Class conflict between the rich and poor is seemingly constant, and only increased during an election season. It is common for each side to villainize the other. Those leaning politically left will paint a caricature of the rich as greedy unscrupulous people who rob the poor and oppress the needy without regard for their well being. Those leaning politically right will conversely paint the poor as lazy unmotivated people who elect politicians that will fleece the hard working rich through taxes, only to give away their money to those who did not earn and do not deserve it.
Do you lean to the right or left? Who would you label the “good guys” and the “bad guys?”
This conflict is so deep in the roots of western cultures that even Christians get into the mudslinging and name calling. The truth is, you can cherry pick Bible verses to support both sides quite easily, which is what left leaning poverty theology and right leaning prosperity theology tend to do. In poverty theology, being poor is a sign of godliness because you do not care about worldly things and are content due to your heavenly mindedness. In poverty theology the portrait of Jesus is a poor carpenter peasant during his years on the earth in humility. In prosperity theology, being rich is a sign of godliness because God has blessed you with a lifestyle that is more akin to the one you will enjoy in your eternal home where the streets are lined with gold. In prosperity theology, the portrait of Jesus is a rich king seated on a throne in his heavenly kingdom in unparalleled opulence in glory.
What does the Bible say?
For Christians, that is always the issue. When it comes to the rich and the poor, the Bible actually has four categories, not just two. This is because the Bible is far more concerned with how you received, tithed, spent, and shared your wealth than how much wealth you have. To say it another way, the Bible is more concerned with your righteousness and your heart motives than your riches. Here are the four categories of rich and poor according to the Bible:
2 Kinds of Rich
- Righteous Rich
- Unrighteous Rich
2 Kinds of Poor
- Righteous Poor
- Unrighteous Poor
If you have some biblical knowledge, you can quickly start to think through various people in the Bible and put them in each category. Similarly, if you think about people you know today you can start putting people in various categories quite easily. Lastly, if you are honest, you can do the same for yourself and determine which category you fit in.
Having now established a biblical framework for understanding the rich and the poor we can turn to our text for this week. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 we discover all four kinds of people. He begins with the righteous poor and unrighteous rich in (5:8-9).
Jesus is a King who rules over a Kingdom where there are no taxes. That sounds heavenly. Sadly, until we get to Jesus’ Kingdom we are stuck with politicians who love “red tape” and “bureaucracy” because it allows all their cronies to get their hand in the cookie jar as the cookies pass from the over taxed rich to the hungry poor. Solomon is a king, so he understands how this works from the top of the ponzi scheme. The result, as he says, is that people are “oppressed,” which includes the rich and the poor because both are ripped off by the government. There is no one to call in for help. This is why Solomon says, “Don’t be surprised…” when you see this kind of corruption because crooked people running a crooked nation never pave a straight road to the kingdom.
You need money to live, and xx the Bible is not against money. Solomon speaks of the unrighteous rich in 5:10-11. The Lord of heaven and earth thinks it’s a good idea to feed your kids, get them an education, and give them a safe and warm bed to sleep in. Money is in itself, like a hammer, quite neutral. You can use a hammer to make a living like my dad did in construction, or you can use a hammer to hit someone over the head. The hammer is never the problem, rather the heart of the person wielding the hammer is always the issue. So it is with money. You can worship with your money by tithing generously, caring for your family, and helping those in need or you can worship your money. That is why the Bible never speaks poorly of money, but always speaks poorly of the “love of money”. The “love of money” means that your heart and hope are in your wealth so that your identity, comfort, joy, and security are in your bank account. In other words, money has become your functional god no matter who you would say your actual god is. In America, our money says “In God We Trust” but it should say, “In This We Trust”.
As a kid, I remember cartoons where people would be out in the desert and see what looked like a watered oasis in the distance. Longing for that Edenic paradise, people would make the long journey toward that place only to find it was a mirage. In many ways, our lives are all lived with a mirage on the horizon – a home, car, vacation, state of being, lifestyle, etc. that looks to us like Eden on earth, and if we could just get there we could taste heaven on earth. How do we get there? By making and spending money. The only problem is, even if you do somehow burn enough cash to get to the spring in the desert, you realize it was all just a mirage. Solomon is the richest man with arguably the most lavish lifestyle in the history of the world, and he declares that he is unhappy. Furthermore, the world is filled with pick pockets in the form of double crossing spouses and their shady attorney, crooked accountants, lazy staff, free loading relatives, and tax happy government officials who want you to fund the mirage. Sadly, even if you do stack up a little pile of gold it is gone once the looters have had their way with your loot. This is the tragic tale of nearly every rock star and world class athlete who has ever been honest enough to tell us how they so quickly went from bling to bankruptcy.
Solomon then contrasts the righteous poor and unrighteous rich in 5:12-15. The righteous poor work a long hard day on the job, come home to eat whatever is in the fridge, and then go to bed. They sleep well because their conscience is clear. They did not rip anyone off that day, and xx they did not overbill their hours or pad their expense report. According to the Bible, a clear conscience is priceless and cannot be bought for any amount of money. Those with a clear conscience can live with themselves and sleep good at night.
