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Poverty and the People of God in Israel, the Church, and Today


In this all too brief treatment of poverty and the people of God, I would like to address the question of poverty through the lens of what it means to be a Christian community.  I am not here interested in institutional agents of change; nor am I interested in operational programs for poverty alleviation.  My concern is more narrowly that of being the Christian community and what that means for issues of wealth and poverty.

While my ultimate emphasis will be on certain passages in the Old and New Testaments, I want to begin with various observations from other fields of study about poverty.  Thus, I begin with some thoughts about the nature of poverty before applying this to the Scriptures.

Understanding Poverty

John Iliffe, in his book Poverty in Africa, follows others in distinguishing structural poverty from conjunctural poverty.  Structural poverty is systemic and has to do with the long term poverty of individuals due to their personal or social circumstances.  Conjunctural poverty has to do with ‘the temporary poverty into which ordinarily self-sufficient people may be thrown by crisis.’[1] I would suggest that some further distinction between (1) personal, circumstantial poverty, (2) societal conjunctural poverty, and (3) systemic, political poverty will help in understanding and addressing poverty.

Access to Labour and Access to Resources

Illife further notes that the reasons for structural poverty are different depending on whether there are rich resources or few resources.  When there are ample resources and yet structural poverty, the problem is a problem of access to labour.  In agrarian societies that are land rich, poverty arises due to labour problems such as the age of the population (too young or old), incapacitation, and the breakdown of family units (e.g., the abandonment of a woman with children by the chief bread winner).  Where there are land resources (and therefore no overpopulation), a better standard of living may come by having a larger family that can work the land. 

Following Iliffe’s analysis further, when Europe was still land rich—until the 12th century—the structurally poor were mainly the weak, such as widows, orphans, captives, and the infirm.  Most of the poor in the early Middle Ages, e.g., were of this kind.  An infirmity, such as blindness, could condemn one to poverty.  As the population increased in the 12th and 13th centuries, the structurally poor were increasingly those who could not sell their labour.  War and the Black Plague reduced Europe’s numbers by as many as 1/3rd of the population in the 14th century, but, by the end of the 16th and in the 17th century, Europe again had problems of structural poverty due to an enlarged population unable to sell their labour at adequate prices.  In the 18th century, most of France’s beggars were children, an indication of structural poverty due to overpopulation, inaccess to labour, and lack of land resources.[2]

When there are few resources and yet structural poverty, the problem is access to resources.  The lack of access to resources may be caused by too large a work force or wages that are too low to meet minimum needs.  The problem of poverty when there is a lack of access to resources will be exacerbated by having larger families, and this may be a significant issue for urban families.

            Types of Poverty

In Nehemiah 5, we find a story that describes several causes of poverty: overpopulation (v. 2); famine (v. 3); taxes (v. 4); loss of houses, fields, olive orchards, and vineyards (vv. 5, 11); charging interest (v. 7); and charging high prices for food to labourers (v. 15).  In this last case, people find themselves falling into debt to their employers rather than actually earning wages.  One result of being reduced to poverty was enslavement (v. 5).

In a more contemporary vein, a helpful travelogue by Paul Theroux, Dark Safari, documents various challenges to economic stability and development in Africa, and the examples of different sorts of poverty he gives are helpful for exploring types of poverty in Africa at the present time.[3]  The following list and organization of the categories is my own attempt to classify the examples Theroux gives (and others note as well).

A.    Personal Circumstantial Poverty:

1.     Inadequate, personal education or training for the job market
2.     Disease
3.     Disability
4.     Lack of a work ethic
5.     Lack of a stewardship ethic
6.     Theft and vandalism

B.  Conjunctural Poverty:

1.     Disease (such as AIDS and the related social problems that it causes—widows, orphans, unproductive work force, and then the further social problems that arise for people in poverty)
2.     Increase in population when there are shortages of resources (especially in cities; also when there is drought, shortage of land)
3.     Loss of expertise through emigration of the educated (brain drain)
4.     War
5.     Displacement of people
6.     Natural catastrophes (e.g., floods, drought)
7.     Cultural factors: e.g., extended family responsibilities eat up the profits of a businessman and keep his family from upward mobility
8.     Urbanisation
9.     Lack of volunteerism
10.  Lack of a social safety net for persons facing financial struggles (access to loans, persons without families, temporary loss of work)

