In our last post we saw that, in God’s justice, he is particularly concerned with defending the rights of the most vulnerable in society. Particularly, the poor, widows, the fatherless and the immigrant. In this post we will focus on the first category, the poor.
One of the most commonly held misconceptions in the history of the world is that wealth is a sign of divine favor. The belief that wealth is somehow a sign that God (or “the gods”) is happy with you has been common since the beginning of time. In our own day, this takes the form of the prosperity gospel, which boldly proclaims that health and wealth are a sign of divine favor. This ideology was implicit in the rebukes given to Job by his friends, and it stood behind many of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees. Jesus told the crowds that one cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13). When the Pharisees heard this, they “were sneering at him” (Luke 16:14). Why? Luke bluntly explained the reason, they loved money! They believed that they were in God’s favor because they were wealthy, so Jesus told them that their values were “detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). Ultimately, this exchange led into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Among the many things that Jesus does in this brilliant parable is turn any ideas of prosperity theology on their head. The rich man had it good in the present life, so one would have expected him to be in God’s favor. Lazarus had it as bad as a person could have it, so one might have thought that God did not like him. But the afterlife had a dramatic reversal. Lazarus experienced bliss in the company of Abraham, whereas the rich man was in conscious torment. This parable gives us a dramatic picture. Like any parable, we are not meant to milk the details for literal truth, but the point is clear, wealth does not mean one is in favor with God, and it very well might mean the opposite.
Why is it so important that we expose this false teaching? This is because, if we think poverty is a sign of divine disfavor, we will think we are not to interfere with God’s will. We may as well hoard our divine favor (money) and let the poor sweat it out. One of the more misunderstood teachings of Jesus is “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11). This statement is sometimes used to justify the notion that we should not be concerned about poverty because it will still exist no matter what we do. Conveniently, Matthew’s Gospel is quoted rather than the parallel in Mark, which adds a clarifying point “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).
John’s Gospel gives us a little more information on what was going on. Mary of Bethany had poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feed. Judas complained that this perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. He raised this issue not because he cared about the poor, but because he wanted an opportunity to help himself to the money it might have made (John 12:1-7). What most people who quote Jesus out of context do not realize is that He was referencing the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy 15:11 says “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Rather than giving an excuse for not caring for the poor, the reality that there will always be poor is the very reason God’s people must always give generously to them. Jesus was affirming the need to care for the poor but letting the disciples know there would be a lifetime for that after he had ascended into heaven. On the night Mary anointed Him, His impending death was the focal issue.
Because there is so much biblical data about the poor, we will cover this subject in two blogs. In this blog, we will focus primarily on what the Old Testament says about the poor, and the next blog will look more closely at the New Testament. As we consider this data, it is important that we prayerfully allow God’s Word to speak to us. It is a great temptation to try to make the Bible fit our modern day assumptions, but God calls us to let Him cleanse us of any assumptions and ideas that are not consistent with His holy character and will (Rom 12:1-2)
God’s People are Responsible to Care for the Poor
Many contemporary Christians seem to believe it is not their responsibility to care for the poor. Largely, this stems from an over-reaction to socialism and the social Gospel. Socialism’s most successful and influential manifestation, Marxist Communism, denies the existence of God altogether, and views any form of religion as part of the problem. Karl Marx, himself, famously said, “religion is the opiate of the masses (or ‘people’).” Marx meant that religion is a distraction used by the powerful to keep the masses focused on the afterlife so that they do not violently overthrow their oppressors in the present life. Obviously, this dynamic cannot be harmonized in any way with biblical Christianity. The social gospel, on the other hand, is a false teaching that masquerades as a form of Christianity. It denies the need for personal salvation from an eternal hell and tries to redefine biblical salvation in terms of salvation from political or economic oppression in the current life. This, too, it totally incompatible with biblical Christianity.
