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July 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 3 · pp. 27–32 

Possessions: A Biblical Study of the Principle of Reward and Retribution

Allen R. Guenther

The issues of poverty and affluence confront the Christian church more starkly than ever before. Not only do we know more because of modern communications, but the widening disparity between rich and poor has international ramifications which increase the scale of the problem. Because some of God’s people are pricking the church’s conscience and others are defending what we possess, there is a considerable amount of proof-texting to validate the positions which have been staked out. Frequently the opposing parties focus on either Old or New Testament, but they rarely find the guiding principles embedded in both.

THE PRINCIPLE ENUNCIATED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

From the beginnings of Israel’s history, God assured His people of preservation and material blessings if they would be faithful to the covenants which God made with them.

When God called Abram out of Ur he promised, “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name so great that it shall be used in blessings” (Gen. 12:2). This blessing took the form of land, livestock, and servants (Gen. 13:15; 12:16; 13:16; 20:14). Abram fulfilled the conditions (Gen. 16:2) and was rewarded with wealth. The promise of land, however, was only fulfilled when Israel conquered Palestine (Exod. 6:2-8; Josh. 11:23).

The terms of the covenant at Sinai called for love, obedience, and exclusive worship of the Lord. Faithfulness on the part of the individual and the nation would be rewarded with children, bountiful crops, success in business, and wealth (Deut. 28). God committed himself to respond to Israel with blessing or curse according to her faithfulness. Should Israel fail to follow God and be driven into exile and there repent, he promised to “make you more than prosperous in all that you do in the fruit of your body and your cattle and in the fruits of the earth” (Deut. 30:9). So this principle of giving or withholding material blessings in response to faithfulness or disobedience extends beyond the Babylonian exile. While it may undergo qualification or modification, it is never withdrawn or replaced. The witness of the {28} remaining historical, prophetic, and wisdom literature of the Old Testament canon sustains that principle.

QUALIFICATIONS AND MODIFICATIONS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

In both the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants God committed himself to reward faithfulness with material prosperity and to withhold that prosperity when his people sinned. This is a general statement of consequences applicable to the nation as well as to the individual. But the promise and the threat did not always follow immediately and when they came they did not always seem appropriate to preceding obedience or disobedience. Limitations and qualifications of the principle were built into Israel’s legislation and experience.

In the legislation of the year of Jubilee, in which all land was to be returned to its impoverished original owners (Lev. 25), as well as in other legislation regarding the poor and the Levites, there is no hint that poverty had originated in lack of faith or disobedience. There seems to be a healthy and realistic recognition in Israel of other reasons for poverty or riches. Even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were forced to leave the land of promise because of famine, as were Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons.

The generosity or injustice of people could also determine one’s economic station and circumstances. David lived a subsistence existence during the years he evaded Saul. Elijah and Jeremiah nearly died of starvation in the service of their Lord (1 Kings 17, 19; Jer. 28:1-13). Conversely, the reign of Jeroboam, who was a wicked king, was characterized by exceptional wealth. 1

The poor found recourse only in God, a God who did not always vindicate them by conferring material blessings. This trust sometimes had to be expressed in spite of the evidence of experience. As a result the poor became identified as the godly, those who humbly waited on the Lord. 2 This meant that while the general principle remained intact, it was not possible to deduce a person’s faith or lack of it on the basis of his poverty or wealth. One should not argue from result back to a necessary cause.

The dilemma this created for the Israelite who lived by the covenant and trusted the Lord to fulfill his promises called for a reexamination of the application of divine justice as evidenced by material prosperity or poverty. God explained to Israel that his patience and long-suffering, as well as his great love for their faithful forefather, forestalled the judgements which they deserved (Ps. 103:6-14; Deut. 8:27-29). So it was understood that God delayed {29} judgement on the ungodly. Where then was the justice of God? One answer was to affirm that God’s justice, though delayed, was always expressed before the death of the person. 3 An alternative solution was to extend that period of delay up to the third or fourth generation (Exod. 20:5-6). This latter solution meant, however, that whole generations could live and die without personally experiencing prosperity or poverty for their own faithfulness or sin.

By the time of the Babylonian exile Israel was prepared to receive further light and to probe for new answers to the question of divine justice as expressed in material form. First, human life is extended by the development of the doctrine of a physical resurrection and a conscious existence beyond death. 4 Whereas “eternal life” had been understood as existence in one’s descendants, it now comes to include, and gradually to give priority to, a life of blessing in God’s presence beyond the grave. And one who was wicked in his lifetime will experience judgment after the resurrection. Second, the suffering of the godly and the effective role of intercessory prayer, particularly of the prophets, form the sources for the idea of vicarious suffering. So God’s faithful ones—and ultimately and most completely his unique, suffering servant, the Messiah—represent the means for the salvation of those who live in the exile of disobedience.

So the Old Testament promise of material blessing for godliness and the converse for disobedience developed implicit qualifications and modifications as God’s people struggled to understand God’s providence. This new formulation accompanied God’s people into the New Testament era.

