Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Biblical Warnings to 'The Rich' and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Biblical Warnings to 'The Rich' and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article assesses, first, whether affluent people in the modern capitalist economy qualify as "the rich" in biblical terminology. If these people do signify the biblical rich, biblical teaching on the rich applies to the middle-class affluent today. As will be shown in the second section, biblical teaching often contains warnings to the rich. This article, however, argues against the view that affluent middle-class people in the modern economy qualify as the rich of biblical times, to whom Jesus' warnings on riches were often directed. This is because the biblical rich had levels of wealth vastly greater than the rest of the population, who, by and large, were impoverished. A well-off middle class did not exist. Where a "middle class" did exist, such as self-employed trades people, Jesus did not direct his warnings concerning the rich to them.

This article also discusses whether the rich exist in modern capitalist economies and evaluates how they relate to biblical criteria. As in biblical times, today's rich also have levels of wealth much higher than the majority of the population. This majority is not impoverished, however. Because the advanced capitalist countries have generated levels of wealth that enable most people to lift themselves out of poverty an affluent middle class has been created. Unlike biblical times, affluence is not confined to the rich. Nevertheless, the enhanced wealth has been spread around more so than in biblical times. As in those times, however, the rich are still far ahead of the rest of the population, including the comfortable middle class. Data in the third section of this article substantiates the relatively small number categorized as the rich with their extremely high wealth holdings today in the advanced capitalist economy. The Bible's warnings to the rich apply to the rich today.

A further aim of this article is to compare how the poor in biblical times relate to the poor in the developed economies of today. This article's argument is that normative biblical teaching on, and concepts of, rich and poor in the Bible can be applied qualitatively to modern developed societies. This is so even though everybody in today's advanced economies enjoys levels of affluence immeasurably higher than in biblical times. However, issues of rich and poor are still relevant, having been considered for millennia in Judeo-Christian thought. The article suggests that the gap between rich and poor assailed by God retains the same qualitative significance in modern capitalist societies as it had in ancient Israel and first-century Palestine, despite the greater wealth of modern societies. All these matters are discussed in the third section. The triune God's requirements can still be accommodated within a capitalist framework, however. If it is God's aim for all people in history to enjoy affluence, it is likely that he would provide sufficient scriptural information to indicate how this might be achieved and how affluence is to be managed in any society. All aspects of the nature and management of affluence in modern capitalism do not conform to God's desires, and comment is made on this in the fourth section.

Affluence is taken here to mean abounding in the provision of goods and services beyond those necessary to maintain a basic standard of living. This standard can be determined only in relation to the society of the time. Affluence in advanced capitalist countries is quite different from that in developing economies and from biblical times. It is closely connected to material prosperity but is not identical to riches, which are more akin to opulence. The benefits of the affluence of capitalism and who its recipients are as they exist currently continue to be debated within Christian circles, but no consensus is emerging. The Christian spectrum remains divided on the question. In just the last twelve years Christians, such as Schneider, (1) Stevens, (2) Claar and Klay, (3) Harper and Gregg, (4) and Hill and Rae, (5) take a positive stance toward the present affluent characteristics of capitalism, particularly as it manifests in the United States. …

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