Some of you will know that I’ve just visited our partner-church in Mburi, Kenya, where I ran a three-day conference for pastors. So it’s striking to come back and preach on wealth and poverty. Because by our standards, people in Mburi have very little. E.g. only a handful of homes have running water or electricity; only some children get school places; and only the privileged few have the luxury of their own transport in the form of a bicycle. Mwendwa, the pastor at Mburi, says that currently everyone gets enough to survive from their subsistence farms – except when the rains fail and when they have no savings to cushion them. But as the farms get more subdivided between children and as corruption increases (amongst other things), it means that coffee farming is paying less and less, people are getting poorer. Some respond by moving to the capital, Nairobi. But for many that is a move from the frying pan into the fire. They could end up in the slum area of Kibera, where 1.5 million people are crammed into an area half the size of the Town Moor, the majority of whom live on less than 50 pence a day. And they’re just a fraction of the 3 billion people – half the world’s population – whose whole households live daily on less than £1. But poverty isn’t just ‘out there’ and overseas. E.g. just before we left for Kenya, the news here was airing the arguments about the true number of homeless people in the UK: Most of us walk past some of them regularly; sometimes they come selling at our doors; sometimes they come here to our church on a Sunday looking for help.
So how are we, most of us rich by global standards, to relate to those who are poorer? I say ‘most of us’ because I know that, statistically, some of us here will be in financial difficulty or debt. So I’m not assuming we all have surplus wealth right now. And can I say if you are in difficulty there are good sources of counsel both within our church and elsewhere, so do ask if you need pointing in the direction of that kind of help. But most of us do have surplus wealth and we need wisdom to know how to steward it. And for that we’re going to look at the book of Proverbs. So please turn to Proverbs 2. Verses 3 to 6 say:
“… and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding,and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
At the start of this series I tried to sum up what the book of Proverbs means by ‘wisdom’. I passed on this definition from one Christian writer:
‘Wisdom is the ability to see, the inclination to do, the right or best thing in God’s sight.’
And we saw that wisdom is built on two fundamental attitudes to God – fear and trust. Turn back to chapter 1 verse 7 where we saw that:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge [or wisdom as Proverbs 9.10 puts it]... ”
And we saw that for someone trusting in Jesus and his death for our forgiveness, that’s not fear of punishment. One translation says it’s ‘reverent fear’, i.e. respecting the fact that God is Creator and Lord of this world and that we should therefore see everything God-centredly. E.g. when it comes to our wealth, to see that it’s not in fact ‘ours’. It’s God’s and it’s leant to us for his purposes not for our selfishness.
But wisdom is also built on trusting the LORD. Turn to Proverbs 3.5 where we’re told:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;”
So, e.g. when it comes to wealth, our own understanding says, ‘Hang on to it because it’s security and a cushion in the uncertainties of life.’ But look on to chapter 3 verse 9:
“Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops;”
I.e. give some of it away, and not just from the fag-end that’s left over once we’ve spent on everything we want, but from the firstfruits – i.e. budget from the outset to give from our income for everything God wants. Now if I lean on my own understanding as verse 5 says, my reaction to verse 9 will be ‘but then I’ll have less.’ But look at verse 10 which says, No:
“then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”
I.e. we can trust that as we give wealth away, God will keep giving to us – to cover our needs and enable us to give yet more: He loves to put money in the hands of the generous.
Now chapters 1 to 9 are the general introduction to the proverbs. And they explain what wisdom is and how it’s based on fear and trust of the LORD. Then chapters 10 onwards are a collection of proverbs about all sorts of specific areas of life – often with no particular link between one and the next. So clearly God chose not to inspire a whole lot of neat and topical chapters – one on wealth and poverty, one on family life, one on business ethics, etc. Instead, he mixed the topics up. And I guess that’s because in the average day, we need to be wise not just on one front but on many. And if, like Billy Graham, we were to read a chapter of Proverbs a day (one for each day of a 31-day month), we’d get exposed daily to a whole mix of God’s wisdom to help us face the whole mix of life that day. But for the purposes of a topical sermon, I’ve picked out from the mix some of the Proverbs on wealth and poverty. But what ties it all together is that definition of wisdom I reminded us of a moment ago: ‘Wisdom is the ability to see, the inclination to do, the right or best thing in God’s sight.’ So my first question is:
HOW DOES WISDOM HELP US TO SEE WEALTH AND POVERTY?