C.    Systemic or Structural Poverty:

1.     Lack of assets, such as land
2.     Inadequate educational system or training for the job market (business, agriculture, etc.)
3.     Social Engineering, such as Africanisation: e.g., Black Africans taking over Indian shops (Uganda in the era of Idi Amin) or white farms (Zimbabwe in the era of Mugabe) or ‘reverse discrimination’ (South Africa at the present time)—putting persons without qualifications into key jobs without those replacing them being trained, interested, or capable
4.     The politics of foreign aid:
a.     Desirable Dependency: Some politicians in developing countries need the country to remain in poverty in order to keep aid flowing that somehow (whether legally or corruptly) benefits them financially and/or politically;
b.     Enablement: Bad systems, incompetent administrators, and corrupt officials may be supported and enabled by foreign aid;
c.     Fund-raising: Donors, knowing about incompetence or corruption or able to raise funds for specific projects and not others, determine where aid money must be spent to keep the aid flowing rather than where the need is;
d.     Enrichment: A small proportion of funds raised for a need actually reach those who need it, while those involved in the project enrich themselves;[4]
e.     Incompetence: Development may be ill-conceived, either lacking awareness of the context and people or being inappropriate in some way.[5]
f.      Aid agency culture: established but unhelpful patterns of relationships (how they relate to 'projects' and 'people') and dependency attitudes of those receiving ongoing aid.
5.     Lack of planning for the future
6.     Under-funding of key jobs for social development (e.g., teachers)
7.     Too weak of a middle class allowing for financial mobility
8.     Corruption
9.     Social stigmatization (classicism, racism) and Institutional oppression (slavery, caste system)
10.  Lack of debt release
11.  Excessive taxation

In addition to making distinctions between types of poverty, there are more complicated considerations in any discussion of poverty that mix the three categories and the issues in each.   For example, the Old Testament offers a systemic, political solution to conjunctural or personal poverty.

Systemic Poverty and the Old Testament

Prosperity and Faithful Obedience to God

God promised prosperity to Israel if they obeyed his commandments:

Deuteronomy 28:11 And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you (New Revised Standard Version, here and throughout)

Alternatively, if Israel did not obey God’s commandments, she would experience infertility, pestilence, disease, drought, warfare, disabilities, theft, enslavement, subjugation, captivity, loss of position to immigrants (Deuteronomy 28:15-44).

Addressing Systemic Poverty in an Agrarian Society

            Private Property

The Old Testament assumes an agrarian society.  It also assumes property ownership and assets, such that two of the Ten Commandments, the 8th and 10th, address this:

Exodus 20:15   "You shall not steal.

Exodus 20:17  "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's."

In Deuteronomy, the 10th Commandment against coveting includes the neighbour’s field (Deuteronomy 5:21).  Private ownership of land means an asset to keep one from poverty.  The nation of Israel prospered under Solomon, with each person dwelling under his vine and fig tree (1 Kings 4:25; cf. 2 Kings 18:31).  This was way of stating prosperity in terms of private ownership was also a vision of the future (Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10).

Yet Scripture also sees land wealth as a possible injustice.

Amos attacks rich landowners and royal officials of Northern Kingdom who exploit and subject the poor (5.10‑12; 8.4‑8).

            Systemic Poverty and the Exploitation of the Poor by the Rich

Property exploitation is the injustice that occurs when home improvement disadvantages the poor.  As Isaiah warns:

Isaiah 5:8 Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.

Another injustice is the writing of unfair laws, designed to favour the rich over the poor:

Isaiah 10:1-2 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,  2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!

One of the major warnings we find in the Old Testament is delivered to the rich who exploit the poor.  This may happen through taxes that hurt the poor (Amos 5:11), bribery (Amos 5.12), and marketplace dishonesty:

Amos 8:4-6 Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end,  5 saying, "When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel1 great and deal deceitfully with false balances,  6 that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?"

