Word Study #72 — Riches

OK, let’s begin by getting the primary cop-out out of the way.
If you ate a meal today, slept under adequate shelter last night, and reasonably expect to do so tomorrow, compared to much of the world, you are rich. So am I: despite having made a fine art out of “pinching pennies”, I nevertheless have a few to “pinch.” I expect most of you do , too: so let’s admit it, and focus on the more Biblical question of the faithful use of whatever resources we have.

Plousios (adj. and adv.), plouteo (v.), ploutizo (v.), and ploutos (n.), speak, classically, of any kind of abundance, plenty, or wealth, while chrema – possessions or money – less frequently used (only 7 x), is more narrowly defined.
Under the old covenant, or in classical times, abundant wealth or possessions were viewed as evidence of the blessing of God (or “the gods”). Jesus, however, had quite a different interpretation (Lk.6:24, Mt.19:23-24, Mk.10:25, Lk.14:2), and in his parables, the “rich” protagonists (Lk.12:16, 16:1, 16:19-22) are not exactly heroes.
But notice, please, that Jesus does not criticize their wealth, per se, but rather their attitude toward it, and their use of their resources. Zacchaeus (Lk.19:2), Joseph of Arimathea (Mt.27:57), and the women who provided for the needs of the disciple band “out of their own possessions” (Lk.8:2,3) are in quite a different category from the young man who turned sadly away from discipleship (Mt.19:23,24; Mk.10:25, Lk.18:23,25). He had a problem of priorities, not simply prosperity.
The warning recorded in Mk.10:24 concerns, according to some manuscripts, “them that trust in riches”. While spotty textual evidence allows the option that this could have been a later editorial comment, Jesus’ acceptance of the individuals mentioned above indicates that it may have been his intention. The parables in Lk.12:13-21 and 16:19-31, likewise, do not condemn the wealth, but rather its selfish hoarding and use.

None of the words translated “riches” appear at all in the Acts account, but chrema does, four times: in Ac.4:37, contrasting Barnabas’ generosity with the behavior of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11); Ac.8:18 and 20, recounting Peter’s encounter with Simon the magician; and Ac.24:26 regarding Felix hoping to receive a bribe from Paul.

An entirely different “flavor”, which appears to have no classical precedent other than the simple concept of abundance, is present in the epistles. Paul speaks of “the riches of the grace of God” (Eph.1:7, Tit.3:6), and his “generosity” (II Cor.8:2), of God’s mercy (Eph.2:4), his glory (Rom.9:23, Eph.3:16, Phil.4:19), and goodness (Rom.2:4). Peter applied the term “riches” to the privilege of entrance into the Kingdom (II Pet.1:1).
The faithful are admonished to appreciate (Eph.1:18) the riches of their inheritance in the Lord Jesus, and to become (I Tim.6:18) “rich in good deeds”, having been granted (Col.2:2) “the riches of full assurance of understanding”, and (Col.1:27) “the riches of the glory of the mystery” (W.S. #57) of their inclusion in the Kingdom. The term seems to have been completely redefined in the context of the Kingdom.

Paul warned Timothy not to “trust in uncertain riches” (I Tim.6:17), and (6:9) pointed out the perils of “wanting to be rich”, in harmony with Jesus’ own teaching about the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mt.13:22, Mk.14:19) in inhibiting commitment to the Kingdom.
James mounted quite a tirade (Jas.5:1-6) against the selfish use of worldly wealth, even assigning responsibility to it for conflicts and wars (4:1-3) (which sounds sadly contemporary!), and especially condemning it as a criterion for status in a brotherhood (2:1-7).

Nevertheless, Paul also exults over “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom.11:33), and James notes (2:5) that God has granted to those who are poor from the world’s perspective to be “rich in faithfulness, and heirs of the Kingdom”! Paul holds up Jesus’ example of leaving his well-deserved “rich”condition (II Cor.8:9) in order to elevate his people to his own “riches” – in order to enable (8:2) their generosity! The often (mis)quoted comment in Phil.4:19, if seen in its proper context – a “thank-you” note for a generous contribution from a very poor congregation – far from the “blank check” touted by prosperity cults, is simply reassurance that such generosity will continue to be enabled!

Jesus sorted it out quite plainly in the message to the Laodicean church (Rev.3:17-19) which, sadly, has many modern clones, who have allowed apparent material prosperity to obscure their spiritual destitution.
Their riches have not exempted the wealthy from the devastation described in Rv.6:15 and 13:16; they find themselves in the same sinking boat as everyone else.
But perhaps the most contemporarily relevant message is found in the picture of economic collapse in Rev.18.
Notice that the people who are distraught at the fall of “Babylon” are (v.3) those who “got rich from the extravagance of her luxury!” It is those accustomed to that luxury (vv.9-13) and its purveyors who mourn their losses. The “cargo” listed includes no necessities – except perhaps grain, although at least some ordinary varieties would surely have been locally produced. It is “the fruit of your selfish passions …. all the delicacies and splendid things” (v.14) that are gone.

And where are the people of God – the citizens of his Kingdom – in all this? For these, the word is (v.20) “CELEBRATE over her, heaven [sky], and God’s people [saints], and envoys [apostles] and spokesmen [prophets]! God has passed judgment on her for you all!” [or, God has exacted judgment on her judgment of you all!]
Those committed to Kingdom values have already learned to function quite apart from the “permission” of the adherents and the rulers of the commerce of the world (13:15-17), and consequently are untouched by its demise. The mutual care described among the community of the faithful throughout the New Testament simply continues as usual. Financial collapse does not cause a true Kingdom brotherhood to moan about its budget! They simply ramp up their already-functioning mutual aid!

With which group do you identify?

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