Reflections on what the Bible says about the Poor

March 19, 2012

Reflections from "Who are the Poor?" sermon.

The most striking thing that I learned from my own study of the biblical texts related to the issue of the poor is the definition that emerged and the defining boundaries of responsibility for the people of God.  The definition to which the mass of the texts bore witness was that the poor are those “who are dependent on and devoted to God who live in the midst of desperate and destitute situations.”  It is not their circumstances that defines their commitment but their commitment to God is clear in the midst of very difficult circumstances.  The defining boundaries shook me:  the church or the community of faith is responsible for her own working in partnership with families.  For example, the New Testament is clear in the pastoral epistles that the church has a responsibility for widows and orphans but the first line of support should come from families.  Put in the context of our day, it means that foster and adoptive care for children should be handled by the churches with the foster and adoptive families coming from within the churches.  So, the poor are not defined by their circumstances but by their dependence on and devotion to God in the midst of circumstances that may or may not change and the church is to care for her own with particular focus on widows and orphans.

Here is a list of New Testament texts that you may want to examine, all of which address the issue of the poor:

Matthew 5:3, 11:5, 19:21, 26:9, 11
Mark 10:21, 12:42, 43; 14:5, 7
Luke 4:18, 6:20, 7:22, 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22, 19:8 and 21:3
John 12:5,6 and 8; 13:29 the only passage in the whole Johannine corpus that has anything to do with the poor except for two passages in Revelation 3:17 and 13:16 that do not address the poor from the perspective of their identity or our care for them.

NO USE OF THE WORD AT ALL IN THE BOOK OF ACTS WHERE THERE WERE NO POOR AMONG THE PEOPLE OF THE EARLY CHURCH; PLENTY OF POVERTY IN THE ROMAN WORLD BUT THE ABSENCE OF REFERENCES TO THE POOR IN ACTS SHOWS THAT THE CHURCH CAN DEAL WITH THIS ISSUE AND SHOULD NOT INVEST IN THE GOAL OF ALLEVIATNG POVERTY FROM THE PAGAN WORLD; WE OWE THE WORLD ONLY THE GOSPEL.

Romans 15:26
2 Corinthians 6:10
Galatians 2:10, 4:9
James 2:2,3,5,6

The Greek and Roman World did not have any place for the poor except to criticize and to castigate.  The only ones seen as poor were those who were so destitute that they resorted to begging and those who were begging were treated kindly if there was evidence of seeking work but those who were not seeking work were simply seen as lazy.  Homer of Odyssey fame thought it horrible that some would think of the poor as a special class of people who were divinely favored.

Look at Deuteronomy 15 carefully and Leviticus 25. Neither the Sabbath Year nor the Jubillee year lasted because of the cultures in which the Jews lived but also because both found their fulfillment in Jesus and this fulfillment of both is spelled out in the book of Hebrews. 

Don’t forget that Jesus was born to very poor people who could only offer at His dedication the offering required of the most poor of the poor.  But it was Mary in her poverty who said, “behold the servant of the Lord, do as you will with me.”  This is the attitude of the poor that is not found among the rich, and when it is found, it requires the release of riches as in what happened with Zacchaeus after his life was changed.

It is hard to fight against the reality in the Bible that money and material goods become a very strong hindrance to the work of the Gospel in our lives.  It is why Jesus says that it is harder for a rich man or woman to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a sewing needle.  Why is it so hard?  We all need to struggle with this one because most who will read  these words are among the richest people in all the world. 



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