Exploitation of the poor also happens in agrarian societies when people become rich in land while others struggle on the land as peasant farmers.  The issue is not about large, productive farming that could be a benefit to society but the powerful enforcing their desires on the lowly.  For example, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel have Naboth killed simply because they want his land (1 Kings 21).  Isaiah and Micah warn the rich against seizing the land of the poor (Isaiah 5:8; Micah 2:2).

Systemic Poverty and Debt Release: The Jubilee

Year of release (Dt. 15.1ff, 12ff; Jer. 34.8ff) and of Jubilee (Lev. 25‑‑Yahweh owns the land; Israelites are tenants).  Remission of debt, freeing of slaves, redistribution [return] of land.

This distinction between structural and conjunctural poverty can help us understand one of the key Biblical texts for addressing how structural policies may address conjunctural poverty.  In Deuteronomy 15, we find a description of debt release that can help the able-bodied poor to start again—a system to keep conjectural poverty from becoming systemic.  The Jubilee Year was a year of remission of debts.  No interest is given to how one might have become conjuncturally poor; the interest is in breaking the cycle.

First, the text expresses the fact that God plays a role in keeping people out of structural poverty by blessing his people in the land (v. 4).  Thus, we hear in v. 4 that there will be ‘no one in need among you.’  Second, because God has freely blessed his people in the land such that they have become prosperous, the people are to lend to any in need without interest and, in the seventh year, to forgive the debt entirely.  Such a practice allowed the newly poor to recover from conjunctural poverty as they again had access to resources—the land.

This system allowed for the use of land to access money—a mortgage of an asset to secure a loan—and a sure way to regain access to the asset so as not to become structurally poor.  It also allowed for the use of labour to pay off debts—an indenture or slavery to work off the debt without becoming perpetually enslaved (except by choice).  One never incurred a permanent loss of access to the resource of land or the resource of one’s own labour.  There are no free handouts in this system, but there is, ultimately, debt forgiveness through the return of land or the freeing of a slave.  The Jubilee Year was fixed and came around every seven years, and so one could climb out of poverty in the period between when one became poor and the appointed 7th year.

The alternative was that people lost their land to wealthier persons, who then had more capital to purchase other lands and get even richer.  Historically, this became a major problem in Israel in the Hellenistic period.  After Herod the Great, in Jesus’ time, the problem became acute as wealthy persons accumulated large estates that they let out to tenant farmers, who were then expected to make the wealthy owners sizeable profits.  This situation is reflected in Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants.  The situation grew increasingly dire during Herod the Great’s rule as he killed various nobility and took over their estates (Josephus, Jewish War, 17.305-7).

With the Jubilee, there should be no structurally poor in Israel.  However, conjuncturally, there would be those slipping into poverty.  People will always fall into poverty, no matter what the social structure is.

            Safety Net for Those Who Fall Outside the System

In Old Testament times, several groups fell outside the system.  Given the agrarian engine for the economy during the years of the monarchy, those without land rights or who could not work the land were vulnerable and needed special consideration.  Given the economic system, certain measures were needed to be put in place to keep people from falling into systemic poverty.  Widows and orphans fall into this group, as do many of the foreigners in the land.  Another landless group were the Levites, who were not given any possession of property along with the other tribes of Israel in the land. 

1.     General Call to Act Righteously to the Systemically Poor

Job offers a description of poverty in his day.  The poor are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, they struggle in a life of hardship for lack of basic resources, and they work in other people’s employment while lacking the same things that they provide for others through their work:

Job 24:3-11 They drive away the donkey of the fatherless; they take the widow's ox for a pledge.  4 They thrust the poor off the road; the poor of the earth all hide themselves.  5 Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert the poor go out to their toil, seeking game; the wasteland yields food for their children.  6 They gather their fodder in the field, and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.  7 They lie all night naked, without clothing, and have no covering in the cold.  8 They are wet with the rain of the mountains and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.  9 (There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast, and they take a pledge against the poor.)  10 They go about naked, without clothing; hungry, they carry the sheaves;  11 among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil; they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.