What many Christians fail to recognize, unfortunately, is that one can believe in the necessity of personal faith in Christ for salvation, and an afterlife of heaven for believers and hell for the lost, AND believe that it is the responsibility of God’s people to care for the poor to the best of their abilities. The same Bible that teaches us about salvation commands us to care for the poor – not as a way of being saved, but as part of the good works that are a result of salvation.
The Old Testament Law and the Poor
In the previous blog, we discussed that the Christian is not under the Law of Moses as a system, but we must recognize that it reveals the heart and righteousness of God. Therefore, we would do well to understand how it has important applications for contemporary life. On the one hand, the Law gives us specific statements about the proper attitude toward the poor. On the other hand, a more thorough examination reveals that the economic dimensions of the Law, if followed, made thorough provision for the poor.
We have already mentioned the command to give generously to the poor in Deuteronomy 15:11. The context of this passage was the required seven-year debt cancellation that God had designed for Israel. People were allowed to lend and borrow money, but every seven years, all debt would be forgiven. The well off might be tempted to withhold from the poor if it was getting close to the forgiveness year, recognizing that they would probably not get the money back. The Lord anticipated this problem, and commanded them to be generous anyway:
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:7-11).
Commenting on this passage, Eugene Merrill explains:
“Granted the existence of the poor, the attitude toward them must be one of softness of heart and openness of hand (vv. 7–8). That is, true charity consists of compassion at work. The real test of commitment to this principle would be the brother who asked for help at the last hour, just before the time of debt cancellation or suspension of payment came about (v. 9a). To lend to him then would likely be tantamount to making him an outright gift inasmuch as he would have little or no time left to pay back the loan. In such circumstances the tendency would be not to make a loan at all and to let the needy brother go unsatisfied. 15:9b–11 Such a response, however, is not at all appropriate for a kingdom citizen. Not only might the offended and neglected brother make appeal to the Lord, who is concerned about the plight of all his people (v. 9b), but the very attitude of stinginess is unbecoming to one who claims to be a servant of the Lord.”
Another area of concern for the poor in the Law was in the courtroom. God gave several commands for justice not to be perverted for the poor. The Law also recognized the danger of partiality in favor of the poor but this seems to be a lesser concern because partiality for the poor would come from sympathy for their difficulties, whereas partiality for the rich would come from a more tangible motivation, bribes.
Leviticus 19:15 gives us the broader justice principle, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Clearly, any partiality of justice in the courtroom was a perversion of justice. Exodus 23:6-8 addresses the greater danger: “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8 “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent.” Deuteronomy 16:29 addresses the same principle: “Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.”
In addition to specific commands concerning generosity and justice for the poor, the entire economy of the Law of Moses was designed to make provision for the poor. The ancient Nation of Israel was a theocracy, meaning that God was the ultimate ruler. Even in the days of the kings, human kings were merely his subordinate rulers. While the New Testament believer does not live in these specific conditions, and is not under the Law, there are many valuable principles from the heart of God that we see in the overall set up of God’s economic principles, and that we would do well to make application of in our own lives, our churches, and, to the degree that we have such influence, in our societies.
Alva McClain gave a superb treatment of this subject in his classic work The Greatness of the Kingdom. In the section titled “The Economic Aspect of the Historical Kingdom,” he overviews the basic principles and practices which, if actually followed, would have encouraged hard work and industry while also making sure that the needs of the poor were always met. McClain writes:
“Now the approach of the Mosaic law to the matter of wealth and its distribution is both novel and realistic. It envisioned no perfect utopia in which all men would be equal in ability and possessions. On the contrary, there was frank recognition of the perennial nature of the economic problem of a sinful race, even under the beneficent rule of the kingdom of God on earth: “for the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11). This is not a laissex faire form of economic fatalism, but simply one price a society must pay for human freedom…Historically, no perfect way has ever been found to reconcile personal liberty with complete economic equality; the reason being that the root of the problem is man himself, and consequently individual action is never wholly predictable. The law of the historical kingdom accepted these facts of life and laid down its rule accordingly. Since men could not be left wholly free and at the same time be fully protected from their own economic follies, certain provisions were established to safeguard them in the exercise of their economic rights and also to ameliorate some of the inequalities arising therefrom.”
