Archives For Christianity and the Poor

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the seriesChristianity and the Poor

I’d like to start a series of blog posts dealing with what the Bible says about the poor.

My interest in this topic began a few years back as I was preparing to teach the book of Ezekiel. With much excitement, I got to chapter 16 in my study, which is a rich allegory about God’s grace, and I found myself stunned about two thirds of the way through. If you’re familiar with this chapter, you know that it’s one of those sermons of Ezekiel where he lays into Israel with some hard-hitting words about their sin. The nation is charged with pride, selfishness, idolatry, and even child sacrifice. Their political alliances with other nations are described as prostitution of the most aggressive sort, earning accolades of wickedness that far exceed the city of Sodom—the poster child of depravity.

Sodom! They are worse than Sodom, Ezekiel says.

And then the prophet says why. Now, I must have read this passage a dozen times and never caught the shock (and relevance) of what comes next. I was expecting another sexually charged image of homosexuality or gang rape; after all, this is what readers of Genesis 18 will think of when they anticipate the sin of Sodom. And this is why I was astonished at Ezekiel’s window into Israel’s Sodom-like behavior:

Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. (Ezek 16:49 NLT)

When I first noticed this verse, I was astonished. I immediately thought that Ezekiel had dropped the ball. Think about it. He has offered a scathing review of Israel’s sinful history that has been escalating. He’s gone from pride to child sacrifice and has now reached a point where Israel’s sin far exceeds that of Sodom. To smuggle in some critique of Israel’s greed and lack of concern for the poor, I thought, was anticlimactic. These things may be bad, but surely they belong at the beginning of the rhetorical trek, not at the peak! But then my astonishment was thrown a curveball. Could it be that my rhetorical—and moral—standards are different than Ezekiel’s; and could it be that the prophet has placed at the peak the stuff that belongs there—the big sins, those that are nastier than child sacrifice? Could it be that Ezekiel put the emphasis where it belongs, and that my moral standard was off? Could it be that God abhors greed and withholding material goods from poor people?

I ended up siding with the prophet. And as I closed the pages of Ezekiel, I couldn’t help but wonder: While the church is disgusted at sick in the head sinners, who commit crimes of sodomy (illegal sexual acts), I wonder how often the church commits sodomy of the Ezekiel 16:49 sort every day.

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the seriesChristianity and the Poor

In my last post, I talked about Ezekiel 16 and how my worldview was shaken when I came across God’s radical assessment of Israel’s wicked behavior in 16:49. Here, as we saw, God places Israel’s lack of concern for the poor at the pinnacle of his scathing critique of her sin. Recognizing the power of this verse, especially in light of its context, forced me to go back through the Scripture with a fine-toothed comb to see if the rest of the Bible speaks as passionately about God’s heart for the poor. In a future post, I’ll discuss what the OT as a whole says about the poor. For now, I want to look at a fairly controversial, yet very important, passage about Jesus’ heart for the poor: Matthew 25:31-46.

This passage is the longest and most thorough description of judgment day in all the gospels, and in it Jesus says that one’s posture toward the poor, needy, and marginalized is the criterion for who goes to hell and who goes to “eternal life” (25:41, 46). I know, I know, everyone wants to qualify this by saying “Ya, but justification is by faith, not by works, so Jesus is really just talking about those who believe in justification by faith and not by works…” and on and on and one. But for this post, let’s just stick to what the passage actually says. And it says that the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and came to the ones in prison—these will inherit eternal life (25:35-36, 46). Others who didn’t do these things will go to hell. That’s what the passage says. In an effort to qualify Jesus’ dangerous theology, let’s not miss the point of the text: caring for the poor and needy is essential for eternal life. There’s no other way to read this passage with integrity.

(For what it’s worth, you may want to know that I’ve deliberately used a rather vague word like “essential” in the sentence above in order to avoid the debate about the specific role of works in salvation. Are works the evidence of genuine faith? The condition of our future inheritance? Or the basis of eternal life? My word essential could mean any one of these; I’m not seeking to enter this debate here.)

Now, an important question arises from this passage: who are the poor? Are they poor Christians or poor people in general—regardless of whether or not they are saved? Or more practically: should the church give funds to support the local homeless shelter, or should it focus on caring for the poor within its own congregation (or poor Christians around the globe) as a matter of priority? As you can see, the interpretation of this passage is huge.

