Sunday, August 05, 2012
Thoughts on What the Bible Teaches About the Poor
A few thoughts from my study of physical (not spiritual) poverty in the Bible (here):
Who are the Poor?
Roughly I would say that a biblical definition of "the poor" would be those people without personal resources and without family or friends to help. I say this because, when speaking of the poor, the Bible so frequently refers to widows, orphans and aliens (or strangers or sojourners) as examples of the poor.
For example: Exodus 22:22, Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deuteronomy 24:17, Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 26:12, Deuteronomy 27:19, Ruth 1:5, 1 Kings 17:9-24, 2 Kings 4:1-7, Psalm 68:5, Psalm 94:6, Psalm 146:7,9, Proverbs 15:25, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 1:23, Isaiah 10:1-2, Jeremiah 5:28, Jeremiah 7:6-7, Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 22:7, Ezekiel 22:29, Zechariah 7:10, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 23:14, Matthew 25:35-40, Matthew 25:41-46, Mark 12:41-44, Luke 4:25-26, Luke 20:47, Luke 21:2-4, Acts 6:1-3, 1 Timothy 5:3-5, 1 Timothy 5:9-10, 1 Timothy 5:11-14, 1 Timothy 5:8-16, James 1:27.
While it is true that there may be rich widows, orphans and aliens, the idea appears to be that we should have particular compassion upon those who, when they fall upon hard times, do not have family or friends to support them. The widow (especially in Biblical times) was without a husband to support her; the orphan was without parents to support him or her; and the alien is away from his or her town or culture, friends and family, who might otherwise be counted upon for support in time of trouble.
How Do People Become Poor?
Those who argue that people's poverty is simply because of "oppression" or "injustice" are partly right, as are those who say that poverty is the fault of poor people because of their laziness or bad decisions. The Bible says that either of these explanations may be right, but that there is another reason as well - circumstances, which involve no guilt on anybody's part. Examples are famine, widowhood or becoming an orphan. So ...
- Loss of a natural support system. I mentioned widows and orphans above. Those very labels suggest the cause of poverty. A woman (especially in biblical times) whose husband has died, or a child without parents, is very likely to be poor.
- Not working (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, 2 Thessalonians 3:12). And, more specifically: laziness (Proverbs 6:6-11, Proverbs 12:24, Proverbs 19:15, Proverbs 20:4, Proverbs 21:25-26, Proverbs 24:30-34), negligence and lack of discipline (Proverbs 10:3-5, Proverbs 13:18), chasing fantasies (Proverbs 12:11, Proverbs 28:19), being all talk (Proverbs 14:23), over-sleeping (Proverbs 20:13), heavy drinking, gluttony, drowsiness (Proverbs 23:21).
- Other causes. Foresaking God/sin (Deuteronomy 28:20-44, Proverbs 13:21, Proverbs 13:25, Isaiah 30:20, Jeremiah 8:10, Jeremiah 17:5), famine (Genesis 47:13-26, Nehemiah 5:1-13), taxes (Nehemiah 5:1-13), usury (Nehemiah 5:1-13), injustice (Proverbs 13:23, Micah 2:1-2, Micah 3:2-3), a curse (Genesis 27:39 - although it is a bit unclear to me whether this is the cause of poverty, or simply a prediction of poverty), refusing to accept advice (Proverbs 10:21).
Why Do People Stay Poor?
It appears people stay poor either because the causes for them becoming poor remain (loss of a support system, not working, etc.), or because once they become poor they are easy to bully and mistreat.
The Bible really comes down on mistreatment.
