Two qualifications ought be made. First, one could argue that the original class struggle appeared in the garden when the serpent told Eve that God had something that she lacked. We restricted our analogy to the struggle between men rather than the futile struggle with God. There is something about ontological equality that makes inequality of possessions problematic to sinful minds. Within our culture, we accept as proven the idea that all are equal. That principle about our personal value causes us to question the rightness of economic differences. Sin confuses the difference between our person and our possession to use this principle to cause envy. Second, one could argue that the antagonism over sacrifices is a far cry from clashes over property and wealth. While the substance of the dispute may be different, the underlying motives, thinking, worldview, and emotions remain the same.
We begin a discussion of wealth as we ought begin all discussions, with God. God, as the sovereign creator, holds title to all that is. There it no particle of the universe over which God cannot declare, "Mine." No possession can be considered that does not have this reality behind it. All things are God's, even if we call them ours. This radically changes our perception of wealth as we consider that which is called the traditional class struggle. Marx saw the struggle between economic classes as the moving force behind history. While we may credit his observations, we cannot accept his assumption that this as the way things ought to be. Why should men struggle and envy each other the property that almighty God has given to others? If all is God's and He sovereignly distributes to each according to His will, have we any cause to envy, to murmur, to strive to rebalance the divine equation?
One caveat needs to be added. This conception of God as creator and owner of all does not forbid the Christian from the principle of private property and pursuing justice. The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing. The law of Moses included punishments and restitution for those who stole. God's concern for justice demands that those who rob from others give back what they stole.
It warrants noting that the biblical strictures deal only with actual theft, not theoretical theft. Inequalities will always exist in human affairs. If a worker makes widget A for his employer who can sell it for X dollars, he will likely not receive X dollars from his employer. The employer will have to pay for what it will take to get X dollars for the widget, his own efforts to sell the widget, and the risk of not selling the widget for X. With all these indefinite costs, the exact figure between employer and employee will always involve inequality. The Bible does not give strict guidelines how these factors are to be resolved. It does not call this inequality stealing. It does command the employer to pay the employee promptly and fully the agreed upon wage. To not do so is stealing. The failure of the employer and employee to derive a perfect equality of wage, whatever that is, does not constitute stealing in scripture.
For the best example of the Bible's teaching on this, we should examine Matthew 20:1-16.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:1-16)Jesus tells this parable for the purpose of explaining that there is no time limit to God's mercy. The parable has a spiritual message, but it is built upon a physical reality that the audience and we should accept as true. Just as it was right for the employer to make whatever deal was right for his need, to pay the later laborers what he thought right and pay the day laborers what they had agreed to, so the mere existence of inequality does not prove theft or demand equalization. Indeed, in the divine economy, as the Lord is the one behind the metaphor of the vineyard owner, He dispenses according to His own designs. It does bear remembering that the Jesus seems to accept the cultural accepted wage of a day laborer as just.
As we remain considering the divine component of wealth, we also remember the First Commandment. As we are so able to do with all the good things that God gives us, we can make an idol out of wealth. There is something condemnatory about Marx's observation that economic class struggle drives history. Even if we conclude that the observation is overstated, we cannot but admit that there is some truth to the idea. Envy and jealousy over property fuels part of human activity. In some respects the tenth commandment particularized a variant of the First. (all sin is in some way attributable to a violation of the First) When property or wealth matters more to us that God, we covet what others have. Wealth ought not drive history nor the activities of man. When it does so, it reveals the sin of idolatry.
Another parable of Jesus seems appropriate here.
And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me. And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:13-21)In this parable, Jesus responds to a request to judge an inheritance. In response, Jesus condemns both parties as placing a value on the property over each other and ultimately God. This He demonstrates in the parable of the foolish rich man. While his plans for expansion are not in themselves patently sinful, the Lord reveals their sinful motives in the response of God and His own explanation. The expansion meant that the rich man valued wealth more than obedience to God, more that using that wealth to honor and glorify God.
One of the hardest applications of our relationship to wealth in consideration of God is the concept of contentment. If God owns all and give to all according to His will, if God means more to us than what we possess, then we ought to be content with what He has given us. Paul writes, "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:11-13) He writes to Timothy about contentment.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. (I Timothy 6:6-11)Here, it would be wrong of us to think that Paul criticizes the rich as such, but those who desire riches, who place wealth above their desire to glorify God.
This warning about the dangers of pursuing riches appears also in the Old Testament. "Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die:remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain." (Proverbs 30:7-9) The word attributed to Agur here reflects the dangers of too much or not enough. The wise man prays for enough. Jesus repeats this prayer in the Lord's prayer, "give us this day our daily bread."
The daily bread reflects the manna in the wilderness, but unlike that supernatural provision, the Lord anticipates that we will work for that which He gives us. Paul writes this to the church at Thessalonica.
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. (II Thessalonians 3:6-12)In this passage, Paul deals with what is called an over-realized eschatology. People expecting the second coming immediately, stopped work, "preparing" for the resurrection. Paul corrects this practice using himself and his missionary team as an example. He tells the church not to enable those who choose not to work to engage in idleness and the sin that accompanies idleness. From this we learn that we ought to work and encourage work in the use of our wealth.
How this command intersects with our duty to give generously and show hospitality requires discernment and wisdom. The author of Hebrews writes, "Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:1-2) This verse reminds us how important it is for us to help travelers, especially those who are fellow believers. Remember, this was in a day before hotels. Perhaps we ought to be more cautious to request for help in this day, but the general rule still applies. For ordinary requests for assistance, we must recall that we live in a day where entitlement and welfare have changed the attitude and expectation of many. Jesus says, "But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil." (Luke 6:35) Jesus speaks this in the context of the people of God. It does not permit us to give suspecting that our charity will be used for sinful or prodigal purposes. Jesus tells the disciples that they must, "be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16b)
There is one final thing about wealth that must be recalled. Everything that God gives us, we are to receive with thanks. Paul writes, "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving." (I Timothy 4:4) In this passage, Paul warns Timothy about the false teachers who forbid marriage and meats. He responds that everything God created may be received well if accompanied with thanksgiving. Thanks remembers that these things are good because God gives them. It fixes our hierarchy that we not let the good things become our idols, remembering that our ultimate enjoyment is found in God alone. Paul reminds us that it is those who deny the goodness of God's gifts that tempt us to ingratitude.
Wealth has become a dangerous and problematic topic in today's world. The discussion is not new. The Bible explains how the Christian should view possessions before God. The world only sees wealth. We see the giver of all good gifts, living Christian in an unchristian world.