In continuation of my examination of Health and Wealth Gospel in Nigeria, we shall from this week evaluate the biblical concept of wealth and poverty from the New Testament perspective. In which case, what does the New Testament has to say on the subject of poverty and wealth? In my last post, I discussed briefly what the Old Testament has to say on the same subject. However, since most of the Health and Wealth preachers use Scriptures in the New Testament more than that of the Old Testament to substantiate their claims; it is essential that we look at the subject a bit more slowly and systematically through the New Testament. In my opinion, while the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of health and wealth, I believe most of the interpretations that we hear on this important topic in Nigeria today are not only misleading but are also biblically, theological and hermeneutically faulty. So, we shall look at Jesus’ teachings on wealth and poverty as well as that of Apostles Peter, John and Paul. The purpose of the work is however not to condemn any church or individual preacher for that matter but to make the church in Nigeria and Africa as a whole see the dangers inherent in misinterpreting the Bible and the importance of letting the Bible speak for itself. I believe most Christians have been led astray as a result of our wrong teachings on the subject of wealth and poverty. This perhaps has played a major role in the erruption of corruption, crimes and pseudo-Christians that we parade in our nations today. I shall start by introducing the work today and continue with the rest of the work later. I must say at this juncture that, the introduction is relatively long but the rest of the work shall come handy and precise until the finish this aspect of the subject. Your comments and criticisms are very welcomed. Thanks and may the Lord bless you as you read this work.
Background for Jesus’s Teachings on Wealth and Poverty
The situation of Israel immediately before the coming of Jesus provides a helpful starting point for a survey of Jesus’ attitude toward the poor20. Looking at the word of Jesus will be appropriate at this point.
Palestine at the time Jesus was born was undergoing the- pains of Herod the Great’s thirty years rule. He’ was called Herod the Great because of his personal abilities and success in his political policies. Though great he was also a tyrant. Herod, like several African leaders, had embarked on massive spending both at home and abroad. Herod undertook ambitious projects which he financed with heavy taxation. Ruthless means were employed to collect the various taxes. The exorbitant taxes paid further impoverished the majority of the populace who were already very poor. The tax collectors were dishonest and fraudulent like the privileged few in Nigeria today who control the trade but evade tax. They were lining their own pockets .at the expense of the impoverished common people21.
Consequently, by the time Jesus was born, between 6-4 BC, the whole country had been reduced to poverty as a result of huge debts incurred by Herod over his building projects. People were demoralized and their sense of morality had been greatly weakened. The general populace were forced to resign themselves to oppression, misfortune, disease and poverty. Under Herod Agrippa I, who took over the reigns of power from Archelaus in AD 6, taxes remained exorbitantly high. The situation led to open wide bribery and corruption among the officials of government and the ‘law enforcement agents as it is common in most Africans and in other Third World nations. Poor harvest was common in Palestine, noted for its agrarian economy and this normally led to severe famine. In addition, only very few people had regular employment. The few who secured employment, the daily wage could not keep body and soul together. Consequently, a large section of the population who were extremely poor survived on charity of various kinds.22
The gap between the majority who were hopelessly wretched and the priestly aristocracy which surrounded the court of Herod was quite wide, Pilgrims continued to stream into Jerusalem being the centre of worship with the Temple. This also attracted a large number of beggars into the city; and consequently Jerusalem and a few other large cities became the homes of beggars. By the time of Jesus one could hardly tell an authentic beggar from a charlatan.23 There were poor people who turned beggars, pretending to be dumb, or blind, or deaf, lame, crippled or otherwise handicapped. Outside, at the city gates were lepers begging. Also there were those, like the Nigerian alimongeri, who hang around places of special celebrations, such as weddings’ or parties by the rich.24 The large presence of slaves, the massive exploitation of the poor and the widespread unemployment, exacted much pressure on the available resources. Jesus was quite aware of the desperate situation when he said on one occasion: “The poor you always have with you” (Jn. 12:8 cf. Deut. 15:11).
