The Righteous Rich

Last semester I read an enormously challenging book called “Missions And Money: Affluence As a Missionary Problem”. One of the most helpful chapters is Christopher Wright’s contribution on the “righteous rich” in the Hebrew Bible. He lists nine qualities that can be discerned from the text. If you are reading a blog more than likely you are considered wealthy in the global economy. Perhaps not in your own community or country, but in relation to your global neighbor.

I adapted his suggestions to be a little more digestible:

  1. They remember the source of their riches. (Deut 8:17-18; 1 Chron 29:11-12; Jer 9:23-24)
  2. They don’t idolize their wealth by putting inordinate trust in it, nor get anxious about losing it. (Job 31:24-25)
  3. Recognize that wealth is secondary to many things, i.e. wisdom, integrity, humility and righteousness. (1 Chron 29:17; Prov 8:10-11; 1 Kings 3; Prov 16:8, 28:6)
  4. Set their wealth in the context of God’s blessing. Wealth in righteous hands is servant of God’s mission. (Gen 12:1-3)
  5. Use their wealth with justice. (Ps 15:5; Ezek 18:7-8)
  6. Make their wealth available to the wider community through responsible lending (Lev 25; Deut 24:6, 10-13)
  7. See wealth as an opportunity for generosity–even when it is risky, and even when it hurts. (Deut 15; Ps 112:3; Prov 14:31; 19:17; Ruth)
  8. Use wealth in the service of God by meeting practical needs or materially supporting God’s servants. (1 Chron 28-29; 2 Chron 31; Ruth)
  9. Set an example by limiting personal consumption and declining to maximize personal gain. (Neh 5:14-19)

Jonathan Bonk Missions and Money p. 200

So often we hear about how the Bible criticizes wealth and chastises the rich. Jesus’ words in the story of the rich young ruler are often quoted, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” What we don’t hear is how the Bible instructs those who find themselves on the wealthy side of the divide to live with their wealth. The idea that there is a role for the rich in the kingdom is liberating for those crushed by guilt.

This doesn’t at all do away with the biblical critique of wealth and the rich, but it does give a more three dimensional picture of how we relate to and use wealth within the kingdom.

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12 thoughts on “The Righteous Rich

  1. Joe Bumbulis

    I’m reading ALOT about economics, faith, and consumerism right now. While I do think that Wright’s righteous rich model is good for change within the model, it seems as if as long as the model of modern capital market is in place then there is no escape.

    Beliefs do not predicate action. I know so many people that say, “but how can I escape being a consumer in our culture!” We can’t to a certain degree. When I buy new _____(clothes, gadgets, exquisite food, etc) when I don’t need to and when that money could be given away, it’s not because I’m a selfish and bad person (completely in the least), but that I exist in a culture that not only permits but encourages in a manipulative and forceful way to act that way.

    Reply
  2. Adam Moore

    I’m thinking along the lines of Joe here. How does Wright’s thinking here not bring about a justification for wealth? Also, can wealth be justified? Or perhaps, what kind of wealth is justified?

    Reply
  3. lucas Post author

    The OT definitely has both streams of wisdom. Goldingay calls them “how life works” and “how life doesn’t work.” One says the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished (proverbs) the other says that life is messed up and doesn’t make sense (Job).

    I think it’s the same way with wealth. The Bible says both that mammon is the root of all evil and also upholds examples of the rich who acted righteously with their wealth. Holding these in tension I think prevents us from seeing the world, particularly the wealthy as a caricature.

    I clearly said in the post that this does not diminish scriptures critique of wealth and its inherent dangers.

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  4. Joe Bumbulis

    I don’t think I denounced wealth in any way. I do believe that the “righteous rich” is a good model to begin to move the church toward a just economic, but I also believe that our culture of late capitalism is creates a society that opposed basic principles of the “righteous rich.”

    As long as our economic model and consumerism stands as the basis for international life, globalization, and our national life then it will be difficult if not impossible to live out with much success the “righteous rich.”

    There are some things that Jesus or the Bible could never have directly approached as we understand them today: the universe, science, homosexuality, and economics (as understood today). There was no such thing as a market economy that created wealth in that time. We can gather principles about humanity, life, ends, and some money, but the Bible nor Jesus directly gave us answers to the problems we face. To believe that is simplistic and too black/white, it simply washes away the complex situation of our time and culture.

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  5. lucas Post author

    on the other hand, you don’t want to dismiss scripture as irrelevant which you teeter on in your last comment joe.

    let me strap on my niebuhr hat for a moment and say that we live in tension between the world as it should be and the way the world is. all the critiques and pontificating don’t mean anything unless we wade into the messiness of the reality of the global economy AS IT IS. yes, we should hold that critique, but if we really want that end we must ask how we get there from here. it may be something radical like moving to the hunger farm, but we also need to encourage those with wealth to try and use it righteously. saying that the system is imperfect and therefore there can be no righteous rich doesn’t get us anywhere. you will always be able to say that this side of heaven.

    that said i agree that we should find those ways the system prevents or keeps the rich from using wealth well. i think radical living and radical community has its place, but if it doesn’t affect the rest of the populace it seems pointless. not that you advocated that per se, but just looking ahead.

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  6. Joe Bumbulis

    I wasn’t really clear. I meant that scripture may not “directly” approach, i.e. a capital market b/c they had a very different way of allocating goods. But, the scripture does give us a weird mix of narratives that can direct us in this world.

    That said, I believe that the narratives that the nation-state, capitalism, and globalization compete and harm the narratives of the Bible.

    So, those who are fortunate enough to have wealth do need a model for working within the system that has afforded them their stature: the “righteous wealth.”

    But there must be way of short cutting, subverting, and fighting against the system. (I’m going to use an extreme example here, sorry). Would you advocate setting up a model for working within the “reality of violence,” or would you say that violence in all forms in wrong thus we need to find ways to circumvent the system, abolish it even if possible?

    What if the majority of the world lives in poverty with no real hope BECAUSE of our globalized capital market? What if capitalism forms us to see people as means of exchange, thus rendering real humans needs a commodity to be traded instead of simply received?

    That all to say, while I do agree that more often then not we must find creative ways of navigating current systems that we are in, we must also find ways of fighting against and dislocating the beast that affords the “righteous rich” to be rich.

    Neither am I saying there cannot be wealthy, I do believe in difference. But before difference, there must be equality, equality for all humans to function in their society.

    Reply
  7. lucas Post author

    of course we should subvert and fight against injustice. you seem to be painting a very black and white picture of capitalism and globalization that I don’t think represents the whole picture. I also agree with Niebuhr that even when we do good or fight injustice there is a dark side. We can unwittingly cause other injustices. We can also exalt ourselves as some kind of savior figure.

    You know that I agree with pretty much all of the critical things you’ve said about capitalism and globalization, but I’m nervous about creating an “enemy” and painting the world in too stark of terms. As usual it’s more complex than we like to admit.

    Perhaps we should nuance our caricature (and Jesus’) of the rich by pointing out the difference between the righteous and unrighteous rich. using Wright’s definition I think we can make some distinctions that may actually help move some of the rich to action.

    Reply
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