The provisions that McClain speaks of can be summarized as follows.
- Allotment of land to every family in Israel. While this land could be temporarily sold to another for economic need, no person had the right to permanently sale the land allotted to their family. Every fifty years, Israel was to celebrate a “year of Jubilee” (Lev 25) in which all land would be restored to the original family. This practice allowed for industrious individuals to acquire land temporarily for personal profit, while ensuring that the wealth of those individuals did not increase in an unchecked way and create generational poverty for other families.
- Field gleaning. Ancient Israel was primarily an agrarian society. Both wealth and food generally came from crops. When fields were harvested, the corners of the field were to be left of the poor. Likewise, in vineyards, the owner was commanded to leave some fruit on the vine, and not to pick up fallen grapes. (Lev 19:9-10). Likewise, if a bundle of wheat was dropped by accident, God commanded that it be left for the poor and olive trees were to be left partially unharvested (Deut 24:19-22). All of these provisions were set in place to make sure that the poor and needy would always have enough to eat. McClain observes that this was not a simple handout. God recognized that the welfare of the poor included them being allowed to participate in procuring their food, thus preserving their pride and preventing laziness. While the age or disability of some may have prevented their participation, it was the responsibility of their family members to gather for them (Ruth 2:2). From this practice we see that God recognized that poverty in the land would be a reality, but set a program in place to make sure that the poor would always have enough to eat, and the opportunity to work for their food if they were able.
- Seven-year debt forgiveness. Every seventh year, all debts in the land would be cancelled. Those with money to lend were forbidden from withholding help from the poor, especially if the year of forgiveness was close (Deut 15:1-11). This practice prevented people from getting into insurmountable debt, and kept the wealthy from creating generational poverty through keeping the poor in lifelong debt.
As we understand these laws, we must keep in mind that they were set in an ancient culture and theocratic kingdom, and it is not possible to simple pluck them from their context and plug them directly into a contemporary context. But this does not mean that we cannot glean (pun intended) important principles that reveal the heart of God and can be given application in contemporary society. A few of these principles are the following:
- The danger of the rich exploiting the poor is real.
- Generational poverty is a real danger, and it is displeasing to God.
- God’s people are not only commanded not to abuse the poor, but to be generous to them.
- The heart of God is for every member of society to have enough to eat.
- God’s people should openhandedly to the poor because they recognize everything they have comes from Him.
The Book of Proverbs and the Poor
The proper treatment of the poor is a major theme in Proverbs. While some passages talk about poverty as a consequence for laziness or sin (20:13, 21:17, 23:21)), the book also recognizes that poverty is often caused or increased by oppression. It is equally clear that God is angry when the poor are abused, either through stinginess or oppression. There are many examples, but a few will serve to illustrate the perspective of the writers:
“An unplowed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away” (13:23).
“It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy” (14:21).
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (14:31)
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (19:17).
“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” (21:13).
“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will exact life for life” (22:22-23).
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (29:7).
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9).
These statements show us that God expects His people to be generous to the poor. In doing so, they honor Him, and He will honor them in return. Those who neglect of abuse the poor will have consequences from the One who created both the rich and poor (22:2).
The Prophets and the Poor
The Old Testament Prophets primarily addressing the people of Israel and Judah, calling them to honor their covenant relationship with God by obeying his Law, and warning them of the covenant curses God would bring on the if they persisted in disobedience. Among the primary concerns of the Prophets was the abuse and neglect of the poor. This general theme permeates the Prophets, but again, a few examples will illustrate the general perspective:
“The Lord takes his place in court;
he rises to judge the people.
The Lord enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?’
