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Wealth and Culture

Monday, 5 August 2013  | Siu Fung Wu

When I worked in an aid and development organisation some years ago, I found myself frequently talking with Christians about the biblical view of wealth. The questions I encountered included the following.

  • Should I feel guilty about my material possessions?

  • Is it wrong to be wealthy? 

  • Are you saying that we can’t own two cars or send our children to private schools?

I found it hard to answer these questions with a definite yes or no. To be honest, I never understood why these questions came up so often. Now I have come to realise that behind the questions is a particular worldview that shapes our view on wealth and material possession.

In the following we will take a look at the differences between Western worldview and non-Western worldview. We will see how our modern Western worldview might have hindered us from having a full appreciation of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26. We will then consider a fresh understanding of wealth and poverty in light of our findings. I will suggest that the Scripture challenges some of our presuppositions about wealth and poverty.

Western and non-Western worldviews
It is commonly recognised that the Western culture is, generally speaking, quite individualistic. People in non-western cultures, on the other hand, are more communal. For us in the West, the welfare and the rights of the individual are very important. For people in many parts of the non-Western world, individual persons are often seen as an integral part of the community. The wellbeing and the rights of the community are highly valued by the majority of its members.

Related to this, although less obvious, is the fact that Western societies tend to be guilt based. Other societies tend to be more shame based. Duane Elmer helpfully makes the following observations in his book Cross-cultural Connections.

In a guilt-based society, people feel guilty for what they have done. An act, perhaps a lie or a violation of some rule, triggers the conscience that a wrong has been committed… A guilt-based society responds to the external laws of the land, rules of the institution, morals of the church and code of the home. It is hoped that these become internalized in the person. It is further hoped that when the individual is tempted to break a rule or actually does, that it will trigger the conscience, causing a sense of guilt and prompt the individual to stop.

In shame-based societies, the critical factor is not to bring shame upon oneself, upon one’s family, one’s tribe or even one’s country. One strives to succeed, driven by the desire to uphold family, school, company or national honor… One feels shame when disappointing important others or not living up to expectations of family, supervisor or company… Failure is defined in terms of one’s inability to meet the standards or expectations of important others.[1]

The significance of the above becomes clear if we take into account of what E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien say about wealth in their book Misunderstanding Scripture with Western Eyes.

Westerners instinctively consider wealth an unlimited resource. There’s more than enough to go around, we believe. Everyone could be wealthy if they only tried hard enough. So if you don’t have all the money you want, it’s because you lack the virtues required for success — industry, frugality and determination.

This understanding of wealth is the very opposite of how many non-Western cultures view it. Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves… In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor.[2]

These are, of course, generalised statements (and in the opening chapter the authors explain in what ways their book contains certain generalisation). They are nonetheless reasonably accurate descriptions of the Western and non-Western worldviews on wealth. Richards is a biblical scholar in the US and a former missionary to Asia, and hence his observations are not made in a vacuum. I myself am a bicultural person, having grown up in Asia and lived in Australia for over twenty years. I do find Richards and O’Brien’s comments useful.

Putting the above observations together, it seems that in the West, the perception is that people have the right to be wealthy. If a person has worked hard to earn a lot of money, they have every right to be wealthy. The wealthy do not think that they should feel guilty about their wealth, even if the people around them are poor.

In many non-Western cultures, however, it is the community that owns the material resources available to the people. When someone has abundant material possessions, they are expected to share (at least some of) their wealth with the family, clan and indeed the whole community. It would be a shame for the wealthy to be tight-fisted. In other words, the wealthy should feel shameful if they are unwilling to give generously to the poor.

Of course, even in the West many expect the rich to share some of their wealth with the poor. Indeed, even in non-Western cultures clan loyalties tend to override obligations to outsiders. Also, we must recognise the diverse views of people within every society. But the above observations concerning wealth and culture do, I believe, hold true for many in the Western and non-Western worlds.

Biblical teaching on material possession is not necessarily about guilt
In light of the above, I would like to propose a fresh way to read the blessings to the poor and the woes to the rich in Luke 6:20–26. Here Jesus makes some astounding statements.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

But 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.

For those in Australia who have a certain amount of material possessions, this can be confronting. We know that we are, in fact, among the richest people in the world, and many Australians have enjoyed decades of economic prosperity. Does the above passage mean that upper and middle income Australians are wrong to be well-to-do?

