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What Did Jesus Teach about Wealth and Poverty?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Poverty Looks Like Wealth in God's Creation

Wealthy people who lived in Galilee around the time of Jesus constituted only a tiny percentage of the population, and everyone thought they were rich for one reason only, they had divine favor. A much larger percentage—perhaps 15% – 20%—were destitute. These were the homeless, beggars, and disposables. Yes, they were disposables because the gods must not have cared about them.

According to ancient records, Jesus declared a startling way to reimagine wealth and its usual exploitation of lower economic classes. He turned the world upside down! “Blessed are you who are poor,” he said, “for yours is the realm of God” (Luke 6:20). This is not mere hyperbole, either. Consider the advice he gave to a young wealthy man:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! . . . 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.” (Mark 10:21-26)

The stumbling blocks

Jesus not only offered blessings for poor people, but he upended the whole hierarchical power structure society was built on.

Remarkably, he did it without military or political power, but with the power of truth—the truth about humanity. Some of the less familiar sayings attributed to Jesus paint a more robust picture of what he was talking about.

While describing the nature of evil and its corrupting influences, he explained in the Secret Revelation of John how ‘they’ (the workers of evil)

brought gold, silver, a gift, and copper and iron and metal and every sort of things belonging to these classes. And they beguiled the human beings who had followed them into great troubles by leading them astray into much error. (King transl., 25:11-12).

Gold, silver, and gifts are not inherently evil, but they can become powerful means of temptation. Pity the man who “went away grieving” because he, like a camel, could not fit his wealth through the narrow gateway to the spiritual joys in front of him. The accumulation of wealth arouses the lust for ever greater material treasures, always at the expense of losing spiritual treasures.

Jesus (again, in the Secret Revelation of John) amplifies the great worth he has to offer through the revelation of his secret to John:

Cursed be anyone who should exchange these things [the spiritual teachings] for a gift, whether for food or drink or clothing or anything else of this kind. (King transl., 27:11)

The fullness and the deficiency

Some common terminology associated with the kind of wealth Jesus spoke of in antiquity includes the words ‘deficiency’ and ‘fullness.’ In the Dialogue of the Savior:

The disciples asked him [Jesus], “What is fullness and what is deficiency?” He answered them, “You are from fullness, and you are in a place of deficiency.” (139:13)

These terms, ‘fullness’ and ‘deficiency’ describe states of being, rather than an accounting of possessions. If humanity originated in fullness without any material wealth, then we would measure our fullness according to our access to spiritual joys. If we have taken possession of greed, emptiness, lust, or are grieving over the potential loss of material wealth, then we are living in the “place of deficiency.”

With Jesus’s upheaval of the hierarchical world, everyone—with or without “gold, silver, and gifts”—could choose divine blessings. Worldly possessions have no inherent connection with the divine source. Unless we allow them to seduce us.

Imagine the change that could take place in society if we could discern the true humanity, or the kind of fullness Jesus described, within everyone. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Thomas:

When you know yourselves, then you’ll be known, and you’ll realize that you’re the children of the living Source. But if you don’t know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty. (Mattison transl., Saying 3b)

Sophia’s remedy

The example of Sophia in the Secret Revelation of John seems to be a remedy for the wealthy man who went away grieving. Sophia also grieved because she had wanted something that did not come from the living Source. (To make a long story short, she disobeyed the divine order of heavenly relationships, and disaster ensued.) When she recognized the error of her mistake, she repented.

We might say, she acknowledged the mistake of the upside-down version of the world of disobedience and false desires. After she repented,

the holy Spirit poured over her something from their entire fullness. For her partner did not come to her by himself, but it was through the fullness that he came to her in order that he might correct (heal) her deficiency. (King, transl., 14:24-26)

Sophia’s willingness to start over with nothing sounds like “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the realm of God” (Luke 6:20). When she thought she wanted everything, she “was the poverty” (Gospel of Thomas, 3). But the rest of Sophia’s story goes on to show how her return to the fullness redirected her to become a helper to others.

Jesus was helping us understand how wealth is an easy impediment to existing in the fullness of the Spirit. No wonder he said the poor are blessed! It makes sense that the human wealth gap could diminish when true fullness inspires generosity, joy, and unselfishness. When spiritual joy releases the grip on possessions, the forces behind exploitation of others vanishes with it. The “good news” from Jesus is that the things of the Spirit are abundantly available for everyone who seeks them.