For these groups, there is a general call to act righteously towards them, to help them and not exploit them.  One reason given for this ethic is that this is who God himself is:

Psalm 10:14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.  
Psalm 68:5 Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
Psalm 146:9 The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Another reason for this ethic is that Israel itself was once in slavery in Egypt; it should, therefore, have empathy for those in need in its own society.
The poor are not only poor; they are also vulnerable to the powerful.  This is stated with respect to trying to gain widows’ properties—but God helps the lowly:

Proverbs 15:25 The LORD tears down the house of the proud but maintains the widow's boundaries.     

Job describes evil and righteousness with respect to treatment of the poor.  Righteousness involves not taking pledges from the poor and giving to those in need of basics (drink, food).  Those who are evil have resources and power but do nothing to help the needy widows and orphans.  The righteous do help the needy and the disabled (blind and lame), and they seek justice on their behalf against those who would exploit and abuse them.

Job 22:5-9 Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to your iniquities.  6 For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing and stripped the naked of their clothing.  7 You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.  8 The man with power possessed the land, and the favored man lived in it.  9 You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.

Job 29:12-17 I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him.  13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy.  14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.  15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.  16 I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.  17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous and made him drop his prey from his teeth.

Job 31:16-22 "If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,  17 or have eaten my morsel alone, and the fatherless has not eaten of it  18 (for from my youth the fatherless1 grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother's womb I guided the widow2),  19 if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or the needy without covering,  20 if his body has not blessed me, and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep,  21 if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, because I saw my help in the gate,  22 then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.

2.     Further Particular Care for the Foreigners, Widows, Orphans, Day Labourers, and Poor

God’s concern for and care for the poor calls for his people to share that concern and care.  Failure to do so will incur punishment.  They are vulnerable, needy, and living hand to mouth.  Those who exploit these people will be punished by God.

Exodus 23:9 "You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 27:19 "'Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'

Psalm 146:9 The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Proverbs 23:10-11 Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless,  11 for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.

Isaiah 1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

Isaiah 1:23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them.

Jeremiah 5:28 They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

Jeremiah 7:6-7 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm,  7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.

Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

Ezekiel 22:7 Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.

Zechariah 7:10  do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."

Malachi 3:5 "Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

Building, no doubt, on this strong precedent, John the Baptist preaches a message of economic justice to the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers:

Luke 3:10-14 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"  11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"  13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."  14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

James gives a warning to those who are rich on the backs of others, who have gained wealth through defrauding others, and who have indulged themselves in luxury when others are in need:[6]

James 5:1-6 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.  2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.  3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.  4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  6 You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

3.     Communal Resources and A Tithe for the Poor

In the Old Testament, communal resources for the poor came from a tri-annual tithe.

Deuteronomy 14:27-29 And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.  28 "At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns.  29 And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. (Cf. Deuteronomy 26:12-13).

This principle may explain, or is at least similar to, the Jerusalem Church’s collection of voluntary resources, such as from the sale of a property, and sharing with the whole Christian community so that no one was in need:

Acts 2:45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Second century Christian authors also collected money for the poor.

Justin Martyr, First Apology XIV[7]
…we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need….

Clement of Alexandria, who says the following:
That expression, therefore, “I possess, and possess in abundance: why then should I not enjoy?” is suitable neither to the man, nor to society. But more worthy of love is that: “I have: why should I not give to those who need?” For such an one—one who fulfils the command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”—is perfect. For this is the true luxury—the treasured wealth. But that which is squandered on foolish lusts is to be reckoned waste, not expenditure. For God has given to us, I know well, the liberty of use, but only so far as necessary; and He has determined that the use should be common. And it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want. How much more glorious is it to do good to many, than to live sumptuously! How much wiser to spend money on human being, than on jewels and gold! How much more useful to acquire decorous friends, than lifeless ornaments! (The Instructor 2.13).

