“I never go into that part of town. That’s where all the rich people live,” a friend said disdainfully.
This Christian friend had laudably chosen to live in a deeply impoverished part of her city in order to bring the light of Jesus’ love to those in need. By moving into the neighborhood, she hoped to work alongside the other residents to develop solutions to their poverty-induced suffering.
I was surprised by her words. I had seen her sacrificial choice of living in an area of higher crime and poverty as selfless and loving—a Christlike choice. However, it seemed that while she called God’s people to justice and love for the poor, her heart had hardened toward people she perceived as rich. She withheld love from people she found difficult to love and relegated the rich to the fringes of God’s kingdom. This was not the first time I had such a conversation with another Christia
An unquestioned truism in church circles insists that God favors the poor. However, I am reluctant to accept the word “favor.” It is, of course, not up for debate that God calls His people to give special attention to the poor, the orphans, and the widows. God knows that our human systems often allow the weakest and most powerless to fall through the cracks of society. He shines a spotlight on those who need extra attention and care so that we do not forget them.
God reminds us that justice requires using any advantages we have to advocate and provide for the marginalized. However, I would like to make a proposition: What if Christians were able to honor the desire of God regarding the poor while still reaching out to those who are wealthy?
Statements like the one made by my friend who said she would never venture into the wealthier zip code of our city give me reason to believe that sometimes Christians unknowingly dehumanize and stereotype the affluent.
It is clear that in the early church both the rich and poor found places to serve God and to advance God’s kingdom, while seeking to maintain a healthy balance of care and concern for those in need. What might that look like today?
There are Good Wealthy people
It was hard for me to hear my friend’s unloving words toward the rich in our city because of my own experience with people who are affluent.
I worked several years at a nonprofit organization that sought large donations from wealthy business people. In my role, I spent considerable time with people I initially found intimidating because of their material ease and comfort. Many had large amounts of money, large houses, designer clothes, and expensive cars. They were CEOs and high-level business people. Many were entrepreneurs, running businesses they had started, and these businesses now provided valued services to their communities, including jobs for dozens or even hundreds of people.
The leaders of our organization understood something important about these wealthy individuals: God had given them a gift for business. These believers wanted to give that gift back to the Lord, for His mission to the world.
Our organization affirmed to these wealthy and socially powerful people that God had a purpose for their divinely bestowed business acumen, for the in uence they held in their network of contacts, and for their wise stewardship of the wealth God had given them.
Our organization did not treat these people as human cash machines or as stepping stones on our way toward achieving our ministry goals. It is a temptation fo
r the Church to dehumanize the rich by objectifying them for our ministry purposes. Seeing people with money as a means to an end is wrong—even when that end is ministry. It is exploitation.
Instead, our organization saw them as individuals uniquely gifted by God, who yearn for eternal significance beyond the temporal satisfaction of building a business that provides jobs, products, and services. We offered them opportunities to use their wealth, but more importantly, their knowledge, skills, and talents to bring hundreds of thousands more people into God’s kingdom.
Business as Sacred Space
Because there may be some clergy and lay people who seem to view business and profit-making with suspicion, wealthy people can be sidelined by the church. We risk treating Christian brothers and sisters who are called to the world of business as lessercitizens of God’s kingdom. We often falsely dichotomize the secular and the sacred. Specifically, we see business as simply a secular venture with no real contact with the sacred world of “ministry.”
In reality, God’s presence and activity are everywhere, including in business. By working in a variety of industries from plumbing to marketing, our fellow believers are carrying the light of God into places where most people in full-time vocational ministry are not able to go.
The Problem with Judging
Sometimes it seems the term “greedy rich” is one newly coined word: “greedyrich.” To some, it is as if you cannot be rich without being greedy, and you can’t be greedy unless you are rich.
You don’t have to be wealthy to be greedy. A middle-class or poor person can be greedy, too. Rather than the size of your bank account or asset portfolio, the only qualification necessary to be tempted toward greed is to be a fallen human.
I also know that not all wealthy people are like the Christian leaders I had the privilege to work alongside. But I do believe it is unfair when we judge an entire ZIP code as “greedy,” or if we judge by outward appearances alone.
Could not the wealthy person we pass on the street be someone who lives on 10 percent of what he or she earns and gives away the other 90 percent (like one of the donors to our ministry organization) and yet have a larger house and more expensive car than we do?
We must examine the root of our uncharitable attitudes toward those with wealth. Perhaps we are intimidated by those who have more money and possessions. Perhaps we are envious of the wealth and the perceived ease and security of others.
The gospel of Christ can transform our fear or envy (or both) into compassion, love, and a desire to minister to all people, rich or poor. Even those who take security in their own wealth or prestige, whether they claim to be Christians or not, are among the lost that Jesus came to seek and to save. In the Gospels, we see Jesus accepting invitations to the homes of the wealthy. He approached both the poor and the rich with compassion and truth.
In Luke 19, Jesus stopped to acknowledge a wealthy tax collector named Zaccheus out of a crowd of hundreds of people, no doubt many of whom were poor and powerless. On that day, Jesus singled out this corrupt man of wealth (he had stolen much of what he had), and He even invited Himself to eat in Zaccheus’ home. The story concludes with Jesus pronouncing, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
In another famous Gospel scene, Jesus ate a meal in a Pharisee’s home. Pharisees were wealthy, privileged, and powerful religious people. Although the Pharisee is depicted in an uncharitable light, criticizing a woman who broke open a wildly expensive bottle of perfume to wash Jesus’ feet, the fact is that Jesus was there socializing with the wealthy and privileged Pharisee.
An oft-quoted truism is that Jesus spent time with prostitutes and sinners. However, we sometimes forget He spent time with the wealthy and powerful, too.
If we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps,we must go wherever we are welcome as well. It just might mean going into “that” part of town, where the “rich people” live.