Reading: God Loves the Poor
Economics is one of the most frequent topics discussed in Scripture, second only to idolatry in the sheer number of verses. In the New Testament alone five hundred verses, one out of every sixteen, address material matters. And when it comes to the first three Gospels, the ratio increases to one in ten verses that discuss wealth and poverty. If we were to focus on Luke’s Gospel alone, which is most concerned about the physical implications of Jesus’ kingdom, the ratio is one in seven verses. The Bible’s view of the poor and the use of material resources is at the heart of our discipleship. After all, Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Who Are the Poor?
Who are the poor? And why are they poor? There are four categories into which the poor fall in the Bible.
1. Poverty is chosen for righteousness’ sake. Some have a spiritual gift of being able to rid themselves of all but the bare necessities. By their own choice they devote themselves solely to Christ and identify with his poor. The apostle Paul in the love chapter speaks of those who “give all [they] possess to the poor” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Those who enter Roman Catholic orders take a vow of poverty, best illustrated by Mother Teresa, who identified with the destitute, diseased and dying.
2. Poverty is a result of calamity. A natural disaster sometimes wipes out all physical possessions and means of livelihood. The obvious biblical example is Job, a man blessed by God with seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, and a family of seven sons and three daughters. This man was “the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:3). Instantaneously all that he had was taken from him.
3. Poverty is the result of sin or laziness. Sinful behavior, such as drunkenness, can cost a job, family and relationships. Others are poor because they lack industry and drive. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians castigates “some among you [who] are idle” (2 Thessalonians 3:11). He goes on to say, “‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ . . . Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat” (vv. 10-12).
4. Poverty is a consequence of oppression by the powerful. Injustice is by far the predominate reason for poverty. Most poor people in the world are poor because they are exploited by economic and political manipulators. The Bible concerns itself overwhelmingly with this group, using the terms needy, poor, oppressed, widows, orphans and sojourners (or strangers). What these people have in common is that they can easily have their rights taken away from them. They are the exploitable, weak and defenseless. They are open to abuse and are the prey of the powerful.
In the Bible the needy are often equated with the “innocent” and “righteous.” Note the parallel construction in Amos 5:12 that interchanges righteous and poor: “You oppress the righteous, . . . and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (emphasis added).
The righteous in a legal dispute are the innocent who should have justice rendered in their favor. There is an important difference between biblical justice and our societal view of justice. The symbol of justice in our society is a blindfolded woman, indicating that justice is blind. The fair judge is dispassionately objective, free from bias, who rationally decides what is right before an impersonal law. On the other hand, the role of the judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemptively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful. So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and righteous. The law in Exodus 23:6-8 reads, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge, and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous” (emphasis added).
It is the subversion of the justice system that is on the prophet Amos’s heart: “You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth” (Amos 5:10). The court was an enclosure just inside the walled city where the elders gathered to render decisions related to the life and property of the citizens according to the law. The rendering of just decisions was the basis for a righteous order under the rule of God. But the wealthy and powerful had taken over the courts, buying justice for themselves.
The picture in Amos is one of marked disparity between rich and poor. “You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine” (Amos 5:11). Archaeologists have confirmed Amos’s picture of shocking extremes of wealth and poverty. In early Jewish settlements of the Promised Land there was an equal distribution among families and tribes. All Israel enjoyed a similar standard of living. This was still true in the tenth century B.C., but two hundred years later, archaeologists have discovered, there were bigger, better-built homes in one area and poor houses crowded together in another. The poor in Amos’s day no longer owned their own land but worked as tenant farmers for the landowners, who took as their payment exactions of wheat far beyond what was reasonable.
In Amos we see that poverty is not the result of laziness but because of the unjust distribution of wealth and power into the hands of a few. John Perkins, an African American and native of Mississippi, tells how he came to understand this system of inequality. In the 1940s, when he was eleven, he was away from home visiting relatives. He decided to make some money in order to buy a gift for his family, so he hired himself out to a white farmer as a day laborer. At the end of the twelve-hour day he was handed his pay: fifteen cents. The farmer owned the plow, the land and all the means of production. All John had was his labor. He also knew that the last black man to talk back had been chained to the back of a car and dragged through the streets of the town on Saturday afternoon. He learned what the Bible teaches: exploitation and oppression are the primary reasons for poverty.1
God’s Attitude Toward the Poor
What is God’s attitude toward the poor? Theologian Karl Barth summarized it provocatively: “God in no wise takes up a neutral position between the poor person and the rich person. The rich may take care of their own future; He is on the side of the poor. . . . Thus the Bible is on the side of the poor and the destitute. He who the160 Discipleship Essentials Bible calls God is on the side of the poor.”2
God’s compassion is evidenced in his hearing the cries of the poor and delivering them from oppression. The nation of Israel was formed from a slave people. For four hundred years the Hebrew people labored under the whip of the economic tyranny of the Egyptian overlords. They cried out to God as their backs broke under the burdens they bore. Scripture records God’s heart for his people, “The LORD said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8). God chooses a people who know the chains of oppression. After the exodus God instructed this new nation never to turn their backs on the destitute, weak and widows, for this was their origin. “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). And if Israel treats the defenseless as Egypt treated the Hebrews, God will hear their cries, for his ear is especially tuned to the downtrodden. “For I am compassionate,” says the Lord God (Exodus 22:27).
