02 February 2013

Book Review: Neither Poverty Nor Riches

Christians seem to have a hard time with money; whether it's knowing how to spend it, save it, or give it away, no one seems to be able to agree on the best or the "right" way to do any of those things. I want to share with you the most helpful book I've ever read on the subject. In Craig Blomberg's book, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (New Studies in Biblical Theology), you will find what I believe to be the most comprehensive investigation of everything the Bible has to say about wealth, poverty, possessions, money, and economics. In the following, I'll provide you with a few of my thoughts and summaries of the most helpful material I gleaned.

Neither Poverty nor Riches: A biblical theology of possessions
Blomberg, Craig L.
Carson, D.A. (Editor)
New Studies in Biblical Theology Series
Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999

Preface

In his Preface the author admits that this is a book “by the rich for the rich”, meaning that he has never personally experienced poverty and many of the people who will read it have never experienced poverty, since the poor are rarely in a position to have the luxury of engaging in scholarship. That statement at the outset was enough to motivate me to read further. So much of the dialogue I hear on poverty comes from those who have made very little effort to draw near to the poor or to read and truly engage authors who may represent views they disagree with. At the outset, Blomberg ensures us that he has done his best to deal with all of the literature associated with this very important topic. His reason for writing is because he has been unable to find other writing that was comprehensive enough. He appears to be a very humble and thorough scholar. He is also very open about personal physical suffering that he experienced while writing the book and how it helped him to grow in his understanding of God being near to those who suffer.

Introductory Considerations

For his introduction to the book, Blomberg plots for us a few of the current statistics about poverty and a history of literature dealing with the subject of poverty and the responses to it from the Christian community; both their writings and actions. He traces the development of the Christian response to poverty. He is hoping to fill the gap with what is lacking in the perspectives of previous authors. First is liberation theology, which focuses on poverty but tends to set up a system in which God favors the poor over the rich. It was born out of struggles in Latin America. It shines a light on the plight of the poor and tends to foster resistance and revolution against authorities. The evangelical response was lacking. ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’ was a major work on the scenes in 1977 written by Ron Sider. He was criticized by fundamentalists and more conservative Christians. His revisions over time have demonstrated his growth in understanding and a willingness to learn from criticism. Blomberg makes us aware that he intends to spend a great deal of time looking at the Old Testament because of the great lack of material dealing with the subject.

Chapter One - The Old Testament and Material Possessions: the historical books

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are examples of men to whom God gives great riches. Blomberg sees the wealth of the patriarchs as being tied to the specific covenantal relationship in which God vowed to give them the Promised Land.

“Along the way, the riches amassed by the patriarchs are highlighted several times” (cf. 20:14-16; 24:35; 26:13; 30:43; 47:27). -pg. 36

“No command issued to Old Testament followers of Yahweh necessarily carries over into the Christian era unchanged, but every command reflects principles at some level that are binding on Christians (2 Tim. 3:16)” -pg. 39

Property is a means to relationships in ancient Israel. It was never meant to be used as leverage against a neighbor as we currently use it in real estate.

Specific Topics
  • Property – pg. 40
  • Loans/Interest – pg. 41
  • Sabbath, Sabbatical Year, and Jubilee – pg. 42-46
  • Taxes, Tithes, and Offerings – pg. 46-47
  • Gleaning – pg. 48
  • Caring for Illegal Aliens – pg.48 (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34)
Numbers 15:15 – apply the same laws to the Israelite as to the alien
Deut. 10:17-18 – God shows no partiality
Deut. 24:17-22 – do not deprive aliens of justice
  • No Favoritism towards the rich or poor (Lev. 19:15; Ex. 23:3)
  • Conclusions – pg. 49
Deut. 4:5-8 – God’s law was to enlighten the nations. When Israel obeyed the laws that God gave, it would demonstrate to the nations how great God is.

Chapter Two – The Old Testament wisdom and prophetic literature

The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are traditionally associated mainly with David and Solomon. “They may thus offer important reflections on riches and poverty from the perspective of the enormously rich.” - pg. 57

Job

“Within certain parameters and within the Mosaic covenant, it may be true that faithfulness brings peace and prosperity, while faithlessness leads to exile and ruin. But these patterns cannot be generalized as typifying human experience everywhere (cf. esp. Job 21:7-21 and 24:1-12). Unseen forces, whether divine or demonic, may well be at work in human affairs in ways people will never understand this side of eternity.” –pg. 58
“The model that we saw with the patriarch repeats itself. God’s people may at times be enormously wealthy, but a major purpose of God granting them that wealth is that they may share it with those in need.” –pg. 59

The Song of Songs

“But the main thrust of this short book is not to teach prescriptively about the right or wrong use of earthly goods but to celebrate the love that lies behind the luxury.” –pg. 60

Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

“Two of the themes of these three books stand in a certain tension with each other. On the one hand, the ‘prosperity gospel’ of the Deuteronomist is preserved. Industry and faithfulness lead to God’s covenant blessings, including material well-being (Pss. 112; 128; Prov. 12:11; 13:21; 21:5). On the other hand, continuing the theme of Job, these wisdom writers recognize that many of the poor and suffering in this life never find relief for their lot, while many wicked rich people continue to flourish (Pss 37:16-17; Prov. 15:16-17; 16:8)” –pg. 60

The key terms are ani (literally, one who is bowed down); dal (a weak or frail person) and ebyon (originally, the one who asks [for alms]. Depending on the context, any of these terms could refer to either material or spiritual poverty, or both. –pg. 61 footnote
God shows special compassion to the poor (Pss. 9:18; 68:5-6; 113:7-9)

Proverbs

The more intense focus on Proverbs from page 62-69 is extremely helpful in demonstrating the nuances of the relationship between poverty, riches, materials, power, belief, and behavior. The Proverbs consistently guard against the two extremes of either desiring riches or forcing people in to poverty. There is an understanding that our actions contribute to whether we become rich or poor, but that more important than whether we are rich or poor is that we have good character, no matter what our circumstance.

