What a Folded Dollar Teaches Us about Lasting Wealth

What a Folded Dollar Teaches Us about Lasting Wealth


Economics permeates every facet of human existence, and how we use financial resources collectively holds moral implications for governments and businesses, as well as families and individuals. This first sentence undoubtedly creates a mind full of thoughts! I’ll break it down a bit to introduce a fresh challenge to the way we typically think about economic equality and our Christian responsibility to the poor. We will specifically focus on “economic justice” as it regards both our wealth and our duty to show the love of Christ to our neighbors.

Economic Justice: One Key to a Flourishing Human Life

The term economics commonly means “the science or art of household management; domestic economy.” In social science it refers to “the branch of knowledge . . . that deals with the production, distribution, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” These definitions likely sound a bit academic and complicated, so I will explain and illustrate the significance for our current daily lives.
To begin with, a key building block for a flourishing life involves fair opportunities for people to secure work and earn wages. This basic good relates directly to other key goods like life, health, education, and family security. Economic justice, therefore, figures prominently in culture because of the immense social and ethical impact that the financial cycle, from production to transfer of wealth, exerts upon humankind.
Historically, an American understanding of economics has been rooted in John Locke’s theory of property. Building upon Locke’s theory, Adam Smith’s highly influential free market economics—that all persons are free to offer labor in exchange for wages that can be spent as one wishes—postulates that economic justice is ensured by making such a system work efficiently. Does it? Well, not exactly!
Theoretical flaws and their practical results
Current social conditions often diminish opportunities for all individuals to participate equally in these approaches to economic justice. The theoretical bases for economics are morally significant because claims of unjust hindrances to fair access to productive resources, meaningful employment, education, and to fair distribution of wealth, are a constant refrain in our nation. If I may say so, many people today would say that the economic music in our land is off-key! They are crying for the wealthy to hear and respond to their claims of economic discord. Let me illustrate the situation by focusing on one current method of wealth accumulation.
The doorway to unrealized capital gains
In the fourth quarter of 2022, more than sixty-eight percent of the total wealth in the United States was owned by the top ten percent of earners. Conversely, the lowest fifty percent of earners owned only three percent of the nation's total wealth. [1] Research shows that the rich are increasingly growing richer, while the poor are growing poorer. The poor work hard but do not realize the same profits that the wealthy do. The system created by Adam Smith does not work equally for all.

I am certainly not an economist; however, it does not take such training and expertise to realize that the old Japanese proverb, “Money grows on the tree of persistence” does not apply equally to all people! In plain language, the poor are not generally underproductive or lazy regarding the house of prosperity; instead, they are not clearly guided to the doorway of economic flourishing.
Consider that the vast amount of wealth gained in the United States is not “earned” by persistent work, but enlarged through “unrealized capital gains” on investments. The dividends earned on most stock investments, for example, are not taxable if a person does not sell the stock. “Under current law, capital gains are taxable only if the asset generating those gains is sold during the taxpayer’s lifetime; that is, if the gain is ‘realized’ while the owner is alive. Again, this allows investors to watch their assets produce gains for decades without ever having to set aside anything for taxes – unlike regular workers” (italics mine). I am not complaining; only illustrating. Here is the point.

The wealthy do not have to work any harder to grow richer. “Unlike workers, who pay income tax regularly through paycheck withholdings, wealthy investors can enjoy significant increases on their stock and other property holdings for many years without having to pay tax until they sell their assets. These unrealized capital gains make up 43 percent of all extreme wealth.” [2] Eighty-six percent of the wealth in the United States is owned by white, non-hispanic families. In contrast, Blacks own only three percent of the wealth. Black, brown, and indigenous communities have been systemically marginalized. [3] Simple values regarding both wealth-building and principles of economic prosperity are many times not instilled or utilized in low-income families.
We need economic "watchmen on the wall"
Ezekiel 3:17-19
Truly, economic justice concerns are more pervasive than fair access and distribution alone. Individual character (e.g., moral integrity and just dealings in action; see above); personal and corporate actions (conformity to moral right, or to reason, or truth; fairness in economic dealings); and laws (e.g., fair or just laws that conform to moral right or a standard of fairness; vindication of right by assignment or reward or punishment and requital of desert) are also rightly part of this discussion. Much corruption exists in our economy, and it is detrimental to the common good.
Additionally, questions should also arise concerning our economic responsibilities to those who are unable to work (orphaned children, elderly, and physically & mentally disabled). Overall, the subject of economics invites careful Christian ethical examination and action. Here is where the church enters the picture.
A biblical model
Paul directs Timothy to lay the groundwork for the church’s beneficent ministry which included guidance on those who qualified for it (1 Timothy 5). Christians, who are linked together in Christ, have a moral duty toward one another that may be summed up in the word “family” (5:1-2). All within the church, young and old alike, were to be treated as family members (5:1-2, e.g. “fathers,” “brothers,” “sisters,” and “mothers”). He then narrows the focus to older widows (5:3-8), and younger widows (5:9-16), and the duties of their nuclear families to care for them so as not to become a burden upon the church (5:16). All of this community guidance and responsibility for one another is good to know, but there is more to consider.
Paul lays down some moral ministry guidelines for those who had genuine needs (5:3, “truly widows”; 5:4, 8, biological family duty to care for widowed mothers; 5:5-7, 9, “above reproach” and virtuous; 5:13-16, “idlers,” etc). People, regardless of whether they are giving to help or receiving the help, have responsibilities to one another as members of God’s family. Paul’s approach to meeting the physical needs of the helpless was not groundbreaking (see Acts 6:1; cf. also James 1:27). There had been a longstanding moral duty in place to provide total care--spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical—for the impoverished (see Matthew 6:1-4; cf. shalom).