So for a start, how should we see surplus wealth? Please look at chapter 10.22:
“The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.”
I.e. If we have surplus wealth, it’s come to us from the LORD. He has blessed us with it, so it’s not mine; it just happens to be temporarily in my hands. And if we’re tempted to say, ‘But I’ve worked for my money so surely it is my money.’ the Bible would ask us, ‘But who gave you the ability to do that work, Mr Businessman or Miss Teacher; Or whatever you do? And who gave you the privilege of being born into a situation where that ability was nurtured and trained? And who in his sovereignty gave you the job that’s currently earning that money for you?’ Whatever we earn, whatever we’re given, whatever we’re born into, whatever we inherit, it’s not ours. The fear of the LORD – the God-centred view of everything – says it’s his and for his purposes.
But then, next, how should we see those who are poor? Look at chapter 14.20 for a glimpse of how the world tends to see the poor:
“The poor are shunned even by their neighbours, but the rich have many friends.”
So the world’s natural reaction to the poor is that it doesn’t want to know them. By nature we want to avoid them and the claim their needs make on us. That’s why, e.g. of the various magazines I get, the one that’s often left unread – even unopened – is the Tearfund relief agency magazine; or why, when a door-to-door seller comes round, I’m tempted to pretend I’m not in. Chapter 18 verse 23 says:
“A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly.”
I.e. when we do relate personally with those in need, it’s easy to be to some degree harsh or arrogant – as if the fact that I have money in my pocket and they don’t give me the right to treat them as less than equals. And I’ve certainly been guilty of that. For example, agreeing to help someone with a food-parcel, I took him along to the supermarket ASDA. And he didn’t ask for anything unreasonable. And yet when he asked if I could also buy him a toothbrush I had to bite my tongue, I remember thinking slightly aggressively, ‘Well why should I? Where’s this list going to stop?’ And then thinking, ‘Well, where does your shopping list stop, Ian? You never lack for a toothbrush, do you? So why is one standard for you and another for him?’
So that’s how we tend to see the poorer person. But how should I see him or her? Look at chapter 22 verse 2 again:
“Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all.”
So there’s the fear of the LORD – the God-centred view – that sees past the amount of money in the pocket, or the clothes, or the tin shack in the slum; and sees a fellow-human being made in the image of God. And which says, ‘I am accountable to God for whether my surplus wealth blesses some of these others whom he has made.’ And just to underline that proverb with another, look at chapter 14 verse 31:
“He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.”
Again, notice how Proverbs makes us see everything God-centredly: everything related to God: my wealth is his wealth; that person poorer than me is his creation and my responsibility.
So that’s a taste of how Proverbs gets us to see wealth and poverty, myself and someone poorer than me. But remember: ‘Wisdom is the ability to see, the inclination to do, the right or best thing in God’s sight.’ So here’s my second question tonight:
WHAT DOES WISDOM TELL US TO DO ABOUT WEALTH AND POVERTY?
Let’s turn to one of the classic verses on this subject, chapter 19 verse 17:
“He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.”
So we’re to be kind and we’re to give to the poor. The picture here is that we’re ‘lending’ the LORD’s what is in fact his anyway, so that he can bless our fellow-creatures with the resources he’s given us.
Now I think it was C.S. Lewis who once said,
‘If I think of loving humanity, I will be paralysed by the scale of the need and end up loving no-one. How wise, then, that the Bible calls me to love not humanity but my neighbour.’