Tertullian, tells how church collections are used.  He says that they
…are not spent on banquets, drinking parties, or dining clubs; but for feeding and burying the poor, for boys and girls destitute of property and parents; and further for old people confined to the house, and victims of shipwreck; and any who are in the mines, who are exiled to an island, or who are in prison merely on account of God’s church—these become the wards of their confession.  So great a work of love burns a brand upon us in regard to some.  ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’…. They are furious that we call ourselves brothers, I think, for no other reason than that among them every name of kinship is a feigning of affection….  But possibly we are thought less than real brothers because no tragedy cries aloud about our brotherhood, or because we are brothers in the family possessions, which with regard to you are the very things that dissolve brotherhood.  So we who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing property.  All things are common among us except our women (Apology XXXIX.5-11).

4.     A Work-for-Food Programme

The Old Testament protects the poor by requiring of producers—the farmers—that they participate in a food-for-work programme.  Ruth illustrates this, as she, a widow and caring for her mother-in-law, also a widow, gleans from the edge of Boaz’s field (Ruth 2:1-9).  This is, actually, a law in the land:

Leviticus 19:9-10 "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.  10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Cf. Lev. 23:22.)

A Sabbath Year is also a feeding programme, not only for the poor but for animals.  The Sabbath each week is also meant to help the poor not have to work constantly.
Exodus 23:10-12 "For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield,  11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.  12 "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

5.     Almsgiving, Lending to, and Feeding the Poor; Not Taking Pledges

Assistance for the poor in the form of outright giving and of lending is mentioned in Scripture. This is not stated as a programme regulated by laws; it is a religious requirement that, if ignored, may incur sin.

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,  8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.  9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin.  10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'

Lending to the poor at interest and feeding the poor for gain are forbidden.  A debtor working off the debt (‘slavery’) should not be treated as a slave but as an employee on a limited contract (until the Jubilee).  This helps conjunctural poverty avoid becoming systemic.

Exodus 22:21-27 You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.   22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.  23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry,  24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.  25 "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.  26 If ever you take your neighbor's cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down,  27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Leviticus 25:35-42 "If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.  36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you.  37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.  38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.  39 "If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave:  40 he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.  41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.  42 For they are my servants,1 whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.

Pledges are not to be taken from the poor where they create hardship:

Job 22:6 For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing and stripped the naked of their clothing.

  These measures are given to avoid systemic poverty.

Circumstantial, Personal Poverty

Apart from structural and conjunctive poverty, there is also a permanent poverty that some face due to their circumstances.

Perhaps when we think of Jesus healing the poor or casting out demons, we think primarily or only individualistically: how wonderful it is that that person was delivered from that situation.  Yet more is certainly going on in the 1st century context: a healthy and whole person is being restored to a family and village.  This may well mean that a ‘provider’ has returned to help meet the family’s needs, especially if the person is a male.  Healing a leper, a blind man, delivering a man from demons—the joy of restoration was not only over a miracle and personal health.  One might think of the blind man from birth who was healed by Jesus in Jerusalem (John 9).  He would become a productive man eventually, perhaps in time to take care of his parents in their old age.  For some who have become accustomed to and dependent upon a social programme to help them, the question might arise whether they really want to return to being productive citizens and family members.  Thus, Jesus asks the man who had been disabled for thirty-eight years at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5) whether he wanted to be healed (v. 6).  When Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead, he is not just giving life back to the man but also providing for the needs of the widow if her son does what is expected of him: to care for his mother (Luke 7.11-15).  Jesus’ miracles not only show his power and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  They are not only stories of personal restoration.  They are also a familial and economic blessing to others.

The Household Church is a Social Ethic

            The House Church

We encounter a church dynamic in the early Church that was of economic significance: the house church.  Jesus had removed ministry from the synagogues and the Temple, saying worship was to be in ‘Spirit and truth’ (John 4:24).  Wherever the early believers were persecuted or ostracized from the synagogues, they naturally found themselves turning to homes as places of worship.  However, the home was much more for the church than a place of worship.  The church was a constructed family around the home of an actual family, with its parents, children, and slaves.  It was an economic unit.  It was a place of hospitality.  It was a home filled with loving and caring relationships.  With the custom of masters receiving business partners in the home and large homes having guest quarters, the house was an ideal physical place and nexus for spreading the Gospel.  It cut across social, gender, and age distinctions.  It afforded a communal and loving atmosphere where people were welcomed and family fellowship and care were expressed.  It was a place that ‘welcomed’ others, both intimate relations and visitors.  The home setting required persons to come to terms with ‘table fellowship’—what could be eaten and drunk (Rom. 14.1ff), who would sit with whom (Jews with Gentiles, e.g.), and whether social distinctions would be kept or not (1 Cor. 11:17ff).  It was a place where those in need found persons who cared and could help, just as it was a place where some might exploit the graces of those willing. And, with masters and slaves—often foreigners and perhaps from barbaric tribes, such as the Scythians—in the same house and worshiping together around a common table, it created challenges to the social distinctions of Greek and Roman society.  In all this, the house church created aspects of what it meant to be ‘church’ that a society, synagogue, or Temple would not necessarily create.

