Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Matthew Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Wealth and Poverty
For a guy who doesn't have much money, Jesus sure talks a whole lot about it. On second thought, maybe that's why he mentions it so much. So what does Jesus think about income inequality?
Blessed Are the Poor
Time after time, Jesus comes down pretty firmly on the side of the have-nots. Here are just a few select verses that don't look so highly on the rich:
- "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal" (6:19).
- "You cannot serve God and wealth" (6:24).
- "The cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word" (13:22).
- "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor" (19:21).
- "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (19:24).
Those are some pretty firm words. It's clear that Jesus is really suspicious of those who put their effort into making money, rather than serving God. Get your nose out of those checkbooks and into some scripture, guys.
Free Market Messiah
It's not that wealth, in and of itself, is immoral. Take the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30). A master gives his slaves some money (or "talents," in the biblical parlance). The ones who invest and double their money are rewarded, but the ones who fearfully squirrel their money away are thrown into the darkness where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (25:30). Does this mean Jesus wants us to put all our money in the stock market? Just point us toward the right ticker symbol.
Jesus also seems to shrug off the problem of poverty at one point. He tells the disciples, "You always have the poor with you" (26:11). It sounds like, try as we might, there's nothing we can really do about income inequality. Heck, even God is throwing his hands up.
Though Jesus doesn't seem to be saying that money is the root of all evil, he does pretty much agree with another biblical author: "Love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus wants us to put all our energy toward God, and that can be pretty hard if we're busy counting our piles of cash.
Sure, rich people can be socially and morally responsible. It's just a lot harder for them. And, naturally, everyone thinks they're the generous rich guy. Even Ebenezer Scrooge thought he was nice for giving Bob Cratchit one day a year off with pay.
So, are the wealthy doomed? Are the poor going to inherit the earth? It remains to be seen.
When speaking of the sacred bonds of marriage, Jesus said, "What God has joined together, let no one separate" (19:6). Yeah. Tell that to the 50% divorce rate.
Quit Being a Quitter
Jesus is pretty clear when it comes to divorce—just don't do it. He acknowledges that Jewish law has permitted a man to divorce his wife in the past, but then says that, from here on out, that's not how we should roll (5:31). He even goes on to say that anyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else is nothing more than a big ol' adulterer (5:32).
Even the disciples are taken aback by this teaching. No divorce? Then, "it is better not to marry," they tell Jesus (19:10). Wow. They really seem kind of commitment-phobic for a group of guys who are prepared to go to their deaths for what they believe in.
But there is some wiggle room with this rule. Jesus says not to divorce your wife, "except on the grounds of unchastity" (5:32, 19:9). So there's a loophole. If you catch your lady cheating, feel free to throw her to the curb. This seems to make sense even in the case of Joseph and Mary. When Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he plans to break off their engagement because she's been unfaithful…or so he thinks (1:19).
Does this mean that Jesus would recognize other exceptions to this no divorce rule? What if your spouse is physically abusive? Verbally abusive? An addict? A criminal? Or what if, after lots of trying, you just can't get along anymore? Should Christian couples be released from their marriage bonds if, like adultery, something else crops up that harms the relationship?
How Do Christians Sort All This Out?
Though most Christian denominations frown upon divorce today, many of them also accept the view that sometimes stuff just happens. Catholics, for one, don't allow divorce and regard remarriage after divorce as adultery. But you can also be awarded an annulment which means that, according to Church law, "a marriage was invalid from the beginning." Though this is not considered "divorce" per se, it does show that many denominations are willing to bend the rules past what Jesus said.
This one seems like a no-brainer. How could anyone think slavery is a good idea? It's not something Jesus could have supported, what with his love for the poor and downtrodden, right? Well, let's take a look.
Jesus Said What?
Jesus actually talks quite a bit about slavery in Matthew's Gospel.
- He tells several parables that feature slaves and their masters. One involves a slave who is punished by his master for being unforgiving (18:23-35). Another features a whole bunch of slaves who are killed, and no one bats an eye (21:33-41).
- He also tells us that "slaves are not above their masters" (10:24).
- And then there's this gem: "Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives" (24:46). Yikes.
Jesus never once takes any opportunity to condemn slavery. Even a little bit. Jesus talks about slaves as if they are a fact of life. People are just owned by other people. No big deal. Nothing to see here. Carry on.
He's a Slave for You
Okay, but there is one verse where Jesus compares himself to a slave. Now we're getting somewhere. He says, "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (20:28). Here Jesus seems to be saying that a life of servitude is laudable and that slaves have a Christ-like quality. Sure, it's not the same thing as abolishing slavery, but it's a start.
How Christians Have Handled It
Sadly, these verses from Matthew and elsewhere in the Bible have been used to defend slavery in the past. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America said, "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God [...] it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation" (source). He's right that slavery was around in biblical times, but you know what? Too bad.
There were also Christians who used the Bible to support abolition efforts (source). Eventually, the majority of Christian churches would come out against slavery as well:
- In 1696, Quakers in Pennsylvania stood in opposition to the slave trade (source).
- John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and life-long opponent of slavery, declared that "liberty is the right of every human creature" (source).
- In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a statement saying that slavery was "contrary to the laws of justice and humanity" (source).
- Northern and Southern Baptists even severed ties with each other over the issue of slavery (source).
Thought slavery is more or less a thing of the past in developed countries around the world, there are still places where the institution lives on. Even in the United States, human trafficking, a type of slavery, is still a terrible problem. We're guessing Jesus wouldn't have been down with it.