I’ve always found that comment a great help, because in this area, as in the area of spiritual need and the task of spreading the gospel, it can be paralysing to start by thinking of the scale of the need. After all, what can my resources do? Out in Kenya, my wife Tess and I met an American businessman who’s trying to meet some of the needs in the slums of Nairobi like Kibera, the one I mentioned at the start. He said to me, ‘Not even Bill Gates’ fortune could solve Kibera.’ which I guess leaves the rest of us non-multi-billionaires feeling even more useless. But as C.S. Lewis said, ‘the Bible calls me to love not humanity but my neighbour’ – i.e. to start thinking not of the vast need out there but of the people and situations that, in God’s sovereignty, I am connected with; and to start there.
So, many of you will be aware of needs within our church family, and will have helped meet them. E.g. some of the international students among us are living on next to nothing because of problems with money supplies from home. Over the years people among us have given board and lodging for free, bought necessary books and equipment, and so on.
Then, as I said earlier, most of us meet people clearly in need - either coming round door to door, or as we walk into town or even come here. We often feel we don’t know how to handle those encounters well, so it may help to say that the wisdom I was taught and which I use is that I never give money because you just don’t know whether it’ll go on something that will really improve the situation. So if I’m asked to give money, I don’t lie by saying, ‘I can’t.’ or ‘I haven’t got any on me.’ I’m up-front and say, ‘I’m sorry, I never give money.’ But then, if I know I’ve got time, I’ll ask if there’s anything I might be able to help with. It might turn out to be going and buying some food, going with them to buy a bus ticket, or making a phone-call to a hostel to sort out accommodation for that night. If I haven’t got time then but can make some later in the day or week, I ask if that would help. Sometimes people take me up on that; sometimes they don’t; sometimes I discover after giving some help that I’ve been taken for a ride, however careful I’ve tried to be. It seems to me that the nature of grace is that it always risks being taken for a ride, as the Lord knows full well in his dealing with us.
So those are some of the situations literally on our doorstep. I think it’s also worth saying that a good deal of the professional and charitable work of members of our church also benefits many who are less well off than most of us. And that, too, is a form of giving and is of caring for the poor.
But then there’s poverty further afield. Alongside that helpful comment of C.S. Lewis, I’d place one I heard in a sermon long ago. It simply went like this: ‘You can’t do much; you have to do significant somethings.’ And our partnership with Mburi is a good example of that. So, e.g. Tess and I chatted to our brothers and sisters there about their coffee farming. They say that, among other things, there’s now such corruption in the state-run coffee mills that they can no longer make a living from coffee. In fact they’re cutting down their coffee trees and switching to French beans as a better cash crop. (Look at a packet of them in a supermarket and they’ll quite probably say, ‘Produce of Kenya’.) Now a Christian accountant friend of mine went out to Kenya to try to help progress against structural corruption, whereas I don’t think I can affect that at all. Other missionary friends have been involved in setting up fair-trade coffee systems in South America. I’ve no idea whether someone could do that for the farmers’ co-operative of Mburi, but at least we are involved in a ‘significant something’ there. Those of us who’ve given to Mburi have provided for clean water from a well to a clinic; a nursery school; a building for their congregation; and food when the rains have failed. Perhaps one of the most moving moments was visiting an elderly couple who benefit from an on-going food program. They said to us, ‘We praise God for what the people in Jesmond do for us. Tell them we can see that their faith in Jesus is real.’
So we each have to find and commit to ‘significant somethings’. We do need to give in response to emergencies, e.g. like we did, as a church, at the time of the tsunami enabling our partners in Sri Lanka to respond. But it’s ultimately more significant to give to longer-term things, e.g. like the new work of Navajeevana away from Columbo, or like the things I’ve mentioned at Mburi (which now include a new infants’ school in the planning). Most significant of all are the works where helping the poor and presenting the gospel go side by side – and that’s true of many of our JPC mission partnerships, as well as, for example, the projects of Tearfund whose principle is what they call ‘integral mission’. So if you’re looking for ‘significant somethings’ to be part of, you could start with the JPC World Mission leaflet or the Tearfund website.
