At TAFES Bible study this morning we looked at Proverbs 28. I was struck by how many of the verses were about the rich and not at all complimentary.
- v.6 Better the poor whose walk is blameless / than the rich whose ways are perverse.
- v.8 Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor / amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.
I asked my group members: (1) I am from one of the richest countries in the world; are these statements about me? and (2) Many people in Tanzania pray to be rich; are they praying to become like the people in these statements?
They pointed out that these verses are talking about a type of rich person. There can be perverse rich people and faithful rich people, for example v.8 references a rich person who is kind to the poor.
They themselves pray to become rich because they do not see this as contrary to anything in the Bible. One of them asked: where in the Bible does it say wealth is bad? There are verses about the love of money just as there are in this chapter:
- v.20 A faithful person will be richly blessed, / but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.
- v.22 The stingy are eager to get rich / and are unaware that poverty awaits them.
But this is about wealth acquired in the wrong way, not God’s way. It is exploitative and hurts people.
- v.25 The greedy stir up conflict, / but those who trust in the Lord will prosper.
So, as they pray to be rich, they feel a strong sense of needing to get their life in order as well and to have the right motivation. Do they want to be rich in order to care and provide for others, for example? Are they seeking shortcuts to wealth rather than trusting God? Are they living lives of integrity? Are they living generous lives already?
I raised the issue of historical and structural wealth. For example, Australia and its wealth are predicated on the principle of Terra Nullius – theft of land and also of forced labor on that land and stolen wages. Though I may work hard and be a person of integrity, is the foundation upon which I am building perverse? I think this was a new concept for most of them. They were also surprised to learn how post-Christian Australia is and how ungenerous to other nations. It was not lost on them that someone with ill-gotten wealth who forgets God and does not use their wealth to help others is the very definition of the perverse rich person.
There was a strong consensus that in Christ the resources to become rich are available to the believer. They did not believe Christians should accept poverty or pray to remain poor though they have heard this preached. One woman said, you can tell what God wants for his children by how he interacts with the Israelites: when he took the Israelites out of Egypt, they came with the wealth of Egypt. His plan for his children is to bless them. When I pointed out that not all Israelites were saved from Egypt because there were at least some who died in slavery, this led to a discussion about the poor village woman who works super hard all her life but still does not become wealthy.
The idea that wealth only comes from hard work and all who do not become wealthy are therefore lazy or stupid was identified as being wise in your own eyes and deluded (v.28). After all, it is God who brings blessing and wealth, not yourself. They strongly agreed with the statement “It’s not your fault if you are born poor” but disagreed that “It is your fault if you die poor.” However, they also believed that in God’s power over a lifetime they could change their situation if they follow God’s wisdom. This was the story and the identity that they were most interested in and saw shaping them.
I am constantly amazed by the willingness of these friends to welcome me into their Bible study and to share with me their nuanced biblical reflection. I was super challenged by their positive attitude towards wealth and by the question: am I a righteous wealthy person or a perverse one?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.