Have you ever seen one of those reality television shows where they go into the home of a hoarder? Those shows are incredibly sad and shocking as you see that people’s thinking has become irrational. They gather things that they will never use until those things overtake their life and cause them misery. Solomon says that some people are cash and stuff hoarders. Americans, for example, stack up more money than they will ever need, buy cars they rarely drive, purchase vacation homes they hardly visit, and have bedrooms in their home that no one ever sleeps in, filled with televisions no one ever watches.
Solomon rightly says that you came into this world naked and with nothing in your bank account. When all is said and done, the trip around the cul de sac that is your life ends where it started – you leave this planet naked without any credit cards. You cannot take it with you, and if you store up your treasures on earth, there isn’t a safe place to put your profits. Real estate markets crash, investments go bad, the stock market can turn faster than the mood of a hungry infant, and the longer you keep your cash stacked up people (starting with those you elected) find a way to eat away at your savings like termites in a wooden house. So, what should we do? You need to give our first fruits to God, which is always a good eternal investment, pay our bills, invest a bit wisely, and then be generous to others starting with our kids. If you are able to do this, you will get to see them enjoy God’s blessing and your generosity while you are still alive, rather than waiting to give them an inheritance when you die. Lastly, this is why the selfish bumper sticker that says, “We are spending our kids’ (or grandkids’) inheritance” should also say “because we are foolish and greedy and don’t see the blessing in following the Bible.”
The world needs to change, and neither the unrighteous poor or unrighteous rich are helpful, according to 5:16-17. Anyone who has ever cast a vote for a politician, honked a car horn, complained, or wept knows this is true. The unrighteous poor do little to change the world because they are sluggards who sit around with a sense of entitlement waiting for a responsible adult to come and fix their problems, make their dinner, and pay their bills. Their contribution to the world registers a zero on the Richter scale of value. Their counterpart, the unrighteous rich also contribute nothing to making the world a better place. They take without giving back, use people and don’t serve them, and spend their days like a leech sucking the blood out of anyone and anything they can find. This is one clear reason why God does not condone every poor person or every rich person.
God, through Solomon, has thus far shown us each whatever mirage we are pursuing out of love to save us from folly and misery. Sometimes God needs to crush our vision to give us His vision. Having now done that, He presses us toward a godly and good life that is made possible for the rich and the poor by God’s grace, according to 5:18-20.
Question: So, what’s the answer to life here under the sun?
Answer: Live a righteous life with God by grace.
As sinners, each of us has a debt to God that we cannot repay apart from the debtors prison of hell. Thankfully, Jesus came from glory and riches to humility and poverty to pay our debt to God. Jesus forgave our debt to God by dying in our place for our sins. Upon rising from death and returning to heaven, Jesus is now preparing a place for us in His Kingdom as our King. In that place, there will be people who were rich and poor in this life. Until we get to that place, we are to live by the Holy Spirit’s power a new life of righteousness, whether we are rich or poor.
What does a righteous life look like? Depending upon which tradition of Christianity you are familiar with, there is a punch list that some committee long ago decided to put together as the holiness checklist.
Here is the list from Solomon the sage in this section that are marks of a righteous life lived to God’s glory and our joy:
- Enjoy your work
- Accept your lot in life
- Make money
- Enjoy your health
- Enjoy your life
- Move on from past hurts
A righteous life according to the Bible is intensely practical. Our first parents started a lot of trouble when they ate without God. We get into more trouble when we drink without God, go to work without God, and live a life that God did not intend for us by loading ourselves up with a workload we cannot carry in an effort to make more money. The result is that we ruin our life, rob our health, and waste the precious energy we have haunted by the past rather than being happy in the present. God is a good God and his plan for us is good. We are to eat with him, drink with him, experience his presence at work, and accept our lot in life whatever that may be. Out of this, we can make our money, enjoy our health, find some good times in life, but only if we are willing to move on from past hurts. Some people are like archaeologists always digging up a painful past to look at it carefully. Others drag their worst day into every day and haunt themselves by making their past hurts and regrets the first thing they think of in the morning or last thing they think of in the evening. The key to life is to not be haunted by the pastor or hoping for the future but rather grabbing the present and squeezing the enjoyment out of it like a wet sponge. In this life, pain is inevitable but misery is a choice. Brooding is what kills enjoying. You need to accept God’s forgiveness of you, and as a forgiven person be forgiving of others. You need to stop worrying about a past you cannot change and instead worship in the present since that changes you. The key to the present is to let go of your past and let go of the people in your past who are not part of your future. In this way, you can stop brooding over yesterday and start enjoying every day starting today.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 5:17
- In understanding the four categories (righteous rich, unrighteous rich, righteous poor, unrighteous poor) what challenged or changed your thinking?
- Of the four categories, which kind of home were you raised in?
- Of the four categories, which category are you currently in?
- What things can you do to be more righteous whether or not you are rich or poor?
- Do you tend to think of Jesus more in poverty on the earth or in glory in his heavenly kingdom?
- Which of Solomon’s 8 marks of a righteous life was most interesting to you? Why?