As Martin Hengel says, Paul did not ‘require complete abolition of differences in means, but looked for active and effective brotherly love’ (2 Cor. 8:13ff).[8]  Thus, as Hengel further notes, virtues of generosity and hospitality (Rom. 12.13; 2 Cor. 9.6-7) and vices of avarice and greed (Rom. 1.29; 1 Cor. 5.10f; 6.10; 2 Co. 9.5f; Col. 3.5) are possible and relevant in the Christian community.  Some Christians were persons of means: e.g., those with homes that could provide a place for the church to assemble (e.g., Stephanus, 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15-17; Prisca and Aquila, Acts 18:2; 18:26; Rom. 16.3; Nympha, Phlm. 2; Col. 4.15; Aristobulus, Rom. 16.10; Narcissus, Rom. 16.11, Mnason, Acts 21.16), those owning slaves (e.g., Philemon), the city treasurer of Corinth, Erastus (Rom. 16.23), a business woman, Lydia (Acts 16.14), a lawyer, Zenas (Titus 3.13).  The majority, as might be expected, were from a poorer class (1 Cor. 1.26-27; 2 Cor. 8.2).

One difficulty the early church encountered was persons taking advantage of its social ethic.  Some abused the system.  On the one hand, there were those who fed, literally, off the church without contributing anything. 1 Th. 4.12; 5.14 Paul admonishes the Thessalonian believers to work with their own hands and not be dependent on anyone (1 Thessalonians 4:12-13).  Later in this letter, he admonishes the church to offer a variety of assistance that one expects from a household, while also warning against those who would be idle:

1 Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted,[9] help the weak, be patient with them all.

In 2 Thessalonians, Paul gives a longer and more direct word regarding this:

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12  Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.  7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,  8 and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.  9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.  10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.  11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.  12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

At some point in his ministry, Paul realized the need to set an example for the church, as this passage indicates.  He worked as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3), avoided dependency on others (1 Cor. 9), and accepted assistance only from a church he was not presently ministering (Philippians 1:5; 2:25, 30; 4:10, 15-17).

            The Jubilee, the Kingdom of God, the Church, and the Family

What we saw above in reference to the Jubilee in Dt. 15 was the notion that Israel as a community should function in such a way that systemic poverty can be overcome.  Whatever the causes of poverty, lending and the Jubilee Year of debt remission were meant as ways to avoid impoverishment beyond seven years.  Because society was so structured to deal with systemic poverty, one might say that Israel itself was a social ethic rather than had a social ethic.  To explore such an idea, I propose to turn to two Christian ethicists, Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.  We might then extend the statement about Israel to the Church as God’s people.

John Howard Yoder popularized the idea that Jesus’ Kingdom ethics was based in large part on enforcing the Jubilee Year.  The Lord’s Prayer, for example, emphasizing the remission of debts when disciples pray, ‘Forgive us our sins’ or ‘transgressions’ or, ‘debts.’[10]  Jesus, moreover, applies forgiveness to other areas of life: to the one who strikes a person on the cheek, to the one who sues one for his or her cloak, to the one who is conscripted to carry something (Mt. 5.38-41).  He, like Dt. 15, calls on disciples to lend to those who ask (Mt. 5.42).