THE NEW TESTAMENT APPLICATION OF THE PRINCIPLE

The New Testament does not apply the principle of reward and retribution to wealth as the Old Testament has done. Yet there are some fairly direct indications that at the time of Jesus the common approach to the doctrine differed little from its classical Old Testament form. 5 The story of the man born blind introduces us to the larger doctrine of retribution which applies also to wealth and poverty. The connection between sin and blindness (resulting in abject poverty) was assumed by the disciples when they asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents? Why was he born blind?” Jesus replied, “ ‘It is not that this man or his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s power might be displayed in curing him’ ” (John 9:2, 3). Jesus did not negate the moral principle by which the disciples assumed God orders the world. In fact he frequently juxtaposed physical healing and forgiveness. But what Jesus was teaching in connection with this miracle is that one should not argue back from result to the cause, a practice which was deeply ingrained in the Jewish mind. {30}

Though Jesus repudiated wealth as a proof of rightness he did not repudiate the wealthy who were concerned about the kingdom of God. Jesus was no ascetic; he affirmed God’s goodness and the world. He counted among his friends a number of wealthy persons: Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-42), the women who supported Jesus and his disciples out of their personal resources (Luke 8:1-3), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and many other unnamed tax collectors whose vocation tended to make them wealthy.

Jesus did not reject people because of their wealth but he called them to a higher commitment. As long as anxiety about material things preoccupy one’s attention and energies, that person, whether rich or poor, cannot inherit the kingdom (Matt. 6:25-31). So when Jesus’ disciples drew attention to the sacrifice they made in foregoing possessions in order to follow him, he assured them, “There is no one who has given up home, brothers or sisters, mother, father or children or land for my sake and the Gospel, who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and land—and persecutions besides; and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus here reaffirmed the connection between obedience and riches but identified these riches as the available goods of the community of faith. He also reaffirmed the correlation between faithfulness and persecution and transfered the concept of reward in its fullest dimensions to the age to come. So the modifications and qualifications in the principle of material reward or retribution recognized in the Old Testament were here confirmed and extended more strongly into the spiritual realm. Jesus, in effect, encouraged his disciples not to expect personal material prosperity, but he also reminded them that the shared possessions of the community of faith become a much larger treasure than can be gained by the individual.

As a development of this larger and more spiritual expression of the relationship between godliness and blessing, Jesus encouraged people to befriend the poor, thereby ensuring for themselves treasures in heaven. 6 The early church took Jesus’ exhortation seriously and cared for the Christian poor as well as those outside the community of faith who were in need. 7

God gives to us in order that we might be generous with his wealth. Paul makes this the focus when he encourages the Corinthian believers to contribute liberally to the fund he is gathering for the poor in Jerusalem.

Remember: sparse sowing, sparse reaping; sow bountifully and you will reap bountifully. . . . And it is in God’s power to provide you richly with every good gift; thus you will have ample means {31} in yourselves to meet each and every situation, with enough and to spare for every good cause. . . . Now he who provides seed for sowing and bread for food will provide the seed for you to sow; he will multiply it and swell the harvest of your benevolence, and you will always be rich enough to be generous (2 Cor. 9:11).

The general principle is repeated, namely, that God provides for those who love him. The theme of possessions as the evidence of godliness is missing and with good reason, since the contribution was being raised for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem. Indeed, this statement comes closer to a description of God’s providential care for everyone, whether good or evil, than as a formula for the godly. In that respect it corresponds to Jesus’ call for extraordinary and unconditional commitment:

Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun to rise on good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest. If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Surely the tax-gatherers do as much as that. . . . There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds (Matt. 6:43-8).

But God does promise reward to those who love him. We have become rich because Christ became poor for our sake (2 Cor. 8:9). The gifts we receive are real gifts which can be shared to the enrichment of others: a wealth of divine grace, kindness, glory, or his inheritance in general, all of which are inexhaustible in contrast with the limitations of material wealth. 8

CONCLUSION

The principle first enunciated in the Old Testament, that God would reward obedience with (among other things) prosperity and punish disobedience with poverty, undergoes some significant modifications in the course of biblical revelation. It receives qualification and requires modification because of the reality of poverty and suffering, the experience of the curses of the Sinaitic covenant at the Exile, the recognition of the role of vicarious suffering, and the growth in awareness of the implications of resurrection and the ultimacy of the judgment beyond the grave. As a result one cannot identify a person of faith by his wealth. The test and sign of godliness becomes the priority which the disciple gives to the kingdom of God and the generosity with which he shares what God has entrusted to him. Those who follow the model and teaching of Christ in this regard will enjoy the riches of God among his saints and lay up a bountiful treasure in heaven. {32}

NOTES

  1. Cf. 2 Kings 14:23-29; Hos. 7:1-6; Amos 3:12-4:2; 6:1-7.
  2. The Hebrew adjective ‘ani means “poor,” “afflicted,” and “humble,” implying a correlation between poverty and humble submission to God.
  3. Job 5:17-27; 18:5-21; Ps. 73:2-17 (esp. 17); Ezek. 18; 33:12-20.
  4. Dan. 12:1-3. The vision of the dry bones applied to corporate Israel (Ezek. 37), presupposes a belief in resurrection, otherwise the metaphor of resurrection would hardly hold out a source of hope and confidence for a despairing Israel.
  5. One could go to extra-biblical literature to supplement the New Testament teaching, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Cf. Psalms of Solomon and the Hymns of the Dead Sea community.
  6. Luke 12:32-4; 14:13-14; 16:1-9; Matt. 6:19-24.
  7. Acts 4:32-5:12; 6:1-7; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Gal. 6:9-10.
  8. Rom. 2:4; 6:10; 9:23; 11:33; Eph. 1:7, 18; 2:7; 3:8; Phil. 4:19; 1 Cor. 3:21-22: On this last passage cf. Otto A. Piper, “That Strange Thing Money,” Theology Today, 16 (1959), 229-30.
Allen Guenther is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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