There were essentially two main groups of people in the first century Palestine. The first group was the relatively small wealthy class. The second group often referred ‘to as “the people of the land” constituted well over 95% of the populace. This group was made up of the poor, peasant farmers. They include the artisans, the slaves, the hired laborers, the widows, the orphans, the jobless and the homeless. Judaism of Jesus’ day accepted the social disparity and did not find it necessary to change the situation; but merely encouraged the· wealthy to give alms to the poorest of the poor in the society. The rich included the wealthy high priestly clans who controlled the commerce associated with the Temple worship. Only members of the high-priestly class were involved in the selling of animals for sacrifice and in the changing of Roman coins to local coins. Here the eager poor worshippers were literally defrauded in the name of God. There were country priests who were generally poor. They were broken into twenty-four divisions and each division only came to the city to minister for only two weeks in a year. Zechariah the father of the Baptist belonged to this group of poor priests.
Another wealthy class was made up of those whose control of political power translated into wealth. This was made up of Herod’s family who owned more than half of the land by purchase and acquisition. Also among the small wealthy class were the remnants of the old Jewish aristocracy; although most of their lands had been confiscated by Herod and his sons. There were also a few who became rich as a result of their involvement in commerce or as agents of the Roman government or as tax-collectors.
To be considered rich, one must possess land, holdings, but he would not personally farm the land.’ Rather, he would rent the lands to tenant farmers and spend most of his time in the cities, engaged in commerce and civic affairs. This led to the system of tenants and hired servants. The rich landowners saw the mistreatment of tenants and hired servants as perfectly legitimate; but· the poor’ saw the system as totally unjust and; deeply resented the landowners25. It was, therefore, no surprise that during the Jewish revolt ‘of AD 66-70’ when the common people gained the upper hand; their first action was the ‘burning of the debt record’s and the slaughter of many of the aristocrats. Jesus’ parables on the Unfaithful Servant, the Hired Servants and the Tenants, truly reflect the situation in Jesus’ day.
Of course, there were small landowners engaged in subsistence farming and bad harvest in a year or two could result in the selling of their small holdings to the rich rendering them landless. The hand-to-mouth existence hardly made life worth living for the poor masses. The poorer groups in the first century Palestine were the landless ones, carpenters, fishermen, widows, orphans, laborers and the jobless. Yet the poor were forced to pay the Roman taxes, in addition to those prescribed by the Mosaic Law. Jesus therefore fits into the first century Palestine because he himself belonged to the poor class as the son of a poor carpenter who neither had an inherited nor an acquired land. He was a friend of the poor and the outcasts of the society and was frequently found associating with the, poor. The situation in the first century Palestine provided unmediated context for Jesus’ teaching. Similarly, biblical scholars in Africa cannot ignore or fail to respond to the social, economic, political and spiritual situation around us and still remain relevant. In fact, these should institute the immediate context ‘for our biblical exegesis26.
It is to a people in such a pathetic situation described above that the Savior declared: “He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor” (Luke 4: 18). This was how Jesus described his mission right from the beginning. It is the same ministry which he handed over to the Church in every locality and in every age to practically respond to such situations wherever they may exist. Jesus regarded Isaiah 61:1-2, which, is .prediction about his mission as now being fulfilled. He saw the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed as the main beneficiaries of his mission. It is for this reason that the considerations of Jesus’ pronouncements on the poor, prosperity, good health success are not only relevant at this time, but quite appropriates. We shall therefore examine some of Jesus’ pronouncement wealth which comes to us as part of his various teachings.
20 Augustine U. Nebechukwu. 101.
21 S. O. Abogunrin, 244
22 Herold W. Hoeher, Herod Antepas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing 1972), 15.
23 Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ: The search for the Historical Jesus (Oxford won publishing Plc,
25 S. O. Abogunrin “Christology and the contemporary church in Africa”. In S. O. Abogunrin et al eds. –Christology in African context Biblical studies series 2, Ibadan, The Nigerian Association for Biblical Studies, 2003), 1-27.
26 S. O. Abogunrin, In search of the original Jesus, Inaugural Lecture 1997/98 (Ibadan: University of Ibadan, 2003), 37 – 49.