Yoder called such practices by the community of disciples the ‘politics of Jesus.’  Thus, he continued, ‘the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.’[11]

Building on Yoder’s approach to Christian communal ethics, Stanley Hauerwas emphasised an ethic that was worked out within the community first, that defined the community, and that only then could be extended or applied to the larger society.  He summarized his view as follows:[12]

I am challenging the very idea that the primary goal of Christian social ethics should be an attempt to make the world more peaceable or just.  Rather, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community.  Such a claim may well sound self-serving until we remember that what makes the church the church is its faithful manifestation of the peaceable kingdom in the world.  As such, the church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.

Indeed, the family does not have a social ethic, the family is a social ethic.

            The Church as a Social Ethic

How might we understand the point that Yoder and Hauerwas wish to make?  Perhaps two examples will suffice, one from South America and one from Africa.

First, Doug Petersen, writing about Pentecostal churches in Latin America, says that,[13]

Contrary to the traditional critique that Pentecostals do not adequately demonstrate a social conscience, typically congregations provide social welfare services to needy families, the sick, the abused and the aged….  Planning, projection of programmes, decision-making, allocation of resources, i.e., many roles appropriate to associational life, are part of the members’ participation in a Pentecostal community.

Peterson continues,[14]

…Pentecostals have formed themselves into voluntary associations that produce the following strategic features of a social organization.  They enjoy the immediate benefits of a surrogate extended family or community, including acceptance and a proprietary interest in a legally constituted, property-owning collectivity.  Moreover, the congregation enhances the further development of the initiates by encouraging and validating an intense subjective experience and morally reinforcing their values, beliefs and conduct.  In a society where status and networks could be largely ascribed, the adherent is presented with the opportunity for personal growth, peer recognition and extended influence, as well as the acquisition of skills that have broad application outside the church community.

Second, Julius Oladipo offers a list of strategic advantages of the Church in poverty alleviation in Africa.[15]  In this list, one can see that the Church goes beyond simply having programs to help the poor because the Church is itself community, a community woven into the fabric of the larger community and yet distinct from it.  Here are some of the Church’s strategic advantages in poverty alleviation, according to Oladipo:[16]

1.     The Church is everywhere: in the city, in the country, in areas of conflict, in all segments of the population.  Thus it knows the situation well, and it can respond to need quickly and effectively.
2.     ‘The Church is nonpartisan,’ serving the whole community, and it is not interested in political power.
3.     ‘The Church is a stable institution,’ unlike many governments, and it has a regular and predictable procedure by which it operates.  It ‘has an existing structure and mechanisms for initiating new activities.’
4.     ‘The Church conforms to a moral order,’ including a strong concern for the poor and marginalized.
5.     ‘The Church is part of a wider global institutional structure.’

The Early Church’s Approach to Poverty (New Testament)

We may now be in a position to appreciate the early Church’s approach to poverty.  Three texts deserve particular mention.

First, the early Church in Jerusalem practiced voluntary communitarianism.  We read in Acts 4.32 that ‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.’  The result was that

there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4.34-35).

Something like the Jubilee Year principle seems to have been behind this practice, whereby structural and conjunctural poverty was averted.  The Jubilee rectified inequality arising from the vicissitudes of life by allowing people to start afresh every seven years.  To accomplish this, debts had to be forgiven and slaves had to be freed in the seventh year, but lending without interest needed to operate in the intervening years.  The Jerusalem church took this to a new level.  Instead of lending, they held all things in common such that nobody was in need.

Something of the Jubilee principle can be seen in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  First, Paul affirms the Jerusalem church’s concern for the poor.  In Gal. 2.10 we read, ‘they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.’  Second, Paul concludes his epistle with an appeal to care for the poor.  How he does so is informative as it once again shows the communitarian ethic that Yoder and Hauerwas identified.  Paul says, ‘so then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’ (Gal. 6.10).

While we are here venturing into a vast subject, I wish only to emphasise that Paul sees wealth as at best a way to contribute to the needs of the community.  In 1 Timothy 6 he says,

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life’ (1 Tim. 6.17-19). 

The danger of wealth was stated a few verses earlier:

those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains’ (6.9-10). 

Paul instructs Timothy, as a man of God, to shun the pursuit of wealth in favour of virtue (v. 11).

