The Poor

Poverty is among the most discussed subjects in the Torah. The needy are close to the heart of God and should be close to the hearts of the people of God. There are four basic teachings that can be inferred from the Hebrew Scriptures concerning, poverty, the poor, and the responsibility of the rich toward the poor. These four teachings are, first, that the poor are not to be alienated from society, second, that the rich and anyone who is not rich has a responsibility toward the poor, third, that God desired fairness for all not just a nation of rich people, and fourth, that Spirituality is useless without fairness and justice.

The Scriptures never speak of the poor as being excluded from society and/or the community of God’s people. In fact, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between are included in God’s community. Amos 5:11-17 and 2:6-8 make it clear that the poor are integral to the framework of society. If you “trample” the poor then society will not function correctly—you won’t live in your own houses, or drink your own wine. There is a sort of artificial functionality when there is wealth without fair treatment of the poor—there is dishonesty in drinking wine “wine bought with fines.” To do good and to love good means treating people justly. As Deuteronomy 15:7 teaches, the poor are to be treated as “a member of your community” and as a “neighbor.” The biggest problem is not that there is too much poverty; the biggest problem is that the poor have been alienated from the wealthy

A connection should be drawn between Amos 5 and 2 and Leviticus 14:21-22. In this passage instruction is given as to how the poor should make sacrifices. It is important to note that as Amos implies that the poor are to be accepted as part of the community, here in Leviticus they are also included in worship and sacrifice. Not only should we see the poor as a part of the community but we should find a way for them to function within the society. One might have thought that we should simply give to the poor and require nothing from them, but the implication here is that they should participate and do their share, though it may be small. Like in Amos, if the poor don’t serve in the society as a part of it, the society can never function economically. Work should not be one-sided toward giving money to the poor. Work should also be done to get jobs for the poor and allow them to do their part—to serve the entire community by giving the lease in the world a place in it. Leviticus gives the poor both grace and responsibility and we would do well to find a balance between these two. This balance should also be considered in the legal system. Exodus 23:3 and 6 argues that the poor are to be held accountable and shown no partiality in a lawsuit. In other words, the poor are to be treated just like anyone else in a lawsuit. The poor are not aliens; they are part of the society and should be treated that way graciously. We must learn a balance between accountability, responsibility, and grace.

Along with the poor being given grace and responsibility, the Hebrew Scriptures also teach that the wealthy have a two-fold responsibility toward the poor— generosity and hospitality. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 teaches that the rich must be generous to the poor and given the sustenance they need. We must give to the poor out of our wealth. The poor and the widow are as important to God as the Levite priests, for Yahweh requires that his people give of their abundance to both of them. Deuteronomy 24:19-22 stresses the importance of generosity. We are so inclined to think of our possessions as being ours and ours alone, but Deuteronomy 24 tells us that even our possessions are given to us by God in order than we can give them to others. The author reminds Israel that they were once slaves, a powerful way of saying, “it’s not yours anyway, don’t you remember where you came from?” This passage is about priorities. We must ask ourselves, what is more important, our possessions or our neighbor? Too often we choose our possessions, consciously or unconsciously. We are to live off of what we need and give out of our excess. If you “forget a sheaf in the field” you must not have needed it anyway and thus it isn’t for you.” Yahweh blesses his people with sustenance so that his people can bless others with it. In Isaiah 14:32 it says that Yahweh founded his city so that the poor could “find refuge in her.” Nothing so belongs to us that we may hoard it up for our own use.

‘ Leviticus 25:35-43 argues that the poor cannot be ignored by the wealthy. The presupposition of this passage is that the poor are a part of the society and as a part of the society, equal to the wealthy; they should be taken in when in need and treated well. Moreover there is a goal to this hospitality—freedom. As Deuteronomy 15 teaches, there should not be any resentment—one should think to himself/herself, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view [their] needy neighbor with hostility.” Instead of resentment there should be a goal or restoration. Even in their poorest state jubilee is coming and we should help them graciously. This means putting our selfishness aside and really helping them without trying to make a profit off of them. The wealthier in the community have are nothing less than commanded, in Leviticus 25, to offer hospitality to someone in need as you would a “resident alien,” or a guest in the home until they are either brought to restoration or are desperate. If it comes down to desperation they should not be taken advantage of as slaves but paid fairly as a servant. The rich cannot ignore the poor, they cannot turn a cold shoulder to them, and they are commanded to take them in. This has radical implications to us in the United States. Many of us have distanced ourselves from poverty and made strangers out of them. From this distance it is impossible for us to take in the needy for we have no relationship with them. It is not enough just to throw money at them if they are strangers. Jeremiah 3:13-15 judges against scattering “favors among strangers.” Therefore we are held to a higher standard than just generosity, we are called to hospitality—actually creating a relationship between the rich and the poor and actually accepting them as part of the society in a real way.

Yahweh is not out to make everyone wealthy, the point of Scripture is not to acquire more stuff; God is after fairness and unity among the rich and the poor. The rich are held under special judgment and the poor are held under special blessing. In Psalm 109:15-16 shows the special judgment held for the rich if they do not act in generosity and hospitality. There is an attitude of contempt—“may his memory be cut off from the earth”—and why? It isn’t because he didn’t pray enough or sacrifice enough. There is judgment because “he did not remember to show kindness but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death.”

On the other hand, the poor seem to be especially blessed by God. Psalm 109:21-22 continues. Yahweh acts on the behalf of the poor because of his “steadfast love.” There is special promise from Yahweh that the poor will be saved (Isaiah 14:32). Also in Psalm 113:4-9 Yahweh lifts up the poor and humbles the rich. There seems to be a special place for the poor in God’s dream for the world. For example, Moses was among the wealthiest in the world, raised as a prince in Egypt. But it was not until he became poor and humbled that God chose him and used him (Numbers 12:3). God’s goal in judging the wealthy and blessing the poor is not to make the poor rich, necessarily, but to bring them together in fairness. He makes the poor “sit with princes” (Psalm 113:8). This balance of things is seen in the attitude of the author of Proverbs 30:8-9, he wants neither wealth nor poverty, but just what is needed, because he understands the poverty of wealth.

The final and most important thing to note is that Spirituality, and spiritual discipline is vanity without fairness and justice, generosity and hospitality. Isaiah 1:13-17 says that as long as there is blood on our hands, our sacrifices, our acts of worship, and our prayers are nothing to him. In other words you cannot show love to God unless you also love his people, especially those who are poor. Yahweh’s currency of love is that we love each other. God’s priorities place people above ritual and compassion above spirituality. Like we saw in Psalm 109:15-16, God seems to get angry about how we treat the poor before he gets angry about how much we pray, sing, etc. God hates hypocrisy. What happens then, if our churches become so inwardly focused and concerned about bible studies and worship services above serving and taking in the poor? Then our worship services and prayers are meaningless and even “detestable” to God. It is because of this principal that service and sacrament should be our primary identifying mark as Christians, rather than worship songs, T-shirts with Jesus’ name on them, and bumper stickers. All of those things are just garbage without true love for God and God’s people, through acceptance, generosity, and hospitality.