As we leap into this discussion, I think we need to ask what wealth is? What is the role of wealth and abundance in the biblical narrative?
I tend to think of wealth as both abundance beyond what is needed for basic subsistence and as anything we possess that can be used for economic exchange. (Do you agree? How else might we describe it?) Community-wide wealth and abundance is the normal condition of the created order but it has been corrupted by human rebellion.
According to the biblical narrative, God places the first couple in the garden and gives them a mission. Fill the earth with his eikons and have dominion over the earth as co-creative stewards with God, bringing creation to its fullness. Human rebellion has frustrated that mission. God seeks restoration of shalom through at-one-ment in Christ. We are restored in relationship to God, to each other, within ourselves, and with nature. That restoration will be completed only at the last day.
The narrative gives us important insights about wealth and abundance. The biblical story begins in a garden and ends in an opulent garden-city. Cities were the ancient world’s symbol for human community, commerce, government and art. In the end, God redeems not only human beings but their contributions to the world. Abraham was given great wealth as a sign of God’s covenant. The Pentateuch refers repeatedly to entering “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Passages like Deut. 8:6-10 speak of the abundance Israel will have if they keep God’s covenant. There will be such abundance that the entire nation can rest from toil every seven years to celebrate Sabbath with God. Isaiah 25 features the great lavish eschatological banquet, which becomes a key theme of Jesus teaching about the end of time. The description of the New Jerusalem is one of opulence.
Jesus also uses the idea of his people as the oikonomos, the household manager, the one who manages the estate in the householder’s absence. It is the word from which we get “economics.” God is the owner of all that is but we are the household managers working the estate and bringing to fruition according to God’s purposes. God brings about wealth but we are participants with God in the process.
Human beings were not made for bare subsistence. God did not create us as cattle needing only food, water, and shelter. We are creative image-bearers of God. We were meant for stewardship of resources. Certainly our employment is one way exhibit these qualities but resources beyond subsistence make it possible for us to create, recreate, and celebrate in other ways. These resources may be put toward learning for learning’s sake, for development of recreational skills, for traveling and experiencing new places, for offering hospitality, or for the enjoyment of creating and maintaining a well appointed home, to name just a few. God takes great delight in seeing the unique package of proclivities and passions he has developed in us evidenced. It gives glory to God. Abundance allows that to happen.
Having said all this I feel compelled to make an explicit distinction. What I have just described is not a “name-it-and-claim-it” wealth and prosperity gospel where we manipulate God into providing us with goodies. The prosperity in the Bible is a broadly shared communal wealth that comes from a social eco-system of covenantal relationships. It is part of the biblical vision of shalom. I just want to be clear here.
Now I’ve made my case that mere subsistence is not the biblical vision,we are still left with the dilemma that some people live in abundance while many do not. We will come to that issue but first I want to ask from where does wealth come?