Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Monday, June 4, 2012

Poverty in the Bible

Why are people poor? The Bible offers a few reasons, but one is primary.[1]
1.       Natural Causes: Things that happen beyond human control often have economic consequences. For example: disease of people, animals or crops, drought, locust plague, etc.
2.       Wickedness: In Deuteronomy 28, most of the covenant curses for disobedience have economic aspects. So, in some cases, poverty may result from God’s curse. (It does not follow that all poor people are cursed!)
3.       Laziness and/or Stupidity: Some become poor because they are reckless or wasteful with money (Prov 12:11; 21:17; Luke 15:11-17). Conventional wisdom says you’re poor because you don’t work hard (e.g., Prov 14:23; 20:13). This answer is common in America, where we value determination to rise above tough circumstances. The poor, we say, are just lazy or irresponsible. At times this is true, but it fails to recognize three key things: 1) “Rags to riches” stories are rare even in a capitalist economy and were nearly impossible in the ancient world where people basically stayed in the socio-economic class into which they were born. 2) Some people, especially in the developing world, are trapped in circumstances and cycles of poverty that are virtually impossible to escape. 3) People don’t generally just decide to be poor; they fall into a downward spiral in which bad choices are triggered by external factors such as neglect, abuse, a fractured family, etc.
4.       Oppression: The most common cause of poverty in the Bible is exploitation of the weak and vulnerable by the wealthy and powerful. The rich use their power to take from the poor. In the Bible, this takes various forms:
a.       debt slavery (2 Kings 4:1-7; Neh 5; Amos 2:6)
b.      taking clothes, other critical possessions, or children as collateral for a loan (Amos 2:8; Job 24:3; cf. Deut 24:6, 12-13, 17-18)
c.       corruption of justice in court (Isa 10:1-2; Amos 5:7, 10-12; ; James 5:6)
d.      withholding wages from hired laborers (Jer 22:13; Mal 3:5; James 5:4; cf. Deut 24:12-13)
e.      royal taxes and forced labor (1 Sam 8:10-18; 1 Kings 5:13-18; 12; Jer 22:13-17)
f.        stealing land (1 Kings 21; Job 24:2; cf. Deut 19:14; Prov 23:10)
g.       luxurious self-indulgence by the rich and neglect of the poor (Amos 4:1; 6:1-7; Luke 6:24-25; 12:15-21; James 5:3, 5).

All these oppressive tactics appear in the litany of Jerusalem’s sins in Ezekiel 22:6-7, 12, 25-29. All of them still happen in our world today.

Most often in the Bible, then, poverty doesn’t “just happen.” Poverty is caused when the rich take advantage of the poor.

Who is most vulnerable to the oppression that causes poverty? Those without social and economic power. The Bible refers to four groups whose weakness puts them at risk:

1.       Orphans with no family, especially no father, and probably no land, are especially vulnerable to being used, abused or falsely accused.
2.       Widows without connection to a male head of household quickly run out of economic assets and end up poor, disgraced and defenseless against those who would take advantage of them.
3.       Foreigners have no land inheritance and therefore no means of economic security. Often objects of racial discrimination and hatred, they are easy targets for exploitation.
4.       Levites have no inheritance of land and depend on the tithes and offerings of their fellow Israelites. If they become tightfisted and fail to give, the Levites may become poor.

How does God call his people to respond to poverty? God’s poverty-elimination program includes a number of strategies (see esp. Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24-26): 

