I attended a lecture on "Wealth and Poverty in Scripture," given by Dr. Jonathan Witt, in which he contrasted two polar opposite theologies--Prosperity Gospel teachings (God wants you to have a concentration of wealth) and Liberation Theology (God wants us to redistribute concentrations of wealth)--and then discussed some passages in the Bible often used to argue for or against private property and wealth.
Since I can cover only a small part of this in a single blog post, I'll boil down the lecture and my response to it to two important points:
First, do the prophets condemn people merely for having more wealth than the poor? The answer is no. When we read the Old Testament, we find that God condemns theft, injustice (withholding a person’s agreed-upon wages, using dishonest scales, accepting bribes), oppression (imposing heavy rent and tribute, keeping the clothes off people’s backs as pledges overnight, inflicting violence), and a lack of charity and generosity. These are all moral categories rather than material ones.
By contrast, Job, Abraham, and more honored people in the Bible had much wealth, but they were not chastised by God for this. Why? Because they treated people justly. This is the category God cares about when it comes to wealth.
For my second point, I take you to a passage in the New Testament discussed by Witt, and commonly cited by many to condemn the rich.
The Rich Young Ruler: The key to understanding the purpose of this passage is Jesus' final response to the man's question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus tells him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Since Jesus did not give this command to other wealthy followers (such as the women who supported His ministry), we can conclude that this response was intended not for every believer, but for this man for a particular purpose. That purpose is not difficult to discover when we look at the pattern of Jesus' interactions with others. Jesus often brought people to a place where they were forced to decide just where He landed on their list of priorities. The problem with the rich young ruler was that he did not love Jesus above all else. He desired his wealth more than God and so was not as righteous as he thought. This is what Jesus revealed to him.
Yes, wealth can be dangerous to our souls (so dangerous that we escape its clutches only by the power of God)--not in itself, not because having it means one is an oppressor of the poor, not because one person has more than another, but because it brings with it the temptation to cease to recognize our dependence on God and to place those riches above God in our affections and trust. As it says in Proverbs 11:28, "He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like the green leaf." (Note that the man who "trusts in his riches" is contrasted with "the righteous," not "the poor," showing that it's the lack of trust in God that matters, not the riches.)
In the end, it's not wealth God is concerned about, but justice and righteousness; and even more importantly, He's concerned that our relationship with Him be central to everything we do so that "we have no other gods before Him." Passages warning the rich will fall into one of these two categories. The purpose of this post is not to "defend rich people," but to remind all of us--rich and poor alike--to keep these two things central when evaluating our own dealings with others.
There's a tendency of some to favor the rich, and the Bible warns against this. But there's also a tendency of some to favor the poor according to the assumption that, in a dispute, the rich person is always the oppressor and therefore in the wrong; and the Bible condemns this attitude, as well. Instead of favoring one group over the other because of an irrelevant, non-moral category, the Bible calls for decisions based on justice, determined by right and wrong. God commands righteous dealings between trustworthy and honest people whether they be rich or poor.
Let all His people do so to the glory of God.