By Mark W. Hamilton
A paradox confronting modern Western Christians is this: we who are rich serve a Lord who was poor. At the first Christmas, Jesus and his family did not hang their stockings by the chimney with care. Instead, they haunted stables and fled their home as refugees. Nor did things improve for the adult Jesus, who survived on the generosity of women who embraced his message of the kingdom.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20); “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25); and “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). These and other pronouncements about money put Jesus at odds with the church that annually celebrates his birth. Sometimes paradoxes hurt.
The pain, however, goes deeper, for millions of today’s Christians live in absolute poverty, lacking enough calories or rudimentary medical care. Millions more live just above that dollar-a-day line at which survival becomes possible, if precarious. And even in the rich West, some believers live as “the homeless” or the nearly so, dishonored, ignored, and shunted to the side.
So, no, the worldwide church does not consist of the rich “us” who must reach out to the poor “them.” Some of us are the poor. And yet the whole church must also ask, how are nonpoor Christians to think about poverty, and how are we to act?
Pushed to the Bottom
The best place to begin is, as always, with the Bible, but to understand the Bible’s numerous references to poverty, we need to be clear: poverty involves more than just economic resources, for money measures social value, among other things. Poverty’s most vicious result is its destruction of social capital. To be poor is to be pushed to the bottom, reduced and silenced and shamed.
This aspect of poverty comes through in the Psalms. Consider, for example, Psalm 25:16 and 19: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. . . . See how numerous are my enemies and how fiercely they hate me.” The word that many translations render as afflicted also means “oppressed” or just “poor,” and is often paralleled with the more common word for “poor” or “needy” (as in Psalm 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22).
Or consider a similar text that appears twice in the Psalms with slight variations, Psalm 40:13-17 and Psalm 70, which speak of foes who harass and taunt the psalmist, who in turn seeks God’s help in an hour of dire need. All these texts describe the social isolation and humiliation that accompany poverty.
How to View Poverty
This realization leads to a larger point, namely it matters how nonpoor Christians conceive of poverty and the Bible’s references to it. Put bluntly, is poverty a punishment for misdeeds, a problem awaiting solutions, or an opportunity to receive divine grace? At some level, all three views can be substantiated from the Bible, though not all equally well.
The first view usually relies on an exaggerated attachment to texts that criticize laziness, as though somehow laziness were the special attribute of the poor rather than a general human tendency.
However, while eliminating the vice of sloth is desirable, and no one should use fancy words to excuse a disinterest in work (see 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12), the more important Christian value appears in a text like Ephesians 4:28, which offers a motivation for work: “that they may have something to share with those in need.”
Christians do not work to amass wealth, but to create an environment of generous sharing with others. Similarly, the various texts in Proverbs that criticize laziness (Proverbs 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30; and 26:13-16) do not address the very poor at all, but rather property owners, and in some cases even the privileged upper classes who were the book’s primary original audience. The biblical writers know that poverty and laziness correlate only in part.
We come, then, to the other two views, both of which have more to commend them. At times, the Bible does seem to see poverty in all its dimensions as a problem to be solved, and at other times as a vehicle for God’s grace.
Now, poverty as a problem to be addressed: attempts to eliminate poverty or at least soften its impact are clearest in the law codes of the Pentateuch. Although Scripture admits that a utopia without suffering may be impossible in this world, it also insists that the poor and nonpoor remain part of the same people, and therefore, brothers and sisters (Deuteronomy 15:11). The nonpoor must be sure to pay wages on time (Deuteronomy 24:12-15) and to leave parts of their fields and vineyards unharvested so that the poor may gather (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22).
In other words, while the Bible allows for private property, it does not imagine that an owner’s rights are absolute, for people live together and have mutual obligations. Nor is this obligation limited to Israelites, for the “alien,” who may or may not be an immigrant, comes under the same rules (see Exodus 20:10; 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10; and many other texts). Believers in the God of the Bible love other human beings because we believe that God sustains the universe through love and makes covenants with and for the human family.
Biblical texts also consider oppression or neglect of the poor to be a grievous sin, worthy of divine wrath or even the destruction of God’s people (Isaiah 3:14, 15; 10:2, 30; Jeremiah 22:16; Amos 2:6-16). Perhaps the most startling of many texts stating such a view is Ezekiel 16:49, which explains the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel (personified as Sodom) by saying, “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
For Ezekiel, and other biblical writers, poverty was a problem to address, not just a fact of nature. Humans created it and humans could repair it. Most importantly, our efforts at repair provide a decisive measure of the quality of our spiritual lives.
This perspective also appears in Jesus’ shocking parable of Lazarus, a beggar, in Luke 16:19-31. In it, Jesus, like the prophets, condemns a rich man for being indifferent to the plight of one Lazarus who lay at his doorstep every day. The Lord says that willful blindness to suffering is an act of mind-boggling oppression. And so the Old Testament perspective on poverty as a malady that believers should address also operates throughout the New Testament.
In short, it is impossible to read the Bible and come away believing that poverty is irrelevant to the spiritual life or that Christians can be justified in doing nothing about it.
But can poverty also be a vehicle of divine grace? This point is much easier for modern Western Christians to miss because it seems so alien to our basic beliefs. Compassion for the unfortunate is one thing, but admitting that “they” have something to teach “us,” or that they might have access to God in a way or to a degree we may not, requires greater imagination than most of us ordinarily use.
Yet a number of biblical texts seem to point to poverty as a state in which God can be known more fully. For Christians, the primary example of this reality comes from the life of Jesus himself, who coupled the splendors of the Godhead with the sufferings of humankind. At a point closer to everyday experience, several texts speak of God becoming present to the poor. (Unfortunately, English translations render these texts in a spiritualized way, changing “poor” to “poor in spirit,” as though external conditions were irrelevant to the status of the heart.)
But consider a text like Zephaniah 3:12, in which God says, “I will leave within you the meek and humble. The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.” Or Psalm 68:10, which says, “Your people settled in it; and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor.” Or Psalm 74:19’s invitation to God not to “forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.” The point is that God’s attention, and therefore God’s grace, falls upon the neediest, so that their invisibility to other human beings is not the final statement about their lives.
Humiliation leads to exaltation, as Mary also knew to pray in the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55, especially v. 53). To be noticed by God, after all, is the final measure of our worth, since God will be the one who defends us from the powers of evil and decides the quality of our lives. Wealth can blind us to the reality of God’s presence in every human being (see the reflections in Job 31).
To pull all this together, then, where do we stand? To engage a world in which many are poor and many are not, and in which poverty is a spiritual as well as a material reality, the church needs approaches that are far more radical and daring. We need to join those who, like our impoverished Master, have no status except that of a human being before God, and no protection from the forces of evil, whether the mockery of the powerful or the violence of a cross. Scripture offers us direction for just such a life.
Mark W. Hamilton serves as professor of Old Testament at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.