How Proverbs Views Wealth and Poverty

Sacred Scripture, including the book of Proverbs, has much to say about wealth and poverty. The sages were especially concerned with the treatment of the poor by the powerful, as well as with the wise use of possessions for their authentic purposes. Today we’ll consider a prayer and three proverbs that shed light on the ways of thinking about excess and want, both in our lives and in the society around us.

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Prov. 30:7–9)

Chapter 30 in the book of Proverbs is known as the “Words of Agur.” Agur, son of Jakeh, may have been a foreigner to the land of Israel, but his wisdom was renowned and has been passed down through this Israelite book. Proverbs 30:7–9 is known as “Agur’s Prayer,” in which he asks two things of the Lord: that he not fall into the world of falsehood, and that he be neither rich nor poor. We will focus on the second petition.

In our culture, enough is never enough. We’re supposed to always want more than we have. It’s like Lake Wobegon from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, where “all the children are above average.” No one wants to be just average because it is considered a failure of competence or ambition. Our commercials tell us that we need and deserve luxuries, fantastic cars, strong trucks, and sexy clothing. They do not merely assert that we need these things; they help to invent a need for them.

This article is from a chapter in The Proverbs Explained. Click image to preview or order your copy.

The prayer of Agur expresses the spiritual dangers of having more than enough, as well as of not having enough. Both material plenty and material poverty are challenges to our relationship with the Lord. On the one hand, when we are surrounded by goodies, we can easily become self-indulgent and self-satisfied, forgetting our reliance on the Lord. Not only are we tempted to forget Him because we no longer have to ask Him for sustenance — that is, “our daily bread” — but we also forget that what we have was ultimately given to us by Him. We want to believe that our riches all come from our own work and cleverness and diligence, rather than from the Lord. After all, who invented silver and gold: humans or God? All that humans know how to do is find gold, smelt it, and fashion it into something beautiful or useful.

Poverty, however, comes with spiritual challenges as well. Agur says that if he were poor, he would be tempted to “profane the name of my God” by breaking the commandment that forbids stealing. Furthermore, the difficulties of poverty might drive him into despair and cursing the Lord for his troubles. Poverty is not romantic, as can be seen in the sickness, hunger, and other deprivations suffered by the poor. The Lord has a special love for the poor, but that does not mean that poverty is always spiritually uplifting. It comes with as many temptations as riches do, just different and less expensive ones.

Therefore, Agur prays, as we should as well, just to have enough. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also asks us to seek neither riches nor poverty, neither long life nor short life, neither health nor sickness; rather pray for the strength to seek only what God wants and to ask only what He would have us do for His “greater glory.” The best way to avoid the temptations that come with various material situations of riches or poverty is to maintain a prayerful relationship with the Lord and seek His guidance to reach His glory.

Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you. (Prov. 23:10–11)

This proverb requires a bit of explanation. The ancient Israelites believed that the land of Israel literally belonged to God. It was His hereditary portion of the earth. In the book of Joshua (chapters 13–21), the Lord instructed Joshua to set up boundaries for parcels of land for each tribe, clan, and family; the boundaries were marked with piles of stones as landmarks. The Israelites accepted these parcels of land as gifts given to them directly by the Lord, and they passed them down through the generations so that each family could have enough land to grow their food and raise their cattle.

In that light, the first part of this proverb forbids any attempt to adjust the land distribution or take for oneself the land that God had apportioned for other families. Moving a landmark, whether to add more land to one’s own portion or to take land away from a hated enemy, was forbidden. Adjusting other people’s heritage was a serious interference in the Lord’s plan for His people and an infringement of the covenantal promise to grant them the Prom­ised Land. Some people might try to reason that God’s plan seems unfair, but their judgment of the matter does not permit them to apply their own, often selfish, reasoning to justify stealing another person’s heritage in contravention of His will.

The second part of the proverb is the more relevant to our consideration of the rich and the poor. If the father of a family died before his children had grown up, which was not uncommon in times past, the land and the other property of the orphans would be vulnerable to confiscation by the more powerful members of the community. In ancient societies, having an adult man as the protector of the family was absolutely necessary. Without such strong protectors, wealthier and more powerful landholders could swoop in and take the land of families who were helpless, as was frequently condemned by the Law, the prophets, and the sages:

You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. (Exod. 22:22–24)

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Mal. 3:5)

Still, the final message of the proverb is that the poor and the unfortunate are not ultimately helpless: the Lord is their protector or “redeemer.” The Lord considers the violation of the dignity and the rights of the helpless so severe that He Himself will intervene as their counselor. This statement is echoed in those sins that the Church traditionally teaches “cry to heaven” for vengeance: “the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan [and] injustice to the wage earner” (CCC 1867). The Lord personally intervenes on behalf of the most helpless, whether in this life or in the next, because He takes oppression of the poor very seriously.

Today there are many ways in which the poor are victimized by various parts of society. Although a college education is necessary to do well in the contemporary economy, society fails to provide the excellent or even adequate primary and secondary education for the poor that make college a real possibility. Predatory loan companies squeeze high interest rates out of those who struggle from paycheck to paycheck, making it impossible for such borrowers ever to get out of debt. Unjust employers often do not pay full-time workers enough for survival. Politicians take bribes and kickbacks that affect their willingness to help the urban poor, while at the same time taking their votes for granted. All of these evils fall within the message of this proverb, so everyone should beware: as helpless as the poor may seem, the Lord “will plead their cause” on Judgment Day. On the Day of Judgment we all want to be among the “sheep,” who came to the aid of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, and the sick, finding Jesus Christ in each of them, rather than be counted among the “goats,” who missed Christ in the poor and ended in Hell (see Matt. 25:31–46).

Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend. (Prov. 19:4)

Many stories about people who win the lottery tell of the ways they are bombarded with requests from distant relatives and from people they met once many years ago asking to “reconnect.” One has less a sense of newfound familial love than the same old greed among those who simply want a piece of those winnings. The sages recognized this phenomenon long ago: when you are rich, everyone wants to be your friend.

But no one gets much benefit from befriending the poor — at least nothing material. All too often, one of the terrible conditions that accompanies poverty is loneliness. In the book of Job we read of Job’s friends abandoning him when his fortunes are destroyed by catastrophes and he is afflicted with a foul sickness. The three friends who do come to console him actually cause him more grief by blaming him for his troubles. Even his wife speaks like the fool­ish women by telling him to “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). Why does this happen?

Frequently, the friendless poor do not have a support network to help them get by. The people around them worry that the poverty will never end, especially if the person is sick or old. All too often they end up poor not just in material things, but in healthy relationships with people who love them for themselves and just as they are. Loneliness and abandonment only add to the temptation to despair.

The frequency of such phenomena should encourage us to re­flect: How do I think of my relationships? Are they ways to get things for myself, or do I really care about the good of my friends more than myself? How can I improve my relationships? How can I be a true friend to others in need — especially those poor in both money and in friendship? There is, for instance, an all-too-common pattern by which people give things or do things to get people to love them. (In their early years the Beatles warned the world: “Can’t buy me love.”) The person who tries to purchase love through gifts or actions eventually runs out of things to give away. If the love of others is given in response to gifts, big or small, the takers will leave the givers alone and lonely because they knew that the gifts were dependent on neediness rather than on love. Once the gifts are gone, so are the takers.

How do we become wise in regard to loving the poor? Since the 1960s, the federal government has distributed trillions of dollars in programs to the poor and some of that has resulted in certain financial improvements — for instance, the availability of electricity, water, sanitation, and other services increased dramatically in the rural South during the 1960s. On the other hand, the percentage of poor city dwellers has not improved nearly enough. Partly in response to the present structure of government welfare programs, too many people remain stuck in government housing with little economic opportunity, either for work or for development of their own businesses.

Where is the path of wisdom in helping the poor? Obviously it takes money, but it is not to be found only in giving money. Giving time and attention to the poor — tending to their deeper needs and concerns — is key. The poor understand much about their own environment, whether it is rural or urban, and they have much to teach those who would help them. They have important insights on ways to handle a life radically different from what most middle-class Americans have known.

Furthermore, the experiences and connections of the wealthier members of society, along with some governmental aid, can be brought to bear to improve the situations of poverty in more lasting ways. Too often government programs are designed primarily to elect politicians. How can the poor find economic independence and security, freed from governmental limitations, such as maxi­mum incomes for public-housing residents. The wise will seek the deeper needs for strengthening family bonds so that the children know that their father and mother are irreplaceable, and that they, as children, are unique, dignified, and irreplaceable in the eyes of their parents. The wise will go beyond giving things to the poor but will make possible the development of business, opportunity, education, and skill development that make the poor independent enough to care for themselves and their families.

When the wise seek these and other thoughtful developments, truly the poor will end up having taught them more than they taught the poor.

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full. (Prov. 19:17)

A perfect way to close out this chapter is with a reflection on the Lord’s involvement in the process of improving the lives of the poor. Just as the Lord will ultimately vindicate the rights of the poor when they are victimized, so also will He reward those who are wise and generous to the poor. This promise may make it easier for people of means to become emotionally and spiritually detached from their money and other possessions. Instead of thinking that the things around us are ours to use in any way that we please, we can see that all the money and possessions we have are given to our care. These things will not be ours forever, one way or another. I have never seen a hearse with a luggage rack or a trailer hitch.

This ought to remind us that all the things around us pass on to others — whether to the trash heap, to one’s heirs (or the gov­ernment), or to the people who surround us, including the poor. Again, generous distribution of one’s goods should be done wisely, with an aim to the greater good and the deeper human needs of the poor. Generosity is not primarily oriented to making the giver feel good about himself but is concerned with the good of the receiver.

At the same time, the perspective of the sage in this proverb is that one’s gifts to the poor are not a loss but rather a kind of loan to the Lord. Even this perspective omits the sense that the Lord gave everyone on earth all the gifts that they have in their possession. Therefore, generosity to those in need, whether through time or material gifts, is actually a return back to the original Giver — the Lord God Himself. This proverb teaches us that the Lord’s repayment to the generous giver is ensured, whether in this life or in the next. Along these same lines our Lord Jesus taught us:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 6:19–21)

Of course, there are many stories of people whose generosity with the poor has been repaid in this life. Unpredictable things happen — gifts, inheritances, raises in wages, and so on — that replace the things individuals had given away. However, the lesson is not to stop and count the newfound wealth, but to see it as a new opportunity to become more generous in ever cleverer and wiser ways.

Like any other virtue, generosity to the poor is a habit, and the most difficult part of any good habit is to begin living it. Today is the day everyone can decide to start (or to continue) the hard work of developing a habit of generosity. The joy of giving overcomes any fear of losing, and ultimately it draws one closer to God our Lord, who promises to be infinitely more generous than any of us could know how to be.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Pacwa’s The Proverbs Explained: A Blueprint for Christian Livingwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

image: Attila JANDI / Shutterstock.com

Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ

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Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ is a respected Scripture scholar, author, and popular EWTN Television and radio host, as well as the founder and President of Ignatius Productions.

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