverty, he is free to remain a rich man. Rather, Jesus is saying that the young man must share all his wealth –or at least be prepared to do so. In other words, the rich man must give everything to help the poor man, becoming a poor man himself (and then, in theory, receive they very help he has given). Considering the importance of the story in Matthew to the interpretation of wealth and poverty, Clement’s interpretation of it, while sensible at times, is insufficient.
Gutiérrez’s view of wealth
Eschewing one’s possessions is a radical idea, the foundation of Asceticism, and not one that most New Testament readers or theologians are eager to encourage. Gustavo Gutiérrez tackled the issue of wealth and poverty from a very different perspective, focusing not on the what the rich man could do to assist those in need but on the restoration of dignity to the lives of the poor. With this restoration of dignity, the valuing of oneself and of others increases, society improves, and poverty, it is hoped, disappears. Obviously, this is an aspiration that is difficult to achieve. It is difficult to even imagine it can be achieved. It does, however, seem to be most in line with the teaching of Jesus and the text of the specific passages under discussion.
A somewhat different point of view
Gutiérrez does not attempt to ignore or explain away the story of the “rich young man” in Matthew. Instead he implores humanity to do all that is possible to restore dignity to the lives of everyone. He does this by addressing the needs of the poor first and foremost. He does not see his role as that of an advisor to those who possess or strive to possess material wealth. Though they may not say it directly, it seems that William Lawrence and Clement of Alexandria do take on this advisory role. Gutiérrez directly addresses the poor and works to improve their lives. He also addresses people and societies in general, regardless of their poverty and wealth. If there is to be improvement in the conditions of the world’s poor and/or a restoration of their dignity, involvement and attention must come from everyone. I see this as consistent with the New Testament passages on poverty and with the entirety of the New Testament. What Jesus did and said in these passages was imbued with aspiration and ideals and Gutiérrez understands this more than the others.
Two specific critiques
There are two common critiques of Gutiérrez and his beliefs:
- Someone opposed to this view might raise the common objection that Gutierrez is espousing socialism, specifically the type that has failed in many settings at different times in history. To that I would counter that the role of theology or a theologian is not to propose ideal systems in which society must function. Rather, it is to offer ideas or even doctrines that other institutions and social structures may aspire to and support.
- Gutiérrez and his theology do not offer specifics in terms of methods through which the poor and needy may benefit or thrive. To this, I would disagree. He offers many examples of people helping people, as well as those on which opportunities to help are missed. He may not offer realistic long-term systemic solutions that might drastically change societies without disrupting them, but, as with the socialism critique, I am not sure that is his role.
While the overall New Testament approach to wealth and poverty may not be consistent or easy to reconcile, it seems that never forgetting the perspective of those in poverty is a crucial element of that approach. Of the three views on this topic, those of Gustavo Gutiérrez, while certainly lofty, seem to be most in line with the message and the intent of the New Testament and with how that message can be furthered in the present day.
Gutierrez, G. (1974). A Theology of Liberation. London: SCM Press