Wealth, poverty and generosity

babyI’m not a wealthy man. According to information from the US census bureau, the median US annual income for a family of 4 is $63,278. (Median, remember, means “mid-point,” so half of US families earn less than that and half earn more.) My income is decidedly on the less side, but I am by no means “poor.”

Quite the opposite: I own a home, two cars, many sets of clothes, a refrigerator stocked with food, more than one computer… the truth is, I’m a wealthy man!

This is what poverty looks like. This child lives in an uninsulated one-room house topped by a thatched roof. They have no central heating or cooling. The floor is dirt. What furniture there is has been handmade. They have only a few changes of clothing. They don’t have DSL, they don’t own a car or a cell phone or a refrigerator.

The lifestyle we lead as members of the family of developed nations is opulent compared to this child’s family and the billions of people like them who live in the “developing” nations of the world. Developing nations is the new and more favored term for what we used to call the “third world.” It’s a term coined by someone at the UN, undoubtedly one of those every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining-today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life types, the kind of person who could find good news in a train wreck.

tortillasCompare this kitchen with your own. The few cooking implements this family owns are clay pots and platters; their stove is an open fire in a corner of the home. Daily rituals of life involve scouring the countryside for firewood, going to the river to haul water, caring for the children and maintaining the coffee trees. Work starts before sunrise and ends after dark.

It’s good for all of us to gain some perspective once in a while. To most of the world, I’m wealthy, and any arguments I might make to the contrary sound downright silly when compared with the terrible poverty most of the world endures.

These thoughts came to mind this morning while I was reading Paul’s letter to Timothy, a young man for whom Paul had high hopes. His letter is mostly fatherly advice to someone who was like a son to him. Towards the end of the letter, Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of wealth.

It’s in 1 Timothy 6:10 that Paul makes his often-misquoted-statement: For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. (NLT)

He expands on his thoughts about wealth a few verses later:

Tell the rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life. —1 Timothy 6:17-19, The Message

With the possible exception of college students, most of us are wealthy. We may not think of ourselves that way, but it’s possible that God would like us to adjust our thinking. Would you be able to stand before a young family from the developing world and with a clean conscience argue that, considering our heavy tax burden and the necessities of living well in our part of the world, we’re really not much better off than they are?

Capitalism has a lot going for it. It produces wealth, opportunity and the freedom to make financial decisions that are in our own best interests. But like Paul with Timothy, God has high hopes for us, too, not the least of which is the hope that we will use the wealth he has blessed us with to generously benefit those who are in need.

If you are reading this, you have access to a computer, which likely makes you a member of the world’s elite—a wealthy citizen of one of the world’s developed nations. As persons of wealth and privilege, what responsibility do we have to the world’s poorest people?

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