Poverty And The Bible

Here is some research on poverty from a few semesters back, please forgive the non-conversational style and poor proofreading.

“You will always have the poor among you.” This axiom of Christ has been confirmed throughout the ages. But the scriptures teach much more about poverty than one verse. This issue touches on the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Ultimately, poverty is a perversion of God’s creation. It ought not exist. But the corruption of man and his environment have wrought unthinkable suffering. The Bible abounds with instructions for God’s people concerning the poor. In these echo the hopes of a better world to come. Believers look to Jesus as the final answer for all human suffering – including poverty. In this paper, I will examine poverty from a biblical worldview. The Gospel provides a grid for understanding all of life. In the creation-fall-redemption storyline we can see the glory of God. I will then look at passages that speak of the poor. This study will demonstrate God’s great concern for the poor and his design for his people to address their suffering.

First some background information would be helpful. Evangelicals don’t talk much about the poor[1]. Revivalism and its Premillennial worldview are in our bones. As Dwight L. Moody reasoned, “God has commissioned Christians to use their lifeboats to rescue every man they could.[2]” We assume that poverty is only a Social Gospel issue or we ignore it as a concern of liberal theology. Conversely, the great historical traditions of our faith have cared for the poor. In different ways, the Greek, Catholic, and Reformed churches have always shown concern for the needy. This is not true of us. Some have observed an “apparent lack of any social passion in Protestant Fundamentalism. On this evaluation, Fundamentalism is the modern priest and Levite, by-passing suffering humanity.[3]” Ronald J. Sider wrote, “Neglect of the biblical teaching on structural injustice or institutionalized evil is one of the most deadly omissions in many parts of the church today.[4]

Do Southern Baptists care about the poor? The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 Article XV states, “We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless and the sick.” At the 1987 Annual Meeting, Southern Baptists adopted a resolution on Hunger and Poverty which recognized, “The Bible speaks powerfully about the responsibility of God’s people to care for poor and hungry people, and Jesus by His words and deeds met the needs of those about Him.”[5] Both the International and North American Mission Boards have separate funds to relieve hunger and human needs. But these efforts are small and not a major focus for the denomination. Both Southern Baptists and Evangelicals in general have not been moved by the overwhelming testimony of scripture on this issue.

What does the Bible teach about poverty? I will answer this question in two ways. First, I will interpret poverty based on the meta-narrative of the Bible. I will give special attention to how the Gospel worldview reads this issue. Second, I will examine the wealth of texts about the needy. In both ways, I will demonstrate that God has compassion toward the poor and will ultimately end poverty on the earth.

In the beginning, God made man rich. Adam and Eve ruled the creation as God’s representatives. The Maker entrusted all things to the care of humanity. Abundance is a theme of Genesis one. Seven times God approves his work as good. “And God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) God himself provided food and none experienced want. (Genesis 1:29) Mankind was given work without hardship. There was no failed crops, unemployment or starving babies. There was no suffering of any kind. Adam was joyfully employed in God’s garden. Work was a blessing and a reflection of God. In this work, man would bear God’s image and glorify him. By God’s design there was not suffering or poverty. But paradise was soon lost.

Adam and Eve defied their maker and rejected his Word. The Fall brought the curse. And the curse brought poverty. The seeds of economic frustration were planted in the Garden. Poverty is alien to God’s good creation. It ought not to be. All human lack is a breakdown of shalom. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. wrote, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed … Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.[6]” Sin is the vandalism of this peace. The results are tragic. Man’s rebellion is the ultimate source of all suffering, including economic need.

Sin caused poverty in five ways. First, the productive capacity of the earth was reduced. God cursed the ground. The fatness of the land was lost. (Genesis 3:17-18) Pain and sweat entered the economy. Thorns and thistles entered the food chain. The agricultural system broke. What would have come easily from the hand of God would now have to be earned with toil. This diminished productivity was caused by man’s rebellion. And the wages of sin increased.

