Do we in the West need to worry that Jesus said, “Woe to the rich”?

Q.  In the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke, Jesus says,
Woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.”
Do we in the West need to worry? I mean, we’re rich compared to a lot of the world, we’re well fed, we’re doing pretty ok, you know?

When we consider the full counsel of Scripture, I don’t think we are led to conclude that being wealthy, in and of itself, brings on God’s judgment.  Many of the sayings in Proverbs, for example, teach that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and a reward for living right, according to godly wisdom:

“The blessing of the LORD makes rich,
and he adds no sorrow with it.”

Wisdom is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.”

But we do need to have the proper attitude towards wealth.  Paul writes to Timothy, “Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment.  Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others.”

These are important warnings for us to hear in the West, where we get so many cultural messages that we can and should trust in wealth, and where we don’t always get this kind of encouragement to be generous and share.

I think the kind of wealth that brings judgment, according to the Bible, is wealth that has been acquired at the expense of others who have been reduced to destitution through oppression and exploitation.  James, writing in the same wisdom tradition as Proverbs, warns about this:

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

The book of Proverbs itself, while it generally regards wealth as the result of hard work and poverty as the result of laziness, also recognizes the reality of oppression:
A poor person’s farm may produce much food,
but injustice sweeps it all away.

I think this is the kind of wealth Jesus is warning about in the Sermon on the Mount:  wealth that has been acquired through injustice and oppression.  And so there are some implications for those of us who live in the West.

First of all, we must pay others fairly and not exploit them.  (For example, we shouldn’t underpay recent immigrants who don’t have the means to ensure that they’re compensated fairly for their work.)

But we also need to do what we can to support equitable economic relations globally.  It must be admitted that we currently enjoy many unfair advantages in global trade.  To do what we can to counteract this, we need to be aware of sourcing, make an effort to purchase fair trade products, boycott companies until their overseas workers are treated properly, and so forth.  This means an investment in awareness and a commitment to action in response to what we learn.

Hopefully in this way we can become people who are “rich in good works and generous to those in need,” as the Bible encourages us to be, and we will not be the subjects of any of the woes that Jesus pronounces in the Sermon on the Mount.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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