I fell into a Facebook debate the other day. I don’t know how it happened, it just did. Anyway, the debate revolved around poverty and being a Christian.
At one point someone said, “Poverty is a horrible testimony.” This statement floored me because it seems to mean that Jesus who didn’t seem to have a ton of cash on hand (Matt 17:24-27), or a house (Matt 8:20), or a family, and didn’t leave any kind of financial inheritance then would have a horrible testimony.
People in favor of “claiming” and “walking in” the blessing of Abraham are nice people. The problem I see however with this idea that Christians shouldn’t be poor is that it would put Jesus as well as most Christians in the developing world in the camp of having a bad testimony. It would put most of the early church in a the category of a horrible testimony, as they faced persecution, losing jobs and their lives, for their faith.
This idea that poverty is in some way evidence of not having a good testimony is troubling. Also, as a side note, for Christians, our testimony is all tied to whether or not we said yes to the grace of Jesus which was extended to us. Rich or poor that’s the greatest testimony you can have. But back to the matter at hand. Someone could follow Jesus with all their heart, lead many people to faith in Christ, and they may never have “finanicial victory.” Would that person be a bad representation of Jesus to the world? Of course not. Someone could lose everything through no fault of their own, but still be a committed follower of Jesus and, they may work dilligently to get their finances back on track but to no avail. Does that person have a bad testimony? No.
Jesus wants his disciples to be like him. Which means we must live lives that honor God. Rich or poor, every Christians should strive to be like Jesus.
So let’s actually look at what Jesus said about poverty and wealth.
What did Jesus say about the poor?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.”
This Matthean passage compared to the Lukan parallel is particularly interesting. In Luke Jesus gives no qualifier to the poverty. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Pretty obvious. Matthew qualifies being poor with “in spirit.” Which one does Jesus mean? Both. Keener in the IVP Bible Background Commentary says,
“Poverty and piety were often associated in Judaism; the term poor could encompass either physical poverty (Lk 6:20), or the faithful dependence on God that it often produced (“in spirit,” as here).”
The word for poor is the word used for utter destitution. So in Luke Jesus is saying the very poor will be blessed. In Matthew the very poor also recognize also their “utter spiritual destitution, the consciousness of which precedes the entrance into the kingdom of God, and which cannot be relieved by one’s own efforts, but only by the free mercy of God.” (Word Studies in the New Testament Logos Bible Software) Physical poverty can lead people to recognize their physical and spiritual dependence on God the Father. When we recognize our deep need for God, we can receive his promise, “the kingdom of God.”
This is another example of Jesus blessing the poor Luke 21:1-4:
“As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
This woman, who has no name in scripture trusted God, gave all she had. Now, is this Jesus saying to everyone, “Give everything and be blessed? Be poor!” No, but he is also not saying, “This poor woman has a horrible testimony.” He calls her blessed, because she didn’t just give what she could. She was generous in her worship of God through giving. The Bible doesn’t say then she went out and won the lottery. But I bet the next week she had another pair of small copper coins. She was poor, trusted God, and Jesus said she gave more than the rich.
Jesus had more of a concern that his followers would desire to be rich.
What did Jesus say about wealth?
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Jesus is clearly telling his followers to focus their heart on God and not on money. You can’t seek God and seek a so called “promise” that you will be rich.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Jesus’ story here is about somebody who put his confidence in the riches he had produced through his fields. He then turned his focus on taking it easy, trusting in what he has earned, thinking that everything was set. But his wealth wouldn’t keep him alive forever. He died rich and a fool.
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[a]”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Here is a rich man who couldn’t follow Jesus’s command to sell everything. His hope and security was in his riches and his possessions. His hope and confidence were not in God. He wanted God’s blessing but didn’t want to actually trust God. Jesus was calling him to a life of poverty and obedience. But he couldn’t handle it. Does Jesus call everyone to poverty? No. But he does call everyone to put their hope, trust and confidence in him.
Because the only way we are going to be saved, is through faith in Jesus.
Should poverty be glorified by Christians? No, that’s ridiculous. But poverty should not be shunned. Jesus’ words are pretty clear that focusing on money (rich or poor) instead of the things of God is a path to destruction.