Second, natural evil robes humanity of security. Wealth is not safe. Rain does not always come in its season. Floods and drought alike can ruin the harvest. Fires can ravage the countryside. Locusts, mold, frost, and crows – all steal from the workers hand. The climate outside the Garden is harsh. The lands diminished yields are frequently at the mercy of natural events. This is beyond food. Houses fall down. Roads wash out. Tools break. The work of many years is lost in a moment. This wildness in nature was caused by man’s rebellion. And the wages of sin increased.

Third, aging and sickness diminished man’s capacity for work. The human body decayed. Joints ached. Strength failed. The certainty of spiritual death was manifest in the aging frame of man. Dead men do not work and sick men to do not prosper. No economic system could withstand a plague. The frailty of man reduced his potential. This weakness of the body was caused by man’s rebellion. And the wages of sin increased.

Fourth, humanity has rejected God’s gift of work. Even with the diminished productivity of the earth God provided his blessings. God makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall even on the wicked. (Matthew 5:45) Humanity was made for dominion, but sin now perverted that purpose. Men became passive. Sloth and laziness entered the system. Without self-control, some did not work. Many who would have prospered became poor. Whole families were plunged into lack. This rejection of the gift of work is rebellion. And the wages of sin increased.

Fifth, wicked men began to oppress other men. In his greed and covetousness mankind was not content with having his needs met. The love of possessions led to oppression (Micah 2:2) and much evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:9 ESV) “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) This radical corruption is the root of all social injustice. The desire of one man to enslave another was born in Adam’s first sin. We see oppression and the origins of structural evil in society. This moral corruption of made some victims of men. The strong would now take from the weak. Jealousy and rivalry would spill blood upon the soil. (Genesis 4:10) Men exchanged the harvest field for the battlefield. So, the suffering due to the creation’s damage was multiplied by man’s sin toward one another. Neighbor love was lost. Humans began to experience lack. This fivefold consequence of sin is the root of all poverty.

God was not unmoved at this scene. At many times and in many ways he has visited his people. In the Exodus we find a picture of his saving power. Slaves became princes. The land of promise was a shadow of shalom. But the final saving act of God was yet to come. The Kingdom of God invaded our darkened regions in the life and atoning death of Christ. His final coming will be the restoration of all things. Poverty and economic suffering will cease. Only then will the damage of the Fall be reversed. The creation itself will be set free from decay and corruption of sin. (Romans 8:20 – 22) “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13 ESV) When God finally redeems the creation there will be no failed crops, unemployment or starving babies. It will be like it ought to be. The big picture of the Bible is the coming of Jesus and his work of making all things new.

What does the Bible teach about poverty? Within this framework we have many specific passages that address the issue of poverty. Throughout scripture, God shows compassion toward the poor and his ultimately design to end poverty on the earth.

The Mosaic Law forbids exploitation of the poor by exacting interest. (Exodus 22:25) The Jews were also instructed to show no partiality in lawsuits based on poverty or wealth. (Exodus 23:3-6, Leviticus 19:15) Sabbath years of farming was prescribed, “that the poor of your people may eat.” (Exodus 23:11) Likewise, farmers were to leave some of their harvest behind for the poor to gather. (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22) It was such an act of mercy that kept Ruth and Naomi alive in their poverty. (Ruth 2:2)

The Jewish laws required less from the poor than from the rich. (Exodus 30:15, Leviticus 14:21) Relatives were to buy back the land that any close kin was forced to sell due to poverty. (Leviticus 25:25) Families were also to welcome their poor relations into their homes and support them. (Leviticus 25:35) The Law forbids treating Israelites as slaves, even when their poverty results in indentured servitude. (Leviticus 25:47, 25:47-55) One blessing promised to the Hebrews in their covenant was the elimination of poverty. (Deuteronomy 15:4-5) The Jews were warned not to harden their hearts or close their hands against their countrymen who became poor. (Deuteronomy 15:7-11) Rather, they were commanded to give to such freely and not grudgingly. (Deuteronomy 15:10) Poverty would remain, so the Israelites must “open wide” their hands. (15:11) Oppression of the poor is forbidden. (Deuteronomy 24:12-15)

