The Bible is a controversial book because people have such different beliefs about it. Some treat it as literal truth. Some regard it as literature and moral guidance. Others think that it is all nonsense.
Whatever you believe about the Bible, the Bible has shaped attitudes about the meaning of life, human worth, marriage, slavery, war, sex, government, and money, just to name a few topics. Let’s pick just one topic that affects all of us in one way or another. What does the Bible teach about money?
Before we can go begin to address the question, we run into a problem. The Bible is not really a single book. It is a collection of books. The word “Bible” comes from the plural word, “books,” in Greek. So, even though we can buy a single book called the Bible, we are really buying a collection of separate books.
Anytime anyone tells you that “the Bible teaches” something particular about a topic, you can find someone else who claims that the Bible teaches the exact opposite. Each will cite Bible verses to “prove” the point.
These arguments occur because people are treating the Bible as a single, organized book. The solution to such arguments is to recognize that the Bible is a collection of writings. These writings came from widely different times and places, in different languages, and have been organized and edited over time.
If you consult the Bible to find out “what the Bible teaches about money,” you run into another huge problem. The Bible has many stories about money and wealth, but they come from different economic eras than our own. Many of the earliest stories in the Bible are about nomads, who lived as herders rather than farmers. Other stories were written about people living as farmers in agrarian societies, where wealth was based on control of the land. Money in a capitalist economy is far different from money in societies based on herding or farming.
Yet, despite these widely different economic systems, people will read the Bible as if they are stories written in today’s newspaper, as if the economic conditions for nomads or farmers in agrarian societies could apply directly to our own capitalist era.
Do you believe that stories about nomads such as Abraham prove that God wants you to be rich? Do you believe that sayings of Jesus, such as, Blessed are the poor,” prove that God wants you to be poor? Or are you simply confused by the conflicting stories? If you want to know what the Bible teaches about money, what do you do?
As an example of the kind of confusion and conflict people experience when they attempt to find a single answer among the widely different Bible stories, consider the question a man asked a speaker at a seminar about creating wealth. He asked: “How can you say it is good to be rich? Jesus said that a rich man cannot get into heaven”
The first problem is that the man had misquoted a story told in the Gospel of Matthew. (The same story is also told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.) “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God'” (Matthew 19: 23-24.)
The point that the man at the seminar missed was that a rich man at the time of Jesus was rich for one reason. He was part of the ruling class in an agrarian society. It was a society in which a few very rich people controlled the land and made life miserable for the vast majority of the society.
Jesus was not talking about being rich in a capitalist economy. It is possible to be rich in a capitalistic economy without exploiting others. Yet the man who asked the question assumed that the words of Jesus apply directly to being rich in a capitalist economy. This meant that he really didn’t understand the real point of the story.
The only way to begin to answer the kind of question the man at the seminar asked is to pay attention to economic contexts and the intentions behind the stories themselves. When people misquote the Bible and misunderstand the economic contexts behind the stories, they draw conclusions that miss the point.
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