Given our individualistic worldview, our main theological concern tends to be about ensuring that the ownership of material possession is valid. Also, given our guilt-based culture, we naturally want to make sure that we are not guilty of possessing money. In other words, when we come to the Scriptures that speak negatively about material possession, we feel that we need to respond by saying that wealth is not sinful and that the principle behind the Bible’s teaching is concerning the right use of wealth rather than the ownership of it.

But it seems that Jesus’ hearers in Luke 6:20-26 would not have understood it primarily in terms of guilt or the individuals’ rights. Although we cannot say that the worldviews of people in antiquity and those in non-Western societies today are identical, it is likely that they share a similar communal and shame-based culture. In light of this, with the exception of the minority at the top of the social hierarchy, the audience of Jesus would probably have expected the rich to share their possessions with the poor. They would see both the rich and the poor as interdependent parts of the community. It would have been a shame if the wealthy did not share their wealth with the poor. Their worldview would focus on the welfare of the entire community, and it would be shameful for the rich to enjoy the benefits of their wealth without looking after the poor.

In other words, the issue is not so much whether it is wrong for certain individuals to be wealthy. Rather, the primary concern is the wellbeing of the community. That is, the problem is the coexistence of the rich and the impoverished in the society, where the wealthy are well fed but the poor are hungry. This does not necessarily mean that the poor do not accept the reality that the well-to-do hold a bigger portion of the available wealth. But it is not right for certain members of the community to enjoy the benefits of their affluence while others suffer because they are poor.

Jesus Overturning the Prevailing Value System
So, it seems that our individualistic guilt-based worldview may have been a hindrance to recognise some of the social dynamics assumed in the Bible’s teaching on wealth and poverty. In other words, an appreciation of the communal shame-based worldview of the ancient world may have been helpful.

Yet Luke 6:20-26 is nonetheless profoundly challenging for Jesus’ followers, both then and now. The rich in the ancient world, like many Western and non-Western societies today, would have greater socioeconomic power than others. Often they held a high social status by virtue of their wealth. Their material possessions might even be understood to be the blessings of God. On the other hand, the poor were at the lower end of the social hierarchy, and they would receive little honour from those who had a higher social standing.

Luke 6:20–26, therefore, overturns the prevailing value system. The poor are not inferior members of the community. Rather, they are to be honoured as valuable members of the society because God’s blessings will be poured out to them. On the other hand, the rich are not superior to the poor. The coexistence of the wealthy and the poor most likely implies a socioeconomic imbalance. According to the world’s value system, this social and economic power imbalance might have been okay as long as the wealthy help the poor. But according to values of God’s kingdom, this apparent social norm is radically challenged. Professor Joel Green says it well here.

"Poor” and “rich,” then, are socially defined constructs — and Jesus is overturning the way these terms have been constructed in ordinary discourse. In effect, he insists, you who are poor are accustomed to living on the margins of society and you who are rich routinely find yourselves surrounded by friends as you use your resources to solidify your position in society, but the reality under which you have been operating has been overturned. But asserting that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, then, Jesus is redefining the working assumptions, the values that determine daily existence.[3]

So, here is a good example of the topsy-turvy value system that we find in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus overturns the prevailing social convention—both then and now—and implicitly calls for his audience to participate in an alternative communal life that God intends for humanity.

A New Perspective of Wealth
If the above social analysis is right, then our concern should not be about our right to own wealth and possessions. Nor should we be concerned about ensuring that we do not feel guilty about our wealth. Rather, we should focus on allowing Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom to shape every sphere of our lives.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending time with the poor and those living on the margins—the lepers, the demon-possessed, the prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors. He created a community of followers from all walks of life. According to the values of God’s kingdom, no member in this community is superior or inferior to others. The needs of the poor are not taken lightly. Those with extra resources are called to share them with others. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Every person is as important as everyone else.

In the same way, let us embrace the values of God’s kingdom and orient our lives accordingly. Let us be less concerned about our individual rights and be more mindful of the wellbeing of others in the community. Let us reach out to those living on the margins of our society and extend our hands of friendship to them. Let us not be tight-fisted. And let us proclaim the good news to the poor through our words and deeds, because that’s what the disciples of the crucified Christ and risen Lord would do.

[1] Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Connections (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 173-4.

[2] Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misunderstanding Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 41.

[3] Source: Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 267.

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