God is sovereign over poverty and riches. He is able to raise up the poor. (1 Samuel 2:7-8, Psalm 113:7) In Zion the poor will be satisfied. (Psalm 132:5) King David calls himself poor. (1 Samuel 18:23, Psalm 86:1, 109:22) When Nathan confronts David’s sin, he uses a parable in which the victim is a poor man. (2 Samuel 12:1-4) The deliverance of the Jews through Esther is celebrated by gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22) Ethical treatment of the poor is a theme in the book of Job. (Job 20:19, 24:4-14, 31:16) Job defends himself based on his kindness to the needy. (Job 29:16, 30:25, 31:19)

The Lord will defend the poor and satisfy their hopes. (Psalm 9:18, 12:5, 14:6, 34:6, 35:10, 40:17, 109:16) He hears and provides for the needy. (Psalm 68:10, 69:33, 72:13) He maintains their cause. (Psalm 109:31, 140:12) The wicked are characterized for their oppression of the poor. (Psalm 10:2-9, 37:14, Proverbs 28:15) But the Lord will show favor to those who consider the poor. (Psalm 41:1) Kings are commendable when they give justice to the poor. (Psalm 72:2, 4, 12, 19, 21, 29:14) The righteous gives to the poor and understand the poor have rights too. (Psalm 112:9, 29:7) The excellent wife opens her hand to the poor. (Proverbs 31:30)

Poverty ruins men. (Proverbs 10:15) The poor suffer injustice. (Proverbs 13:23, 30:14, Ecclesiastes 5:8)  The rich rule over the poor. (Proverbs 22:7) Many people don’t like the poor. (Proverbs 14:20, 19:4, 7) But those who are generous to them will be blessed. (Proverbs 14:21, 19:17, 22:9, 28:8, 28:27) To insult a poor man is to insult God. (Proverbs 14:31, 17:5) And God will ignore those who ignore the poor. (Proverbs 21:13) The Lord will plead their cause. (Proverbs 22:22)  And save the needy from injustice. (Job 5:15-16) Gaining wealth by oppressing the poor will lead to one’s own poverty. (Proverbs 22:16) The Lord is the maker of the poor and rich alike. (Proverbs 22:2, 29:13) Poverty is to be preferred over pride. (Proverbs 16:19) A poor man is better than a liar. (Proverbs 19:22) The love of pleasure will lead to poverty. (Proverbs 21:17) Poor people can be both wise and live in integrity. (Proverbs 28:6, 28:11, Ecclesiastes 4:13, 9:15) But a poor man’s wisdom is despised. (Ecclesiastes 9:16) But poverty does lead men to steel. (Proverbs 30:9) Love of sleep leads result in poverty. (Proverbs 20:13) Pursuing worthless activities rather than working the land will lead to need. (Proverbs 28:19) The drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty. (Proverbs 23:21)

The Lord will call kings to account for their treatment of the poor (Isaiah 3:15, Jeremiah 22:16-17) and send judgment. (Isaiah 10:2, Jeremiah 2:34) The Old Testament prophets decried the oppression of the poor. (Isaiah 14:30, Jeremiah 5:28, Ezekiel 16:49, Amos 2:7, 4:1, 5:11, 8:4-6, Zechariah 7:10) But the Lord is a stronghold to the poor. (Isaiah 25:4, Jeremiah 20:13) The God of Israel will not forsake the poor in their suffering. (Isaiah 41:17) The Messiah will judge the poor with righteousness. (Isaiah 11:4) He will preach good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1) The poor among mankind will exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:19) In contrast, the wicked schemes against the poor. (Isaiah 32:7) Jacob seeks the Lord in vain when they fail to welcome the homeless poor. (Isaiah 58:7)