And the answer lies in the meaning of Matthew 25:40 where Jesus describes the poor who have been helped as, “the least of these my brothers.” This phrase has been taken to describe: (1) poor people in general, (2) Jewish Christians, (3) Christian missionaries, or (4) poor Christians. As I’ve wrestled with this important issue, I believe that the phrase should be interpreted to mean poor Christians. This is based largely on the fact that the phrase “my brothers” in Matthew always refers to Jesus’ literal brothers or disciples and never refers to humans in general (see Matt 12:48-49; 23:8; 28:10; outside of Matthew, see John 20:17; Rom 8:29; Heb 2:11-12; Hagner, Matthew, 33B.744-745). Also, the phrase “least of these” is used in Matthew to speak of a Christian’s treatment of other Christians (See Matt. 18:6, 10, 14). So it seems that Jesus deliberately uses the language that He does here to speak of Christians helping impoverished (and persecuted) Christians, and not all poor people in general.

Now this doesn’t get us “off hook,” since a large portion—if not the majority—of poor people in the world are Christians! The genocide victims in Sudan, the 100 million believers in China, and the 40% of the population in Africa all confess Jesus and many live in grinding poverty.

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the seriesChristianity and the Poor

After a long hiatus, I’d like to revisit the idea of Christianity and the poor—something that’s much discussed today, though many stones remained to be unturned. Previously, I pointed out my own journey in this subject, which began in Ezek 16:49 (part 1). I then pointed out some things from Matt 25 (part 2); namely, that the “least of these brothers of mine” refers to poor Christians, not the poor in general.

For this post, I’d like to reach way back into some foreign territory—namely, the OT Law—to draw out 4 principles regarding the economic system in ancient Israel. The OT Law (scattered throughout Exodus—Deut) spelled out a fairly elaborate economic system for God’s people, and this is what it said.

1. There shall be shared access to economic resources.

Numbers 26:52-54 says that the land was divvied out according to the size of the tribe. In an agrarian context, this means that the ones with the greatest economic need were provided the most resources. (Interestingly, EBC’s pay-scale operates under the same principle.)

2. The ones who can work shall work

This is not spelled out explicitly in any one verse (though its roots are in the Garden; Gen 2:15), but it underlies all the economic commands in the Law. The “poor”—the ones in need of charity—were unable to work, due to old age, loss of land, or some physical ailment. If one was able to work, he should work.

3. Provisions shall be made for the poor

Again, this refers to real poor people; those who are unable (not unwilling) to work. There were two types of poor in ancient Israel. One, those who could normally provide for themselves, but fell upon hard times. Maybe someone owned a fig orchard and a bunch of starving monkeys ate up all the crops. Or, more realistically, there was little rain that year, which produced a famine. Either way, sometimes there’s an economic downturn (sound familiar?) that leaves people jobless. In this case, those who are not affected could give a compassion loan to the poor. Those who received the loan would pay it back for 6 years; the 7th year is the year of remission (no more payments! See Deut 15:1-11). The person giving the loan is not out to make a buck (did you hear that Sallie Mae?!), but is driven by compassion toward the poor.

Other legitimate poor people include those who could not work or own land: the elderly, orphan, widow, or sojourner who had no land rights. For these people, laws contained in Lev 19:9-10, 23:22, and Deut 24:19-21 say that farmers must leave some of the crops unharvested for the poor in the land (cf. Ruth). There’s also the “third year tithe” (cf. Deut 14:28-29), which was a grass roots welfare system designed to sustain the poor in our midst.

4. There shall be controlled economic growth.

In other words, maximizing profits is not the greatest goal. Laws concerning the Sabbath, Sabbath year, various festivals, and, most of all, the year of Jubilee, ensured that people would be more concerned about people—and even more concerned about God—than about maximizing profits. These economic regulations also helped prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer.

Take, for instance, the year of jubilee (Lev 25). Every 50 years, all the land that was sold (usually for economic reasons) would be returned back to its original owner. Again, think of what this means in an agrarian context. Everyone’s means of economic sustenance and prosperity would be returned. This would ensure two things: 1) that the business tycoon who’s buying field after field would end up giving it all back; and 2) that the family that has fallen into poverty would not see an endless cycle of poverty. It’s almost as if God wanted his people to live a middle-class life—all of them.

Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:8-9)

Summary

These OT economic laws bear witness to abiding ethical principles from which we as God’s people have much to learn. The underlying principles that ground these laws are the same ones that drive Jesus and Paul in their economic exhortations. And that’s for our next post.

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