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Saturday, July 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:33 AM

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Rich or poor, it's righteousness that really matters

Special to The Seattle Times

There is a tremendous spiritual lesson to be learned when the world's two richest people give away much of their wealth to help others in need.

In 2000, the world's richest person, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, launched the Gates Foundation to focus on strengthening education, reducing poverty and improving public health, with a special emphasis on HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. He has since given $29 billion of his own assets to charities, including $23 billion to the Gates Foundation, making it the world's largest philanthropic organization. Gates also recently announced he would be ending his full-time role at Microsoft in 2008 so that the majority of his time could be focused on the foundation.

Gates' friend of 15 years and the second-richest person in the world, Warren Buffett, recently announced he will be contributing roughly $31 billion to the Gates Foundation. Buffett will be joining the Gates Foundation board, helping to ensure that the resources are wisely stewarded and that as many people as possible are helped.

From a spiritual perspective, their generosity illustrates an important biblical truth. Sadly, wealth is often viewed through the erroneous lenses of either prosperity or poverty theology. In prosperity theology, God loves rich people more than he loves poor people, as evidenced by his blessing. In poverty theology, God loves poor people more than he loves rich people, who are vilified as greedy thieves.

The problem with both these theologies is that they make money the issue. The real issue is not money but righteousness. There are not two kinds of people — rich and poor — but four kinds of people: the righteous rich, the unrighteous rich, the righteous poor and the unrighteous poor.

The righteous rich became rich because God blessed them; they worked hard, invested smart and did not obtain wealth through sin like stealing or taking advantage of others. Such people spend their money righteously, generously sharing their abundance with those in need. I do not know the religious convictions of Gates or Buffett, but their generosity is an example of rich people acting in a righteous manner.

The unrighteous rich are people who obtain wealth through sinful means such as stealing and extorting. They spend their money in sinful ways and do little if anything to help people in need. The most legendary biblical example is Judas Iscariot, who stole money from Jesus' ministry fund.

The righteous poor are people who work hard for the little money they have, spend it wisely and share their pittance with others in need. Jesus is the most obvious biblical example of someone who was both righteous and poor.

The unrighteous poor are people with little or no money because they are lazy or spend foolishly. They do not give to God or others. The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about such people, calling them "fools" and "sluggards."

When the issue of money is framed as rich and poor instead of righteous and unrighteous, we are allowing politics and economics rather than spiritual wisdom to dominate our thinking. The generosity of Gates and Buffett is an opportunity for each of us to evaluate whether we are acting righteously with how we obtain and dispense the little or great wealth we have.

Pastor Mark Driscoll is founder of the nondenominational Mars Hill Church in Ballard. He and four other columnists — the Rev. Patrick J. Howell, Rabbi Mark S. Glickman, the Rev. Patricia L. Hunter and Aziz Junejo — take turns writing for the Faith & Values page. Readers may send feedback to faithpage@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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