While much more might be said on this matter, we might sum up a few points.  The poor are to be remembered; wealth is to be shunned but, if one is wealthy, it is an opportunity for someone to do good by being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.  Otherwise, it is a grave spiritual danger that can lead to pride, placing confidence in riches rather than in God.  Indeed, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil such that it can actually lead one to wander from the faith.


I began by trying to get some understanding of poverty that might help us understand Scripture and current challenges.  I then turned to ways in which Scripture addresses various problems of poverty.  These considerations increasingly came to focus on how the people of God address concern for the poor in light of the character of their community.  Christians, as Stanley Hauerwas has been fond of saying, do not have a social ethic because the church is a social ethic.  This is a replacement of value ethics with communitarian ethics.  It is also a replacement of programmes and projects with ecclesiology.

The Gospel has social implications, as Israel, the Jerusalem church, and Paul well recognised.  Structurally, the people of God should have in place ways to save the poor from long term poverty.  This may look different from one community to another, but the bottom line needs to be that there is no needy person among us.  When a church begins to explore how this will look, it will begin to be ask questions of community that will shape it into the people of God, not a collection of individual believers who contribute now and then to benevolence funds and programs.  Imagine, with Yoder and Hauerwas, if the Church began to live out Kingdom community in such a way that the world began to take notice of us once again, such that they were to say, ‘Behold, how they love one another’ (as Tertullian noted; Apology XXXIX).

[1] John Iliffe, The African Poor: A History, African Studies (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 4.
[2] John Illiffe, The African Poor, pp. 4-5.
[3] Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
[4] See Graham Hancock, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business (Atlantic Monthly, 1994); Dambiso Moya, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010).
[5] See Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, rev. ed. (New York: Orbis, 2011).  See my review:
[6] The intertestamental literature of Judaism also shows a concern about the exploitation of the poor: Sir. 11.10; 34.20‑22; Ecclus. 31.5; 13.3f, 19ff; Eth. Enoch 94.6‑10, cf. 96.4ff; 97.8‑10, cf. 100.6; 102.9ff, 63.10; 103.9.
[7] See online: (
[8] Hengel, p. 39.
[9] Perhaps ‘discouraged’ would be a better translation—or even more generally ‘those struggling’.  The Greek is ‘oligopsychos’—‘little soul’.  Martin Hengel sees several reasons for this admonition to work: (1) not to cause offense to outsiders; (2) to avoid any lack of what one needs; (3) and an ‘enthusiastic expectation of parousia’—Christ’s return (Poverty and Riches, p. 35).  This third reason has been a common one in scholarship, but it is not spelled out this way by Paul.  The basis for it is that both 1 and 2 Thessalonians address the issue of the Lord’s return, and the 2nd epistle is a response to those who have been misled to believe that the Lord had already returned.  Yet I find this fact unrelated to idleness in the church.  Paul does not draw the connection, and the nature of the early Christian community, growing out of the household, seems a far more likely reason for idleness to develop.  If meals and other things are held in common with a lot of good will in community, it is only natural that some will need to be admonished more than others to do their share rather than just relax in what the community offers.
[10] Luke is particularly close to the idea of canceling debts with his use of ‘aphiemi,’ which can be translated as ‘forgive’ or ‘cancel,’ and with his use of the word ‘opheilō,’ or ‘owe,’ in ‘Forgive/cancel our sins, for we also cancel [the debts] to everyone who owes [something] to us’ (Lk. 11.4).
[11] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994), p. 154.
[12] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics,’ in The Hauerwas Reader: Stanley Hauerwas, eds. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 374.  Originally published 1983.  See also Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IL: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1991), p. 99.
[13] Petersen, Douglas. Not By Might Nor By Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern in Latin America.  Oxford: Regnum, 1996, p. 120.
[14] Petersen, p. 145.
[15] Julius Oladipo, ‘The Role of the Church in Poverty Alleviation in Africa.’  Faith in Development: Patrnership between the World Bank and the Churches of Africa.  Ed. Deryke Belshaw, Robert Calderisi, Chris Sugden.  Oxford: Regnum, 2001.  In Pp. 219-236.
[16] Oladipo, pp. 220-222.