Having found them, there’s then the question of how much to give. And that’s obviously affected by how much we spend on ourselves. So look at Proverbs 30.8-9:
“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”
Notice the governing principle there is to seek from God what I need, i.e. to distinguish between need, in my context, and luxury. Now that doesn’t rule out saving for future need; and nor does it rule out some luxuries and enjoyments above need. But we need to govern our use of money by the question, ‘Do we need this?’ Because the more we tell ourselves we do need, the less we’ll have to share and give. I don’t think that means that each of us should live in a house no better than Mwendwa and Joyce’s house in Mburi, and should own nothing more than our brothers and sisters there. But I think it does mean that if Mwendwa and Joyce came to stay with any of us and follow us around for a week, they’d be able to see that, in terms of our context, we lived simply, so that neither we nor they would be embarrassed by an obviously unprincipled and luxurious standard of living.
But actually, how much we give depends fundamentally on that Proverbs 3 issue of trusting the LORD. Turn back to 18.11:
“The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall.”
I.e. we imagine money to be our security, but the stock-market or housing market has only to collapse to expose that for the lie it is. The truth is in the Proverb above, chapter 18 verse 10 (an example of how sometimes two or more Proverbs are put together, so that we learn from the contrast between them):
“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”
I.e. our only ultimate security is in the Lord and in the future kingdom of God opened up to us through his death and resurrection. So, as we saw earlier, we shouldn’t be hanging on to as much as we can for the supposed cushion it provides against uncertainties. We should be giving sensibly and trusting that the LORD’s way is to put yet more into generous hands.
My third question tonight is:
‘WHAT DOES PROVERBS TELL US ABOUT WEALTH AND POVERTY?’
We’ve seen that it clearly tells us to send resources down the ‘wealth-gradient’. But Proverbs is also concerned that we try to act justly in our economic relationships. This could be a whole sermon in itself, so let me just touch on it to finish. Look at chapter 22 verse 16:
“He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty.”
So it’s clear from the first half of that verse that the LORD is against the rich becoming richer at the expense of the poor. Look on to verse 22 and 23:
“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court,for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.”
And yet in many of our economic relationships we are caught up in becoming richer (at least, in spending less) at the expense of the poor, and some of the exposures of the overseas sweat-shops of the clothing and footwear companies have illustrated that. But you see it in the UK, too. E.g. as, on our behalf, the big supermarkets drive farmers’ incomes lower and lower. The challenge for us is to repent of asking simply, ‘What is cheapest for me?’ and to ask the question, as Proverbs 1.3 puts it, of ‘What is right and just and fair?’ So, e.g. last time I reconsidered my Building Society savings account, the only question I really asked was ‘Which will give me the highest interest rate?’ I didn’t think to ask, ‘Which societies have a good record of dealing fairly with those who suffer financial set-backs and fall behind in their mortgage payments?’ Or even more radically, to ask whether the Bible approves of lending at interest at all.
As I say, it would be a sermon or seminar in its own right to do more than touch on this. But below are some resources to consult if you want to think about how we might be more principled as consumers and savers/investors.
The book of Proverbs has much more to say on this subject, e.g. about how we gain wealth and save wealth. But there is a taste of what it has to say about how those who are wealthier should relate to those who are poorer. It’s built on the fear of the Lord that sees my wealth as his wealth and my needy neighbour as my God-given responsibility. It’s built, equally, on trusting the LORD – trusting that as I give, he will meet my needs and put more in my hands to give again.
(1) Rich Christians in an age of hunger, Ronald Sider, Hodder – probably the most well-known thorough Christian books on this subject
(2) Neither poverty nor riches: a Biblical theology of possessions, Criag Blomberg, IVP – goes comprehensively through the Bible’s teaching on this subject from beginning to end; with a helpful introduction on current facts and statistics and a helpful conclusion including some detail on how the author has tried to put things into practice
Available (free) at www.jubilee-centre.org/cambridge_papers:
(1) Investing as a Christian: reaping where you have not sown? Paul Mills, Cambridge Paper June 1996 (Page 3 of the website)
(2) Faith versus prudence? Christians and financial security, Paul Mills, March 1995 (Page 4 of the website)
(3) The ban on interest: dead letter or radical solution? Paul Mills, March 1993 (Page 4 of the website)