Time to get back to this series!

Review of Earlier Part 6

It’s been a while since I posted Part 6 of this study/discussion. Hopefully by now many of you have read the two items I linked to in Part 6:

Poverty and Poor: New Testament” from Anchor Bible Dictionary

Rich and Poor” from the dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels

In Part 6 I had summarized the findings of Parts 1-5 (our look at OT words and teaching about the poor, poverty, and a “welfare state”). Here were the conclusions we reached for the OT mindset:

(1) The poor can be described as poor because of their own laziness, lack of wisdom, or other self-induced circumstance.

(2) Some passages do involve both private wealthy individuals and wealthy state officials exploiting the poor.

(3) There is no scriptural justification for presuming that wealth is some sort of inherent corrupter of persons that invariably prompts them to oppress the poor or that always peripherally leads to the oppression of the poor.

(4) Biblical thoughts on poverty and economics were linked to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and each Israelite. Each Israelite is responsible for the poor individually. Consequently, a biblical theology of poverty is focused on the individual being compassionate to the poor. There is no sense of handing this responsibility off to an impersonal state. Also consequently, this responsibility should not be usurped by the state for its own manipulation and power, such as creating dependency on itself.

(5) A welfare state should (for the Bible-believer) be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits.

(6) The question therefore becomes, What should Christians strive for and support when it comes to alleviating poverty? What is “biblical social justice”? The answer is not the act of blessing the operation and growth of the welfare state as a solution to poverty. Rather, it is the a response of individuals, motivated by compassion and a desire to obey the commands of God to take care of the poor.

(7) If the question is what is a biblical theology of the care for poor, the answer is the individual, or individuals operating as a like-minded group, under the guidance of biblical revelation from a God who hates poverty and injustice. The answer is not the empowerment of a corruptible state. That is the secular God-less answer. We ought not baptize the secular answer to make it appear biblical; that is a deceit.

(8) Lastly, it is quite inconsistent for activists, politicians, or anyone else to proof-text biblical material to prop up any view of social justice or of a welfare state and then simultaneously reject biblical statements (which have the same theopolitical context) on other points of morality and social responsibility. That’s just hermeneutical hypocrisy.

Shifting to the New Testament

So what about the NT Mindset? I had asked you to read through the two items noted above with a goal toward evaluating the content — Was what the writer said consistent with the above conclusions and the OT data on which those conclusions are based?

In what follows, I’ll be pointing to some parts of the readings that I think are a bit misguided. As so often happens in scholarly (and generally religious) discussion about poverty and “social justice,” there is often a propensity to having passages say too much (i.e., overstating the case) and to make what is said sound like a political system or statement.I think you’ll understand what I mean here as we proceed.

First, I think the articles do a godo job surveying the relevant NT Greek terms: ptōchós (“poor, oppressed,” lit. “beggar”; the most common NT term); pénēs (used once in the NT: 2 Cor 8:9); penichrós (“poor”); endeḗs (“needy”); and chreia (“need”). The author summarized the word usage by concluding that the terms “generally designate persons and groups lacking (totally or in some degree) the necessities of life: food, drink, clothing, shelter, health, land/employment, freedom, dignity and honor.” That seems a fair and defensible summary.

I was less satisfied with some of the overstatements and theologizing that extended from the summary. For example:

The author writers that “James is the NT writing that stands closest to the OT prophets in its perspective on poverty and oppression ” and then follows with “James never blames the victims (for sloth, vice, genetic inferiority, etc.); rather he focuses on oppression as the basic cause of poverty.” As we’ve seen in surveying the OT material, that isn’t true. Proverbs, for example, does blame poverty on laziness or sloth. It’s more accurate to say that most of the OT commentary doesn’t say anything about how a person became poor. This is not to exclude the idea that other people (the wealthy, foreign armies) cause poverty and engage in victimization. It’s just to point out an overstatement, and one that can be used for political-speak via the material.

I have a bigger problem with the connection of help for the poor to the gospel. This is typical of modern social justice talk. For instance, the author writes that (apparently) articulating the gospel in terms of doctrine “may fail to recognize that the prophetic denunciation of oppression is an essential part of evangelism, conceived as the proclamation of good news—preferentially—to the poor.” This is followed by “[James’] understanding of justification (cf. “condemnation,” 2:12–13; 3:8–9; 4:11–12; 5:6) dignifies the poor, focusing on the paired examples of Abraham, an immigrant (like James’ recipients), and Rahab, the woman who showed hospitality to Israel’s migrant ancestors.”

It takes little thought to show the miguided nature of this sort of analysis, which unfortunately infects the data in places. The gospel is not preferentially presented to the poor in the NT. It is clearly for all who will believe (John 3:16) and the book of Acts has Paul and others taking the gospel — a theological message about the work of Jesus on the cross — to the rich and powerful as well as the poor (e.g., Cornelius, Festus, Agrippa, synagogue leaders, etc.). God is not more positively predisposed to the poor, as though he has more compassion for them, or that there is less of a spiritual gulf between Him and them. In Acts 16 when the Philippian jailor asks Paul and Silas “What must I do to be saved?” the answer is not “feed the poor” or “alleviate poverty.” It is the clear “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, this is Paul’s clear understanding in many instances in his letters (e.g., Rom 10:9-10). The example of Abraham is an awkwardly edited one — Abraham was an immigrant (let’s set aside the modern connotation of that term) but he was exceedingly wealthy. Rahab is also a poor example, as her faith statement wasn’t “I’m protecting you because you’re members of an oppressed class” but “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh 2:10-11).

Overlooked in the connection between bringing the truth of the OT God or of Jesus to the poor is a more obvious rationale (at least to me). The point of the deliberate inclusion and even focus on the poor with respect to the good news is not some sort of notion that the poor are special objects of salvation — but that they are included. Ancient Near Eastern religions were elite-focused. The gods installed the kings and priests; “theology” was dispensed through the elite classes to the masses to manipulative ends. That the poor were explicitly stated to also be in covenant relationship to Yahweh (OT thinking) and genuine targets of God’s love through the cross (NT thinking) would have been startling concepts. The point was not that God loved the poor more, or that the poor were somehow on the road to heaven because they were poor, or that Jesus died more for the poor than the rich — it is that the salvation plan of God is no respecter of persons. The focus on the non-elite audiences of the gospels is also a mode designed to highlight the unbelief of the priestly class — the very people who should have understood, but valued their power and prestige more than truth — to the point of plotting the death of the messiah. This emphasis is a “focus alert” not a definition of what humanity must do to be saved or what the gospel is.

More generally, it ought to be obvious that the NT shows deep concern for the poor, as the OT focus on that concern is transparent. I think the articles do a good job of showing that consistency, despite the sort of thinking noted above. But just as wealth did nothing when it came to salvation, so a poverty status does nothing with respect to salvation. OT and NT salvation are very consistent. There is no human merit. It’s about where one’s faith/loyalty is: the God of Israel and Jesus Christ.

Anyway, to cut the length here, these are my initial thoughts. I’ll return to the articles in the next installment. Hope several of you weigh in.