QUESTION. In Luke 1:51-53, Mary appears to be speaking under inspiration when she says of God, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (ESV, from which most quotes are taken here). My questions are these: do these words imply that God is against the rich? Do they imply that Christians should support a socialistic economic theory? Should we support governmental redistribution of wealth via taxation and handouts (“entitlements”)? Does “fairness” include the “right” of equal ownership of all resources, property, and goods? Does “social justice” mean that the wealthy 1% should “divvy up” with the other 99%?
ANSWER. What comes immediately to mind are these words of Jesus, addressed to a rich man: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). Why is it so difficult for the rich to be saved?
This point must be made first of all: The Bible does NOT condemn riches or rich people as such. Many main Bible characters were rich, and they were not considered evil for being so. This includes these men from the Old Testament: Abraham (Gen. 13:2), Job (Job 42:12), and Solomon (1 Kings 10:14ff.). From the New Testament we can name Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57). Also, the Bible says that riches are a blessing for the righteous (Psalm 112:1-3; Prov. 3:9-10).
So why are the rich depicted in such a questionable light in the Bible? The answer is that there are two main moral problems related to being rich. First, the rich are often plagued with and motivated by sins of the heart. Four such sins can be discerned and related specifically to wealth: (a) greed or covetousness (Luke 12:15; 1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:10; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5); (b) the love of money (1 Tim. 6:10; cf. Matt. 6:24); (c) Selfishness (Luke 16:19-20); and (d) pride (see 1 Tim. 6:17). One does not have to be rich to be guilty of these sins, but there seems to be a ready connection between them and wealth.
The second problem is that the rich often use immoral means to acquire their wealth. To be sure, there are Biblically-approved means of acquiring possessions. The main one is the “old-fashioned” way: WORK! Honest labor was ordained by God when he told Adam and Eve to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Proverbs 13:11 declares, “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it” (NASB; see also Prov. 10:2, 4). Anyone who is “not willing to work” does not even deserve to eat (2 Thess. 3:10). The eighth and ten commandments, which condemn stealing and covetousness, presuppose the validity of owning property via honest labor (Exod. 20:15, 17).
Two other legitimate means of acquiring possessions are inheritance and gifts. Regarding the former, Proverbs 13:22 says that “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” An example of the latter is the clothing and jewelry given to the departing Israelites by the Egyptians (Exod. 11:2-3; 12:35-36).
The main point, though, is that many acquire their riches by means that are clearly immoral, illegal, dishonest, and unjust. This is the essence of STEALING, which is clearly condemned in Scripture (Exod. 20:15; 1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:10; Eph. 4:28). The essence of stealing is deliberately taking what belongs to someone else, and taking it against their will—knowingly or unknowingly. Included here would be activities such as cheating, lying, swindling, bribing (of judges or officials), shoplifting, embezzling, and looting.
Sometimes the sin of stealing is called a “victimless crime,” but this is clearly a misnomer. When you steal, you steal from somebody, who is then a victim of unjust treatment. A main reason why God is on the side of the poor is that they have often been cheated out of their rightful possessions by unscrupulous money-lovers. See Isaiah 10:1-3; Jer. 17:11; Amos 5:11-12; 8:4-7; Micah 2:1-2; James 5:1-6.
Another aspect of this issue, especially in our time, is whether all money and possessions should be divided equally. Would such “equal ownership” be the essence of FAIRNESS? This seems to be the underlying assumption of modern social justice movements of all kinds, from lawless rioters to sincere left-leaning Evangelicals. The belief seems to be that it is simply NOT FAIR (i.e., unjust) for some to have more than others. This is the spirit of socialism, which seeks an equal distribution of wealth as enforced by the government. There is a strong movement in the U.S. in this direction, and many are saying that Christians should be in the forefront of this movement.
What does the Bible have to say about this? Several things. First, the Bible teaches that all human beings should be compassionate and generous. Everyone should be “doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). Those who are rich are commanded “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
Second, there are two important specific qualifications for such sharing. One is that the Christian’s primary responsibility is to help fellow Christians. True, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10a); but the rest of this instruction is this: “especially to those who are of the household of faith (6:10b). The early Christians shared their possessions not with their neighbors in general, but with fellow-Christians in need: “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (see Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). The collections that Paul gathered on his missionary journeys were for the purpose of aiding “the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (see Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1). The poor we are expected to aid in times of need are our brothers and sisters in Christ (James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-17).
The second qualification is that such sharing should be voluntary, not forced. One of Jesus’s parables has the owner of a vineyard giving his laborers the same pay for different amounts of work (Matt. 20:1-16). When some complain about inequality, Jesus has the owner say this: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (v. 15). When the early Christians were selling property to support needy believers, Peter said these words to Ananias, who sold property and lied about the amount: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Ananias was free to sell the property or not, and he was free to do what he chose with the sale price. But he was not free to lie about it.
Finally, does human government have a God-given right to enforce “fairness” in the sense of equal ownership of material goods and services? To be sure, the Bible does speak about God’s purpose for government; see Romans 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-4; 1 Peter 2:13-17. And, this purpose can be summed up in the word JUSTICE. But here is a crucial difference. In today’s culture many see “justice” as the government’s responsibility to PROVIDE EQUAL OWNERSHIP of general goods and services, whereas the Biblical (and traditional) view is that government enforces justice by PROTECTING EQUAL ACCESS to general goods and services. I.e., true justice is achieved via the government’s protection of our God-given rights, not by providing the things that are the objects of our rights.
What does this have to do, then, with fairness or equality? Two kinds of equality are the concerns of governmental power. One, government should provide equality before the law. This is summed up in this statement from the Law of Moses: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15). Two, government should protect equality of opportunity for all. It should protect everyone’s equal access to jobs, to wealth, to education, to health care, to a “peaceful and quiet life,” and to freedom to serve God conscientiously. (On the last two, see 1 Tim. 2:1-4.)
Again, it is government’s job to protect our equal access to such things; it is NOT government’s job to PROVIDE these things for us. This is true “liberty and justice for all.”