Episcopal City Mission Blog

Monday, December 7, 2009

The poor in the Bible

As went enter the Advent season, a time known for charitable giving and reaching out to the poor, ECM's Executive Director, Dr. Ruy Costa, has prepared the following thoughts, a reflection on how the Bible addresses the poor, our call to help those in need and the work to eradicate poverty:

In the gospel according to Saint Matthews, chapter 26, verse 11, Jesus said: "… you always have the poor with you." If there is a text of Scripture pregnant with unintended surplus of meaning, this is it. "Surplus of meaning" refers to meaning generated by a text which goes beyond the original intention of the text and often undermines it. So, Mt.26.11 has been quoted to argue that Christians should not waste time working for social and economic justice, or that social and economic justice should not imply the elimination of poverty. It is almost as if one needs to make sure that poverty is never eliminated so that the words of the Gospel are not proven wrong -- a perverse effort to make sure that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy -- as if the credibility of Jesus would depend upon the perpetuation of poverty in the world and might be undermined by its elimination.

Another assumption that colors much of the debate over poverty is a certain work ethic that attributes prosperity to hard work and poverty to laziness. This is the teaching found in the "Wisdom literature," for example.(1) Other texts are even more radical, attributing poverty to God's punishment and wealth to God's blessing.(2) A major complication however, in researching Scriptures for insight on poverty, is that often the poor is seen as the object of God's special favor and poverty may be seen as a virtue while wealth is scorned as wickedness.(3)These various themes merge with each other, split from one another and weave a complex web of meanings in the writings of the prophets, the books of the law, the wisdom literature, in the poetry and hymnody of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the Gospels.

Of the various types of poverty found in Scripture, socio-economic poverty is the main focus of concern in the various traditions engaged by the writers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The oldest of these traditions is probably the classical prophets. They were moved by a passionate (some might say "fanatical") pursuit of piety understood as social justice in reverence to God. Some scholars attribute this tradition to the religion of the pastoral tribes that preceded the establishment of Israel in Palestine. These tribes had a profound sense of connectedness; they shared a belief in the universal presence of God (as opposed to the belief in local deities of the agrarian and urban cultures of that time) and a life style that demanded collective stewardship of the means of production under the head of the tribe.(4)When confronted with the taxing demands of a centralized government in Jerusalem, (and the ideology that privileged Jerusalem as the site of God's throne) as well as the economic exploitation of the poor by the powerful city elites and rural land owners, this ancient tradition of human equality under the rule of God, would have erupted as a revolutionary antithesis to the status quo. The prophet Amos, for example, regarded as the oldest of the classical prophets, holds nothing back in his denunciation of the oppressive rich.

- To continue reading Dr. Costa's thoughts on the poor in the Bible, Click Here.

[1] See, especially, Prov. 6.6-11; 10.4; 20.4-13; 24.30-34; 14.23; 28.19; 12.11.

[2] See, for example, Dt. 28.15-46; Lv. 26.14-26.

[3] See Micah 6.10-12 for an example.

[4] Scott, Robert Balgarnie Young, The Relevance of the Prophets, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1953, pp. 18-39; Gottwald, Norman, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, Philadelphia, fortress press, 1985, pp. 285-87

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