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty” (Isa 3:14-15).
those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.
for all this, his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised” (Isa 10:1-4).
“In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezek 22:12).
levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil” (Amos 5:11-13).
this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done” (Amos 8:4-7).
Against the background of the Mosaic Law and the book of Proverbs, we see that the nobility of Israel and Judah were judged, in part, because they had sinned grievously against the poor. The book of Amos is particularly significant because it provides details of systematic abuses. The poor were abused because the justice system was riddled with bribery, and because the landowning class taxed everything the poor had so that they could build great mansions and vineyards for themselves. Many contemporary Christians are uncomfortable when we begin to speak of systemic injustices, but they are a reality in the world of the Old Testament, and we have no reason to think that a sinful world has changed. We see injustice carried out in many systems in modern day nations, to whom the words or Amos ring out clearly. It is easy for American Christians to see injustice in Marxist dictatorships, but much harder to take a closer look at our own back yard.
An unfortunate trick of the devil in the United States of America is his (very successful) attempt to get Christians to think of wealth and poverty in terms of their personal politics. The effect this has is that when anyone talks about things like systemic injustice, generational poverty, have one of two reactions. Either they water down the gospel of salvation in favor of social justice concerns, or they boldly proclaim that hard work and personal responsibility will prevent poverty, so it is not our problem. Hard work and personal responsibility are certainly biblical values which we must all embrace, but the Old Testament screams at us that these things alone do not prevent poverty. Further, God’s heart of compassion, as revealed in His Law, shows us that past mistakes do not take away the right to eat. God’s plan for ancient Israel was that there always be enough food for everyone, and that it be shared with everyone. We will see all of these basic values mirrored in the commands of the New Testament.
Exactly how each believer will live out God’s heart for the poor is something each must prayerfully consider. The main thing I want to emphasize in the blog is that if we are followers of Jesus Christ, it is our problem! We must give generously. We must share, and we must make it our business to help the poor have what they need. I believe this starts in our churches. When we find out about each other’s needs, we don’t just pray, we do what we can to provide. One of my greatest joys as a pastor was seeing three men in our church with construction skills rebuild a kitchen for a family that had had a house fire. From our churches, I believe God would have us extend help to our communities. I believe that caring for the needy around us can create a powerful bridge for the gospel (cf. Matt 5:13-14). As resources allow, we should then reach out to the international community. As difficult as our financial problems may seem, the world ifs full of people in greater need.
The Old Testament also calls us to take seriously the realities of
systemic injustices that perpetuate poverty. In a representative government, we
have an opportunity to challenge our representatives to address these problems
with just laws. The Old Testament prophets make very clear that God’s people should
be very concerned with just laws. Instead of simply dividing concern over political
lines, perhaps we can think creatively about how things like gleaning laws,
sabbatical debt release years, and the Year of Jubilee, could have an influence
on the way we think about modern day economics. How can we make sure the poor
are provided for while giving them an opportunity to work and take responsibility?
This might require a radical reshaping of thought for almost everyone, but if
we as Christians make it our business, perhaps it will become a powerful opportunity
for the gospel. Better minds than mine would need to work out the specifics,
but in a world torn asunder by different perspectives on poverty and responsibility,
perhaps God’s ancient wisdom can help us find a better way that no one is
currently talking about.
 Note: there is no claim here that all socialism is Marxist communism. There are many other forms.
 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom: An Inductive Study of the Kingdom of God (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959), 75-81.
 Ibid., 75-76.
 Ibid., 77.
 The contemporary use of the word “systemic” can be confusing because sometimes it is used as a biological metaphor, as though injustice in intrinsic to every aspect of a given society, just as a disease might affect an entire body. This is not the use in which I am using the word. Rather, I am using “systemic” to describe injustice that operates in systems such as the legal system, justice system, taxation system, etc.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 addresses a situation where those who were able to work stubbornly refused to do so. As we have seen, gleaning laws gave the poor opportunities to work.