God shows that he is partial to the poor when he executes justice to redeem the downtrodden and to crush the oppressor. When Scripture applies the justice of God to the poor and needy, we see God showing mercy to the downtrodden and bringing down the powerful.
Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. . . . He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. (Psalm 72:1-2, 4)
God is the defense attorney for the poor. God will be the spokesperson for the poor if there’s no one else. He will plead their cause and trumpet justice on their behalf. If nobody hears the cries of the poor, God will stand with them. God raised up prophetic voices like Amos, Isaiah and Micah to make clear that he was not a detached observer.
If justice for the poor means mercy and redemption, then justice for the powerful means judgment and being brought low. During the brief period of Amos’s prophesy in 760 B.C. there were three sins the prophet railed against, the poor were being economically exploited; the wealthy hoarded for themselves without concern for the plight of others; and the court system had become a tool of the powerful rather than a protector of the weak. Yet the people of Israel continued their practices of worship and offering sacrifices for sins in the temple. Amos states in the strongest terms that God will not abide with worship that does not issue in justice: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies” (Amos 5:21). Worship that does not lead to righteousness, defined here as concern for the poor, is a stench in the nostrils of God. Enough of this outward show. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). Treat the poor with equity, have compassion on the lowly, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and then I will receive your worship, says the Lord.
How does God respond to the needy? His heart accompanies them in compassion, for he hears their agony. As a defense attorney he takes up their cause and executes justice by redeeming the needy and judging the powerful.
Our Response to the Poor
After peering into the heart of God and seeing what is important to him, what are we individually and collectively to do in regard to the poor?
Our first act must be to repent of our disdain and disgust toward the poor. We must acknowledge our self-righteousness that views all poor as welfare cheats and lazy indigents. We must confess that our prejudice toward different classes of the poor, such as illegal immigrants, is a selfish disguise for not wanting to have our standard of living disrupted. We must remember that the poor are poor because of systematic racial prejudice, repressive political regimes and economic exploitation. Most of us have what we have by privilege of birth alone.
Secondly, we are called to identify with and stand for the poor, because the One we claim to follow as Lord did so. Jesus was born in a small, insignificant province of the Roman Empire. The first visitors at his birth were poor shepherds, the rogues of society. His parents, too poor to bring the normal offering for puri- fication, offered two pigeons in sacrifice instead of a lamb. Jesus was a refugee from political oppression; his family fled to Egypt and then migrated back to Galilee. As a rabbi he received no fees for his teaching and had no regular means of income. Having no home of his own, he said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). So complete was his identification with those on the fringes of life that he said to his followers, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Third, our response to God’s heart for the poor will cause us to examine how we can lead a compassionate lifestyle. What does a compassionate lifestyle look like? A young woman in her fourth year of medical school completes her work so that she can live among and serve the poor. Others simplify their lifestyle, reduce their overhead and live on less in order to release resources. A very practical step toward implementing a compassionate lifestyle and putting a governor on our greed is to obey God by tithing at least 10 percent of our income to the Lord’s work. What resources could be unleashed for world mission and for those who live on the edge of survival!
Our fourth response to God’s heart for the poor is to preach the gospel to them. Jesus inaugurated his ministry with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, . . . to preach the good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Throughout history it often is among the poor that the gospel has found receptivity. Historians credit the Great Awakening with heading off a growing spirit of rebellion among the poor. John Wesley was a key figure in taking the gospel from the established church to the streets. He was initially resistant to going beyond the “orthodox” ways of getting out the good news. He recorded in his journal, “In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (until very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in the church.”3
As we look at the world today, where is the gospel finding receptivity and spreading like wildfire? Traditional Western Christendom is in shambles. In North America faith has been privatized and marginalized. Europe is spiritually dead. The West, comfortable in its affluence, is spiritually powerless. But in Latin America, Africa and Asia the gospel is spreading at twice the rate of the population growth. Soon 60 percent of all Christians will reside in these three areas. “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith?” (James 2:5).
At the heart of our discipleship is a call to minister to the poor. We are to be where our Lord’s heart is. We must repent of our disdain for the poor, identify with and stand for the poor, commit ourselves to a compassionate lifestyle, and use our financial and human resources to aid the spread of the gospel among the poor. A number of years ago Mark Hatfield, a disciple of Jesus Christ and a retired senator from Oregon, spoke these words at a presidential prayer breakfast: “We sit here today as the wealthy and powerful, but let us not forget that those who follow Christ will more often find themselves not with the comfortable majorities but with the miserable minorities.”
1 John Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1976), pp. 47-48.
2 Karl Barth, “The Call to Discipleship,” in Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1969), 4:543-55.
3 Garth Lean, Strangely Warmed: The Amazing Life of John Wesley (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1964), p. 47
- Why do you think so much of the Bible focuses on economic issues?
- Consider the four suggestions given for responding to the poor. How are you moved to respond?