Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 25, 2011

The Complexity of Poverty In The Bible

Last week I looked at Jonathan Edwards response to the common objections people have toward helping the poor. The main point Edwards makes is that we should not be quick to write off someone as undeserving of help, because Christ did not object to helping us when we were undeserving of his grace. This is an important foundation when it comes to responding to those in need. We ought to err on the side of being very generous considering the fact that Jesus himself gave himself up for us despite our sin and our rebellion toward him.

This morning I came across an essay that addresses our objections to charity from a different angle. In Timothy Keller’s book Resources for Deacons, he argues that one of our main objections towards helping the poor in our community is that poverty is considered to be the result of laziness. By doing so we offer a very quick and simple assessment of the cause of poverty. We may even back it up with a proof text from the book of Proverbs where we read things like, “lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”

However, Keller reminds us that the biblical understanding of poverty is much more complex. In fact he says, “it is fair to notice that outside of Proverbs, the ‘lazy poor’ is mentioned very little. The majority of references of poverty in the Bible are not negative of scornful.”

Keller points out that there are three major causes of poverty that can be traced through scripture. The first is oppression. Keller says that “the Hebrew word most often translated ‘the poor,’ in the Old Testament means ‘wrongfully dispossessed.'” Poverty, then, can often result from unfair treatment of social conditions that are outside of a persons control (Ps 72:4, Prov 14:31, Ex 22:21-27). The Bible has examples of people receiving unjust wages (Deut 24:15), and being exploited by high interest loans (Ex 22:25-27), etc.

The second cause of poverty in scripture is disaster. Sometimes poverty results from natural disasters, disease, and unexpected financial loss. In fact Proverbs 19:1 describes a poor man who is a person of integrity. Sometimes poverty is not rooted in personal sin or laziness, it is brought about by an external calamity or disaster.

The third cause of poverty is sin. To be sure, the Bible does recognize that poverty can be the result of laziness (Pr 10:4), a lack of disciplines (Pr 23:21), and the pursuit of luxury (Pr 21:17). The point, Keller makes, however, is that the causes of poverty are multi-faceted, and can often be inter-related. Sometimes those who seem to be impoverished due to a lack of work ethic are actually implicated by numerous other forces, such as a lack of access to education or resources, mental or physical disability, unexpected tragedy and so on.

Does this challenge your thinking? Change your thinking? Is it important to distinguish between causes of poverty?

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Whoa! “The Lazy Poor” label seems to be the justification for conservative budget cutting when it comes to social welfare programs. It’s interesting that Bible translators chose to substitute “the poor” for “wrongfully dispossessed”. Almost sounds politically motivated, doesn’t it?

    • Hi Henry,

      Welcome to the blog.

      I’m not sure we have a translation conspiracy going on here. A simple reading of scripture in context gets at the concept of ‘wrongful dispossession’ while still using the more generic word ‘poor.’ Most words have a large semantic range the depend on context for interpretation.

      I think the real problem is a selective reading of scripture. So I would argue that it is the readers more than the translators that are guilty of misinterpretation. People on both sides of the political spectrum will pick and choose texts that fit their pre-fabricated political views. Timothy Keller argues that the church in America takes its cues more from the political culture than from the spirit of Jesus and the prophets. As such we limit the full implications of Jesus’ social teaching, and overlook the texts that don’t fit our agenda. A close reading of scripture, with or without, the use of ‘wrongfully dispossessed,’ gives a pretty clear mandate to care for those in need.

  2. I think it’s definitely important to distinguish causes of poverty not because some people deserve charity and others don’t but to make sure charity is going towards something worthwhile. If someone is poor because they spend all their money on Pokemon cards giving them money will be less helpful than giving it to someone who became poor because of overspending on Pokemon cards but has now turned his life around.

    What does Keller say about 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13?

    “Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep. Friends, don’t slack off in doing your duty.”

    • Re: 2 Thessalonians

      Again, I think the point is not to pick a proof text and build a social theory on it. There are examples in scripture where poverty is associated with Laziness but there are times when it is not. The 2 thess text is referring to a particular situation, but does not account for the full spectrum of how poverty is treated in scripture.

      • No, I’m not trying to pull out a single scripture. I was just curious if he had anything to say about that section.

    • Bruce, did you drive to the Pokemon event in California last weekend?
      LOL

  3. […] Mr. Rushton explains: Last week I looked at Jonathan Edwards response to our common objections to helping the poor. The main point Edwards makes is that we should not be quick to write off someone as undeserving of help, because Christ did not object to helping us when we were undeserving of his grace. This is an important foundation when it comes to responding to those in need. We ought to err on the side of being very generous considering the fact that Jesus himself … Read More […]

  4. Applause, Applause Phil.

  5. I had some really wise and wonderful comments but have to stop now while I finish my cardboard sign. ” will work for stock options”, uh shall it say God bless or not……………………………


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: