In the last installment of this series we got into the NT vocabulary for the poor. My focus was the first of two essays I linked to earlier:
“Poverty and Poor: New Testament” from Anchor Bible Dictionary
“Rich and Poor” from the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
My criticisms of the first of these essays focused mostly on mis-defining the gospel, an unfortunate error that colored other parts of the essay. We also saw that, at least in that essay, we didn’t get any information that would contradict the conclusions we reached after looking at the OT material on poverty, the poor, and just treatment of the poor. In simplified language, those conclusions were:
1. The poor are mostly said to be poor without a description as to how they became poor. There were some exceptions (war, laziness), but by and large, explanations were absent.
2. God was not pleased when the poor were exploited and mistreated. Some passages do describe both private wealthy individuals and wealthy state officials exploiting the poor, but there is no scriptural warrant for concluding 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.
3. 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. A welfare state should consequently 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.
4. 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.
More NT Theology of Poverty and the Poor
In this installment, I want to turn to the second essay listed above (“Rich and Poor”) and make some observations about it’s content. I found it more helpful and less politicized than the ABD essay. For the most part, the essay’s subject headings provide convenient touchpoints for following what I’m referencing.
1. Neither the OT, NT, or 1st Century Judaism viewed wealth as inherently evil.
The essay does a good job parsing this issue. Wealth was not inherently evil, but it was certainly viewed as a spiritual danger. I think most readers would have no trouble parsing this distinction. The rich have little inclination to seek God, as they see no lack in their lives, or assume any problem can be solved via their wealth. Material prosperity moves one’s trust to that prosperity. People seek God when they know they need to seek him. Wealth impedes this perception.
2. Personal wealth creates more opportunity to abuse the poor but there is no axiomatic cause and effect relationship between wealth and exploitation.
The NT, like the OT, contains examples of the rich exploiting the poor, but it also includes examples of people who discerned the scriptural truth that care for the poor is a spiritually healthy use of wealth, motivated by the decision to trust God more than one’s wealth. Regardless of the era, that’s a radical decision. It points to the “impossibility” of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (apart from divine intervention: “with God all things are possible”). In effect, the decision comes down to where one puts one’s faith for the future: one’s own wealth and ability to get wealth, or God? But choosing God does not mean wealth cannot be held. It means it must not displace faith. And the best way to ensure that is to use wealth to help people.
The context for all this, of course, is not a modern economy. As the essay points out, there was very little in the way of what we’d call a middle-class in 1st century Judea. The major classes were the rich and poor (“people of the land”). In a modern capitalist economy (and I;m not talking crony capitalism here – that’s different), wealth can be – and must be, for business survival and health – used to expand markets and therefore to create jobs and provide material prosperity for more people. This is a ripple that will extend well beyond the people in your own employ. Investment of wealth to effectively create livelihoods for more people and raise their standard of living – which means more of their wealth goes to others, by purchase or charity – is exponentially more successful than just giving wealth away. And so there are many ways today that wealth can be a tool to caring for the outright poor or those who aren’t poor, but certainly aren’t rich, either. For today’s Christian, the choice is not between giving everything away or turning from Jesus. That is a modern either-or fallacy that misunderstands the poor can be substantially helped in more ways than one. But the spiritual issues are still the same: are you working for mammon or not? Translation: where is your trust? That is easily discerned by the next question: Where is your industry? Your effort? Are you hard at work protecting your assets and endeavors to increase your own wealth, or are you hard at work coming up with strategies to help more people knowing that God is pleased and will honor that use of wealth?
3. God’s “special interest” in the poor” isn’t an idea that exists in a theological vaccuum.
Many NT scholars and social justice activists point out that Jesus saw wealth as a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God and blessed the poor who were seeking God. This makes sense, but usually not for the reasons assumed by social justice advocates. Put simply, when people are prospering they are rarely focused on their needs, including spiritual ones, assuming that they are captains of their own fate. When someone thinks they have it all together or have won life’s lottery, it’s fairly axiomatic that the last thing they want to hear is how needy they are in God’s eyes or about the next life — they’re too busy enjoying this one. So what Jesus says makes good sense.
But let’s ask a question. When Jesus blesses the poor who are seeking the kingdom does he bless them because they are poor or because they are seeking — because they are giving him a hearing? I think it’s obviously the latter. Being poor is no more a mark of God’s favor (!) than being rich. Being poor also doesn’t mean one is more spiritual. A poor person might even be more concerned about the “cares of this life” (for obvious reasons) than someone who had enough or who was wealthy. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between poverty and walking with God. Social justice advocates often assume such a relationship, but there is no social science data (or scriptural evidence) to support it. The homeless are not more averse to crime than other people, though the types and levels of crime may differ. Why would we expect that they spend more time in prayer? Devote themselves more to serving others? Spend more time studying Scripture? None of this is intended to malign the poor; rather, it is intended to malign poor thinking.
What Jesus says isn’t hard to parse. The poor listened to Jesus because they had needs, because he did not avoid them or threaten them, because he was kind, and because the thought of an escape from their circumstances was comforting. We know from the gospel accounts that some listened only because the odds were better Jesus would miraculously feed them than they could feed themselves, but it would be hermeneutically malicious to assume that all the poor listened only because of what they could get. In more charitable terms we might say they knew life was tenuous and short, and so talk of a kingdom and life that transcended the one they were living had appeal. Hence they were more interested in what was being said.
4. “Eternal reward” shouldn’t be thought of as earned salvation, and so the idea that care for the poor results in reward from God doesn’t mean the NT teaches that giving to the poor washes one’s sins away.
This is another error of the social gospel that I think is adequately addressed in the essay. The context for this idea (divine reward) is a radical faith decision – choosing not to trust in wealth, being willing to lose it all or give it all away in favor of the kingdom of God. It’s an issue of the heart. John 3:16 doesn’t say that “whosoever gives his wealth away shall have everlasting life.” Jesus said he came to give his life as a ransom for sinners, not that sinners should just give away their wealth and they’d be forgiven. The path to the cross was not an unfortunate necessity after it was evident that not enough rich people would give away their wealth so as to usher in the kingdom of heaven. The nature of the gospel shouldn’t be this obtuse to anyone who reads the NT, but that’s no longer a given.
All the above is also consistent with the OT theology that care for the poor is an individual responsibility, especially for the believer. It is not a responsibility to be passed to bureaucratic overlords or a (nearly) all-powerful state. Preferring the state handle this is an abdication of the gospel (and OT) ethic about care for the poor.
Next up . . . the early church “having all things in common.”