1.       Don’t demand inalienable possessions as a pledge for a loan (Deut 24:6, 12-13, 17)
2.       Don’t deprive vulnerable people of justice in court (Deut 24:17)
3.       Pay workers promptly (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15)
4.       Share the overflow of God’s blessing! Leave the edges of fields, olive groves and vineyards for the poor to glean (Deut 24:19-22; Lev 19:9-10; 23:22). Boaz is a shining example in Ruth 2.
5.       Care for widowed relatives by giving them an heir and redeeming their land (Deut 25:5-10)
6.       Don’t steal (Exod 20:15 ; Lev 19:11; Deut 5:19)
7.       Don’t cheat or defraud people; use accurate weights and measures (Deut 25:13-16; Lev 19:13, 35; Prov 20:10)
8.       Don’t show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich (Lev 19:15; James 2:1-9)
9.       Defend the cause of the poor (Ps 82:1-4; Isa 1:17; Neh 5)
10.   Include servants, Levites, foreigners, fatherless and widows in harvest festivals (Deut 16:11, 14; 26:11)
11.   Give the triennial tithe to the Levite, foreigner, fatherless and widow, so they may eat and be satisfied (Deut 26:12), just like the rest of the community (Deut 8:10).
12.   Care for foreigners who have no land and family (Lev 19:33-34)
13.   Every seven years, generously suspend (or cancel) debts and free servants with ample provisions (Deut 15)
14.   Lend freely and generously to fellow Israelites who fall into poverty (Deut 15:7-11)
15.   Help poor Israelites by either 1) redeeming their land (Lev 25:25), 2) giving them an interest-free loan (25:35-38; cf. Exod 22:25) or 3) hiring them for wages instead of enslaving them (25:39-43).
16.   Every fifty years, proclaim Jubilee by returning ancestral land to its original residents, canceling debts and freeing Israelite bonded laborers (Lev 25).

Why all these commands to do justice and show radical compassion to the helpless? First, God’s people are to show practical concern for the poor and needy because that’s what God does. “He is a father to the fatherless and an advocate for widows. God rules from his holy palace” (Ps 68:5). God’s economic commands for Israel flow from his own compassionate and gracious character.

 Second, these laws exist because generous justice is the proper response to God’s prior grace. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you (i.e., bought you) from there. That is why I command you to do this” (Deut 24:17; cf. 15:15; 16:12; 24:22). Forgetfulness breeds arrogance and injustice. That is why every harvest the Israelites were to recall their history, remember God’s grace, rejoice in his blessing, and redistribute their abundance to those in need (Deut 26)! 

If Israel fully obeyed the economic plan in the Torah, God’s bountiful blessing would sufficiently eliminate poverty among them (Deut 15:4-5). It never happened, of course. But God anticipated that. He knew the human tendency to trust wealth and serve Slave Master Mammon. He knew insidious greed that plagues people’s hearts. He knew “there will always be poor people in the land” (Deut 15:11). So he commanded the Israelites not to be “hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend to them whatever they need” (Deut 15:7-8).

Though poverty prevailed in Israel, the vision for a community without want was realized – even if only briefly – in the early church. The first Christians knew their wealth was God’s, not theirs (Acts 4:32), so they shared it with his family. “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:33-34)! Radical generosity became a powerful demonstration of obedience to their Lord Jesus, whose resurrection they proclaimed (Acts 4:33)!

How should we obey? This leads to the challenge. We, too, have been redeemed by God’s extravagant grace. At our deepest points of need, God went to great lengths to save us from our misery and mess. Just as Jesus became poor for our sake, so that that we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9), so we should give generously and sacrificially to those in need in many dimensions of life, including financial. What might this look like? Here are a few things to consider.

1.       Has God given you more than enough to “eat and be satisfied” so that you have something to share with those in need? Why not support a relief or justice organization? There are many out there. Some of the big ones are Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision and International Justice Mission. There are also many smaller ones. They do all kinds of creative things to help the poor, from mosquito nets to microloans. Find one and give.
2.       For you, what would be the equivalent of leaving the edge of your field for the poor and needy?
3.       Do you owe anyone money? Pay them.
4.       Are you willing to lend needy people money without interest (Duet 15:7-11)? Or even without expecting anything in return (Luke 6:34-35)?
5.       Do your giving and your church’s budget reflect God’s concern for the needy (Deut 26; Acts 4)?
6.       Do you take advantage of people who are weaker than you so that you gain at their expense?
7.       Are there poor or lonely people you know who need your friendship along with or even more than your financial aid?
8.       Do you invite poor people and social rejects to your holiday parties? God invites them to his banquet; perhaps we should do the same (Luke 14:12-24; cf. 4:18-19; 7:22).

Do these efforts matter? Absolutely! They anticipate and embody the coming reign of Messiah, when “Everyone will live in peace and prosperity, enjoying their own grapevines and fig trees, for there will be nothing to fear” (Micah 4:4 NLT; cf. Isa 65:21-23)! 

[1] This section is based on Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 169-71.

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