One could answer this question rationally, with the cool detachment of statistics. There are 4.3 billion inhabitants of planet Earth, and one-fifth are destitute. Every day, 10,000 succumb to starvation, and die. Meanwhile, more than another one-fifth live in affluence, consume four-fifths of the world’s income, and contribute to Third World development the derisory annual sum of $45 billion, while spending 21 times that amount on armaments.
Or one could approach the question emotionally, with the hot-blooded indignation aroused by the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty. Arriving in Calcutta a few weeks ago, I found the city enveloped in a malodorous pall of smoke from a myriad fires fueled with cow dung. An emaciated woman clutching an emaciated baby stretched out an emaciated hand for baksheesh. A quarter of a million people sleep on the city’s sidewalks, and human beings are reduced to foraging like dogs in its garbage dumps.
There is a third way of approaching the question of the poor—one that should stimulate our reason and emotions simultaneously—and that is through Scripture. Consider Psalm 113:5–8: “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes.…”
What is distinctively characteristic of Yahweh, the psalmist writes, is not just that he reigns on high, or that he condescends to our depths, but that he actually “raises the poor from the dust.” That is the kind of God he is. Hannah quoted this after the birth of Samuel; Mary alluded to it when she learned she was to be the mother of the Messiah. Jesus kept repeating that “he who exalts himself will be humbled, while he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Who, then, are “the poor” whom God “raises from the dust”?
First, and economically speaking, there are the indigent poor, deprived of the basic necessities of life. God commanded his people in the law not to harden their hearts or shut their hands against the poor, but to maintain those who could not maintain themselves, taking them home and feeding them without charge. If an Israelite loaned money, he was not to exact interest. If he took a pledge, he was not to go into the poor person’s house to fetch it, but to wait outside until it was brought. If he took as pledge the person’s cloak, he was to restore it before nightfall, because a cloak by day was a blanket by night. Employers were to pay wages to their workers on the same day. Farmers were not to reap a field “to its very border,” or gather the gleanings of the harvest, or strip a vine or olive tree bare; the leftovers were for the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan.
The wisdom literature underlined this: “Blessed is he who considers the poor.” Why? Because “he who mocks the poor insults his Maker,” whereas “he who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” No wonder our Lord fed the hungry, made friends with the poor, and promised that if we do likewise we shall find ourselves ministering to him “in this distressing disguise” (as Mother Teresa puts it).
Second, and sociopolitically speaking, there are the powerless poor, the victims of human oppression. The Old Testament recognizes that poverty is sometimes due to laziness, gluttony, or extravagance, but usually attributes it to the sins of others. Moreover, injustice tends to deteriorate because the poor are powerless to change it. Yet if the poor have no human helper, God “stands at the right hand of the needy” and “maintains the cause of the afflicted.” So the law contains strong prohibitions against perverting the justice due to the poor, the wisdom literature requires kings and judges to “give justice to the weak and fatherless” and “maintains the rights of the poor and needy,” and the prophets fulminate against national leaders who “trample the head of the poor into the dust.” Thus, the concern of the biblical writers goes beyond philanthropy to social justice.
Third, and spiritually speaking, there are the humble poor. Oppressed by men, they look to God for help, and put their trust in him. So “the poor” came to be a synonym for “the pious,” and their condition a symbol of and stimulus to the dependence of faith. This is specially clear in the Psalter; for example, “this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (Ps. 34:6).
In these ways God “raises the poor from the dust,” for he lifts them out of the dust of penury, oppression, and helplessness. God concerns himself both with the materially poor and powerless, and with the morally humble and meek. Yet his attitude to these groups differs, for the former is an outward and sociological condition which he opposes, while the latter is an inward and spiritual condition which he approves.
The only community in which these concepts are combined is a church that is witnessing to the kingdom of God. The Old Testament expectation was of an ideal king who would “judge the poor with righteousness,” “decide with equity for the meek of the earth,” and grant these blessings to the “humble and lowly.” The fulfillment in Jesus corresponds to this, for he spoke of the righteousness of his kingdom and at the same time said that the good news would be preached, and the kingdom given, to “the poor.” These can be neither the sociologically poor (or salvation would be limited to the proletariat), nor the spiritually poor (or the facts of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and hungry would be overlooked), but to those who are both. To them the kingdom of God is proclaimed as a free gift of salvation and as a promise of justice.
The Christian church should exemplify these truths. On the one hand, it consists entirely of the spiritually poor, who acknowledge that they have no merit to plead, and so receive the kingdom as a gift. On the other hand, the church should not tolerate material poverty in its own fellowship. If there is one community in the world in which justice is secured for the poor and need is eliminated, this should be the church.
The church, if it exemplifies both ideals of the kingdom, will bear witness to the paradox of poverty. If we want the new community of Jesus to offer a radical alternative to the world around us, then we must set ourselves simultaneously to eradicate the evil of material poverty (because we hate injustice) and to cultivate the good of spiritual poverty (because we love humility).
If we ask how we well-to-do Christians should express solidarity with the poor, it seems that the first option, to “become poor,” is the vocation of some but not all. The selling and giving of the early Jerusalem Christians was clearly voluntary. The opposite extreme, to “stay rich and ignore the poor,” is not an admissable option.
The rich cannot ignore the poor of this world, but must do something for them. A rich Christian is not a contradiction in terms; but a Christian who lives richly, spending his wealth upon self and family, is a contradiction. The third option, to which all of us are called, is to live a life of generosity and of simple contentment. “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:7–8).
JOHN R. W. STOTTMr. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London, England.
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