Jesus was homeless during his ministry. (Matthew 8:20) The kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor. (Luke 6:20) Jesus’ preaching good news to the poor was evidence he was the Christ. (Matthew 11:5, Luke 4:18, Luke 7:22) He used poor characters as righteous examples in his teaching. (Luke 16:19-22) Jesus instructed the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give to the poor. (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) When Zacchaeus repented, he gave to the poor. (Luke 19:8) Jesus urged secret giving to the needy. (Matthew 6:2-3) To neglect the poor is to neglect Christ himself. (Mathew 25:42-45) One can gain heavenly treasure by giving to those in need. (Luke 12:33-34) He taught his disciples to invite the poor to their feasts. (Luke 14:13, 21) Jesus praised a poor widow for offering all she had to God. (Mark 12:42-44, Luke 21:2-3) The disciples were offended when expensive ointment was poured onto Jesus’ head, because it could have been given to the poor. (Matthew 26:9, Mark 14:5, John 12:5) The Lord defended the woman and said the disciples would always have opportunity to help the poor. (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8) The disciples (via Judas) kept a moneybag for this purpose. (John 12:6, 13:29)

The church after Pentecost was remarkable in its care for the poor. (Acts 4:34) Peter and John healed a beggar. (Acts 3:6) There was a daily distributing of bread to the widows. (Acts 6:1) The early churches sent offerings to the poor in Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26, Acts 11:29-30) Paul was concerned that the churches would remember the poor. (Galatians 2:10) Some churches even gave out of their own poverty. (2 Corinthians 8:2) He even spoke of himself as poor. (2 Corinthians 6:10) Christ became “poor” to make believers “rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) This metaphoric use of the word indicates the humility of the poor. James warns against honoring the rich and dishonoring the poor. (James 2:2-4) God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. (James 2:5) And the rich were associated with persecution of believers. (James 2:6) True religion is caring for the needy. (James 1:27) No one can say they have God’s love if they do not give to a brother in need. (1 John 3:17) Neglecting the poor is proof that one’s faith is false. (James 2:14-17) Those who are rich must be generous and ready to share. (1 Timothy 6:18, Hebrews 13:16)

This survey has shown God’s concern for the poor. He commands his people to act. We must interpret human suffering through the lens of the Gospel. God created the world good. It was man who vandalized shalom. Only through Jesus Christ will the world be made right again. Citizens of his Kingdom belong to the last day. As we obey the scriptural commands to care for the poor we are proclaiming the fruit of the Gospel and bringing glory to God.

Bibliography

Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Henry, Carl F. H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947.

White, R. C. “Gospel, Social Implications of,.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984.

Southern Baptist Convention 1987 Annual Meeting. Resolution On Hunger And Poverty: June 1987 [on-line]. Accessed 23 October 2007. Available from http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=633; Internet.

Sider, Ronald J. “Structural Evil and World Hunger.” In Readings in Christian Ethics: Vol. 2 Issues and Applications. Edited by David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.


[1] For example, the morality of economics is not even mentioned in some treatments of evangelical ethics. One example of this absence is Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989), 8.

[2] As quoted by R.C. White, “Gospel, Social Implications of,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), 475.

[3] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947), 2.

[4] Ronald J. Sider, “Structural Evil and World Hunger,” in Readings in Christian Ethics: Vol. 2 Issues and Applications, ed. David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 368.

[5] Southern Baptist Convention 1987 Annual Meeting, Resolution On Hunger And Poverty: June 1987 [on-line]; accessed 23 October 2007; available from http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=633; Internet.

[6] Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 10.

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2 Responses to Poverty And The Bible

  1. Pingback: Poverty & The Girl Effect | Said at Southern

  2. Tony,
    I’m glad to see you posting this and drawing attention to the issue of poverty. I’m afraid many Christians haven’t taken a good hard look at the biblical commands to care for the poor.

    I tried to blog myself to death yesterday, posting three articles on the subject. I would like to point out that I think the New Attitude article by Doug Hayes, which I quoted from and linked to in my third post, is one every Christian should read. It’s brief, but very good.

    Barry Wallaces last blog post..Blog Action Day 2008: Word vs. Deed

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