Here is my thought: The general welfare of the church did not require universal welfare! Let me be clear. Beneficence was never intended to be provided without the aid of the Word of God, Spirit-guided discernment, and church deliberation. Sound principles of human flourishing were part and parcel of total Christian discipleship. They should be a key part of Christian moral training today.

Some Christian Steps Forward

First, Christians should carefully examine and remove systemic economic injustices. It appears right to judge the perceived failings of the poor or even to resist governmental interventions, regulations, or welfare programs, when viewed through the lens of the above-described economic theories. However well-intended the theories may be, they hold implications for human dignity and life’s sanctity. A “we get what we deserve” view of the poor often blinds us to the social conditions that are truly unfavorable to them, and that genuinely hinder their access to life’s important goods, thus robbing the poor of their dignity (e.g., housing, employment, and education; See Amos 5:24).
Secondly, principles of Christian justice need to be voiced into secular culture. The classical understanding of justice (Aristotle) seeks to “treat similar cases similarly” and “give to each what is due.” The equality of each moral agent is implied in both phrases, but there is no clear way to determine which cases are to be treated similarly or, indeed, how the cases should be treated at all! Furthermore, to “give to each what is due” does not specify the method of distribution (cf. various approaches by Marx [need] Mill [greatest happiness of many], Nozick [exchange], and Rawls [structuring society to benefit disadvantaged]).
Furthermore, challenges to the application of universal secular standards of justice exist. Something more is needed. Psalm 24 provides a different understanding of ownership of goods and their fair distribution (“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”). God’s purposes for the world also include a more encompassing concept of justice than the philosophical tradition, and offers both care and community (Hebrew shalom, peace/harmony of wholeness; mishpat, justice/right; and sedakah, right/righteousness). (See 1 Timothy 5 above.)
Thirdly, we must sharpen Christian discipleship in our homes and churches to include clear stewardship principles, models, and guidance. The American Fathers did not possess a vision “that everyone is equal in natural ability and opportunity, but that all are created equal . . . in dignity and humanity in relation to the Creator” (cf. Genesis 1:26-31). Their concept of justice reflected true Enlightenment reasoning. However nobly phrased, the vision of a truly just and prosperous society will not be attained through civil ends alone.
It is also true that all are equally fallen in relation to God and each other (Gen 3:7-24). God’s love and justice incorporates the need for redemption and reconciliation with Him and each other. Justice is not simply concerned with economic systems; it is also a virtue to be cultivated. “Just” also means an inner quality that leads to right attitudes and actions (a radical transformation to God’s economy; cf. Matthew 6: 19-25).

The Scripture plainly teaches that the only hope for true and lasting justice and righteousness is in God’s righteousness, Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1; see Rom 3:21-26; 1 Pet 3:18; Rom 8:10; 10:3-4). He transforms our lives both to see the world and act within it according to His justice and righteousness (Matthew 5:6; 6:19-34). Herein lies true wealth from a Christian perspective.

Lastly, Christians who practice economic justice recognize that just (right) dealings will go beyond the handing out of goods according to a principle of just deserts. They will also recognize and root out oppressive systems, as well as provide fair access to productive resources (e.g., land, money, and knowledge).

Churches will actively engage in providing help for the homeless (e.g., Habitat for Humanity), meaningful employment for the helpless (e.g., community job banks), and educational advantages for the disadvantaged (e.g., computer literacy and sound financial investment training).

True ease of access to economic opportunity for all who can work is an important first step toward economic justice, but such fairness must also extend to those who are unable to provide for themselves (e.g., widowed, orphaned, abandoned, mentally ill).


Will Rogers, the actor and folk humorist, once said, “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.” Sadly, the current plight of the poor causes serious Christians not to see the humor in the quip. Rather than folding hard-earned dollars in half, we do well to help the poor apply them in ways that lead to genuine shalom for their families.

Scripture is replete with passages that speak directly to God’s will for the care of the poor and helpless (e.g., Exodus 23: 10-11; Leviticus 19:9-10, 25:47-53; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Ruth 2; James 1: 27). A holistic ethic of care recognizes God’s economy in all of life and extends His Kingdom principles to include meeting the deepest needs of all persons. Thoughtful Christians model this spiritual economy and teach others to do the same.

Larry Ashlock
*Pastor Kevin Cox, a Ph.D. student in Christian Ethics at B.H. Carroll Theological Seminary has written an excellent Bible Study/"Position Paper" on the topic of economic equality and Christian responsibility based upon 2 Corinthians 8-9. Click here to download a copy.