The Prophets

A passage on page 78 gives a good example of how to understand Ezekiel 16:49 and its statement about the guilt of Sodom being the way they oppressed the poor and needy. “Both sexual immorality and material selfishness stem from the same self-indulgent attitudes, and it is little wonder that the two increasingly appear together in our affluent Western world as well.”
“In review, the good news embraces personal renewal and restoration (bind up the broken-hearted), release from the restrictions imposed by people (captives is a negative description of the creation of a harmonious society) and the rectification of circumstances (release…for the prisoners)”

The Prophecy of Isaiah

Another important group of people identified are the nawim - the materially poor and religiously pious who are introduced in the Psalms and reappear in the Prophets. "As the Lord demonstrates to Israel how their liberation manifests salvation, so are they to carry on God’s own redemptive action in their liberation of one another.” –Polan

Summary and Conclusions

“With the exception of the promise of material blessings for covenant obedience or diligent industry, all of the major themes of the Old Testament teaching on material possessions reappear in one form or another in the New Testament.” – pg. 84

Chapter Three – Additional historical background: between the Testaments


People often assume that the Jews mostly connected wealth with righteousness, but the literature demonstrates riches were regularly assumed to be ill-gotten.
Throughout the literature of the time period “the poor can at times seem lazy and be commanded to work hard, but more often than not they are seen as the unjust victims of exploitation.” –pg. 101

Chapter Four – The teaching of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

He breaks this chapter into two distinct sections showing the way Jesus employed both parables and direct teachings to talk about money, wealth, poverty and possessions.

The Parables of Jesus


  • The two debtors (Luke 7:41-43)
  • The seed among the thorns (Mark 4:18-19 and parallels)
  • The hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46)
  • The unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35)
  • The good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37)
  • Two parables of asking for material assistance (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8)
  • The rich fool (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Inviting the outcast (Luke 14:12-24)
  • Counting the cost (Luke 14:28-33
  • The unjust steward (Luke 16:1-3)
  • The rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
  • The pounds and talents (Luke 19:11-27; Matthew 25:14-30)
  • The wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-2 and parallels)
  • The sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)


We see that teachings about money, or even involving money to make some other spiritual point, come up often in parables and the discourses of Jesus.

Conclusions Related to Parables

“The parables always contain a spiritual dimension relating to Christian discipleship, forgiveness of sins, salvation by grace, and the like, as the primary foci of God’s kingdom or dynamic reign. But this discipleship will inevitably produce a tangible impact in the area of stewardship of material possessions. Indeed, this area is often the most important test-case of one’s profession of discipleship. Such stewardship will include, but is not limited to, giving away one’s surplus goods, self imposed restrictions on the amount one accumulates, and sharing with others, all for the sake of those less well off, particularly fellow believers. There is no indication in any of Jesus’ stories that this kind of stewardship can be quantified or that any economic reversals would ever lead to pure egalitarianism. But it is clear that Jesus believes there are extremes of riches and poverty that are intolerable in the circle of his followers.” pg. 126-127

The Remaining teachings of Jesus

  • The temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
  • The Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:20-49)
  • The Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:16-21)
  • Jesus response to the messengers from John the Baptist (Matthew 11:5/Luke 7:22)
  • Various disputes and dialogues (Mark 7:9-13 and parallels; Mark 7:27 and parallel; Luke 10:38-42)
  • Give alms and tithes (Luke 11:41-42; Matthew 23:23)
  • What does it profit a person…? (Mark 8:36 and parallels)
  • The temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27)
  • The rich young ruler and Zacchaeus (Mark 10:17-31 and parallels; Luke 19:1-10)
  • Mary’s anointing of Jesus in Bethany (Mark 14:3-9 and parallels)
  • Clearing the temple (Mark 11:15-17 and parallels; cf. John 2:13-17)
  • Give to Caesar… (Mark 12:13-17 and parallels)
  • The widows mites (Mark 12:41-44 and parallels)

The poor mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount may be either materially or spiritually poor or both (most likely). The word ptochos indicates that they are not just poor, but utterly destitute.

Conclusion Related to the Gospel


“The good news of the gospel is consistently holistic, according to the teaching of Jesus. Material sustenance without spiritual salvation proves meaningless, but the liberation that God in Christ grants regularly includes a physical or material dimension to it as well.” –pg. 145

You Can Read the Rest


The remainder of the book deals with what the rest of the New Testament says about the use of money and possessions for the church. I won't share all of that here, but instead encourage you to read it yourself. I believe this is the best book you will find to get a good perspective on money and possessions, how to best care for the poor, and how to guard against many of the prevailing teachings today that cause Christians to live in guilt or false hopes related to money.




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