Don't oppress the poor. (Exodus 22:22, Leviticus 19:13, Proverbs 22:16, Proverbs 22:22-23, Ecclesiastes 4:1, Ecclesiastes 5:8, Jeremiah 7:6-7, Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 18:7 & 16-17, Ezekiel 18:12, Ezekiel 22:7, Ezekiel 22:29, Amos 4:1, Amos 5:11-12, Amos 8:4, Zechariah 7:10, Malachi 3:5)
Do not: charge them interest (Leviticus 25:35-36, Nehemiah 5:1-13), shut your eyes to their need (Proverbs 28:27), pervert justice for the poor or deprive them of justice (Deuteronomy 24:17, Deuteronomy 27:19, Proverbs 13:23, Isaiah 10:1-2, Amos 5:11-12, Malachi 3:5), burden them with [high?] taxes (Nehemiah 5:1-13), murder them (Job 24:14, Jeremiah 2:34), mock them (Proverbs 17:5), rob them (Proverbs 22:22-23), be shocked if you see them oppressed by government officials (Ecclesiastes 5:8), ignore the widow's plea (Isaiah 1:23), plunder the poor and grind their faces (Isaiah 3:14-15), let them go hungry or thirsty (Isaiah 32:6), drive workers hard (Isaiah 58:3), hold neighbors in servitude (Jeremiah 34:15-17), deny them what you do not need (Ezekiel 34:18-21), charge them high rent (Amos 5:11-12), buy them (Amos 8:6), seize all a person's possessions (Micah 2:1-2, Micah 3:2-3), defraud the wage earner (Malachi 3:5).
Should Christians Help the Poor?
Help them with money and other assistance. 1 Kings 18:4, 2 Kings 4:38, Psalm 112:9, Proverbs 3:27-28, Proverbs 11:24-26, Proverbs 14:20-21, Proverbs 19:17, Proverbs 28:27, Isaiah 58:10, Matthew 19:21-22, Matthew 25:35-40, Mark 10:21-22, Luke 3:11, Luke 11:40-41, Luke 12:33-34, Luke 18:22-23, Luke 19:8, John 13:29, Acts 3:2-8, Acts 11:28-30, Acts 20:33-35, Romans 15:25-27, 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, 1 Timothy 5:8, 1 Timothy 5:9-10, 1 Timothy 5:8-16, 1 Timothy 6:17-18, Titus 3:14, Hebrews 13:16, 1 John 3:17, Psalm 72:4, Psalm 72:12-14.
Other help. By nightfall, return a poor man's cloak who leaves it as security for a loan (Exodus 22:26-27, Deuteronomy 24:10-15), pay a poor worker's wages daily (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:10-15), include the poor in your planning (Psalm 41:1, Galatians 2:10), be concerned about the rights of the poor (Proverbs 29:7, Jeremiah 22:16), Since God Himself accepts lesser-cost offerings from the poor (Leviticus 5:7,11 and Leviticus 27:8) maybe we should give them a bit of a price break, don't be too thorough in harvesting your fields, leave some for the poor (Leviticus 19:9, Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21), the tithe every third year is partly for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deuteronomy 26:12), the poor may sell themselves into temporary servitude (Genesis 47:13-26, Leviticus 25:39-43), a relative should buy back the land of a poor person (Leviticus 25:25), a poor Israelite sold into servitude to a foreigner has the right to be bought back by one of his brothers (Leviticus 25:47-54), all debts and servitude is ended at the Jubilee every seven years (Leviticus 25:25, Deuteronomy 15:1-18), kings should look out for the poor (Psalm 72:4, Psalm 72:12-14, Proverbs 31:8-9), King Lemuel says that alcohol is for the poor whose life is bitter and need to forget (Proverbs 31:6-7), visit and associate with the poor (Romans 12:16, James 1:27), forgive debts (Matthew 18:23-34).
The Bible leaves a clear place for governmental involvement in helping the poor. The main way it can help is to give them fair treatment under the law. I believe the Bible talks so much about justice for the poor not because they deserve justice and the rich do not, but because the rich have the resources to make sure they have a good lawyer, and they have money to hire a burly bodyguard if they need one, while the poor do not, and thus the poor are more easily taken advantage of. King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:8-9) says kings, who are a government officials, should speak for those who can't and defend them, and the psalmist asks the king to vindicate the afflicted and save the children of the needy (Psalm 72:4) and for the king to have compassion on the poor and rescue them from oppression (Psalm 72:12-14). So clearly it is the government's duty to provide honest and fair judgements to the poor.
But is there a role for the government to provide, for example, direct physical assistance to the poor? Well, the Old Testament rules often combine governmental and religious law, and it is true that much of the Old Testament law has been superceeded, so there is room for debate, but it appears from Joseph's experience in Egypt (Genesis 47:13-26) that God did not object to Joseph saving the people from starvation by using government resources, although in that case he was not giving away government food, but selling it.
However, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and Deuteronomy 26:12, the law provided that every third year the tithe will go to support the priestly class, the Levites, but also to support the widow, orphan, and alien, which terms I believe - as indicated above - are used to indicate the poor.
So, if a tithe is a tenth of a person's income and this tithe occurs every third year, this was essentially a 3.33% tax per year to support the priests and the poor. This is an interesting concept because one of the concerns many people have with governmental assistance programs is that these programs so frequently grow to become unmanageable. But if governmental assistance to needy people was limited to a fixed percentage of the nation's income - as is the case with this example - this ceases to be a big problem. If income grows, the contribution grows; if income declines, the contribution declines. And, yes, if income declines the poor would be hurt most, though everybody else would also be hurt. So, I don't mean to suggest that this fixed-percentage approach is (or was) a panacea; if it was then there would have been no need in the Bible to also tell individuals - and later the Church - to help the poor.
Dignity of the Poor
One thing that struck me about giving assistance to the poor is the lengths the Bible goes to to preserve their dignity. For example, the Bible tells farmers not to be too efficient in harvesting their crops (Leviticus 19:9, Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21), but to leave a bit here and there and around the edges and corners for the poor to gather. What strikes me about this is that the poor needed to get up and get out into the field and harvest just like the farmer's field hands. Or take the example of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-16). Though poverty-stricken, Elijah asked her to do some work and make a sacrifice (use her flour to bake him a loaf of bread). She did and God responded by giving her plentiful flour and oil. Or, in 2 Kings 4:1-7, Elisha tells the poor widow to do some work, that is, to gather empty jars. She did that and God provided her with plenty of oil to sell and repay her debts. I certainly don't think that every act of kindness to the poor should only be in response to the poor doing something, but this formula appears frequently enough that I am inclined to think that an effort by the poor is generally an excellent idea. There is a dignity in labor.
Also, notice that when making a loan to a poor person who uses his cloak for security (Exodus 22:26-27, Deuteronomy 24:10-15), the Bible tells the lender to return the cloak by nightfall so the borrower can keep warm. That seems rather inefficient; why bother accepting the cloak as security if you're just going to hand it back in a few hours? Well, perhaps by accepting the cloak, the poor borrower is being given the dignity of being treated like the better-off borrower, except that the lender drops by near sundown and says, "Oh, hiya, Fred. Looks like it might get a little chilly tonight and I thought you might put this cloak to good use. Not doing me any good in my closet."
And finally, note how strongly James (James 2:2-6) insists on treating the poor who come to church the same as the wealthy. If you give the rich special treatment that you do not give to the poor, (vs,4) "have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?"
How the Church Can Help the Poor
The New Testament teaches that Christians, individually and as the Church, should be generous to the poor (Matthew 5:42, Matthew 18:23-34, Matthew 5:42, Matthew 15:5, Matthew 19:21-22, Matthew 25:35-40, Matthew 25:41-46, Mark 10:21-22, Luke 3:11, Luke 11:40-41, Luke 12:33-34, Luke 14:33, Luke 18:22-23, Luke 19:8, Acts 3:2-8, Acts 20:33-35, Romans 15:25-27, 2 Corinthians 8:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, 1 Timothy 6:17-18, Titus 3:14, Hebrews 13:16, James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17) and that they should do so without fanfare (Matthew 6:2-4), and that they should forgive their debts (Matthew 18:23-34).
Also, Christians should not intentionally become poor themselves, so as not to be a burden (Paul says if people refuse to work they shouldn't be fed. - 2 Thessalonians 3:12).
Paul urges that primarily assistance to the poor should be provided by relatives (1 Timothy 5:3-5, 1 Timothy 5:8, 1 Timothy 5:8-16) so that the church can provide assistance to those "widows who are widows indeed." It appears this widow-assistance program was poorly organized at first and the Greek widows were being overlooked (Acts 6:1-3), but was apparently straightened out when the church appointed a team to oversee the process. To be added to the list, widows apparently had to meet stringent qualifications (1 Timothy 5:9-10): They had to be at least 60 years old, have had one husband, a reputation for good works, brought up children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the saints feet, assisted those in distress, and devoted themselves to good works.
I doubt this list exhausted the charity of the church, but I think these were the rules for a poor widow to be continually supported.
Posted by Brad at 8/05/2012 04:36:00 PM