Why Do Some People Prosper Materially While Others Do Not? (Part 1)

The Apostle John reports in John 12:1-8 (NIV) an emotionally touching story of Jesus as He enters the final week before His crucifixion:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

This story has a number of valuable lessons for us. In fact, this passage itself could inspire a series of great sermons. However, there is one phrase in this story which is often overlooked that I want us to consider. It is Jesus’ statement, You will always have the poor among you. Jesus made this statement about 2,000 years ago and it is still just as true today as it was back then. We still have the poor among us. The only difference is there are now more poor living on this planet than there were in Jesus’ day.

Since poor people have walked this earth almost from the beginning of the human race, and they still are among us to this day, we have some challenging questions to consider:

  • Why are we not one of them?
  • Why is it that some people prosper materially while others do not?
  • Why are we rich when most of the rest of the world, by and large, is so poor?

I think these are important questions worth asking, and I think it is even more important that we attempt to answer them from a biblical perspective.

They Must Be Given the Opportunity to Prosper

Of all the times and all the places in the world that you and I could have been born, why were we born at this specific time and place in all of human history? In other words, “Why here? Why now? Why us?” I have had the privilege to travel to many places in the world, and I have personally witnessed levels of abject poverty that are difficult to even observe, much less describe. I have been to places where common workers make $1 a day while skilled workers make $2.50 a day—when they can find the work. There are no pictures or words that adequately capture the depths of poverty these people somehow survive.

Many of these people are very bright, intelligent, and incredibly resourceful—they have to be to even stay alive. Yet their opportunity to succeed in accumulating any material prosperity is zero. Either the form of their government or their culture prevents it from happening.

Tanzania, Africa is no exception. The culture believes strongly in family responsibility. Because of this, if an individual creates a successful business or begins to get ahead financially, relatives he or she has never even met will come out of the woodwork and expect to be supported. These relatives are not looking for a job so much as a handout. It is an attitude that goes so far as to believe that if you have two pairs of socks (or any other thing, for that matter) and I have none, then it is your duty to give me one of them. It is a cultural burden that kills any incentive to get ahead, hindering everyone from doing more than what it takes to merely survive. While I saw this myself in Tanzania, friends have told me it is true of other places in Africa as well.

This is their culture’s social welfare program—an extreme form of communism that is a societal and cultural curse. Unsurprisingly, every financially successful Tanzanian will find that he or she has hundreds of extended family members who are financially destitute. From the time they are small children, the ambitious are trained to think, “Why should I work hard and try to accumulate anything if all I end up doing is giving it away to family members who will never contribute anything to earning it? I might as well spend it as soon as I earn it or not work so hard in the first place.” You see, these cultural mores kill any motivation for a person to get ahead financially even when given the opportunity.

The story of Esther is instructive for us here. Esther, a Jewish girl, providentially becomes Queen of Persia. Haman, a high government official, has launched a plot to exterminate all the Jews in the lands where Persia rules. Esther’s uncle Mordecai learns of the plot and meets with Esther to ask her to intervene to stop the genocide (which would include herself). He puts this crisis and Esther’s providential ascension to Queen of Persia into a larger perspective. In Esther 4:14b (NASB), he says to her, And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?

I have heard it said many times over the years from people we have worked with, “I feel like my whole life has just been preparation for what God wants me to do right now.” Could it be that in God’s wisdom and providence He has provided you an opportunity to attain prosperity for just such a time as this? Could it be the reason God has chosen to place you in this country at this time in human history is because He has a divine purpose for giving you this rare opportunity to succeed financially and to prosper?

Paul tells us in Acts 17:26 (NIV), From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. You see, God has a plan and you are part of the blessing He seeks to extend to others. We are here now, not by our choice or by our own will, but because an almighty, all-wise God created [our] inmost being and knit [us] together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13) so He could bring us into this world for such a time as this. Why have you been blessed with such an incredible opportunity? It is simply a gift.

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