by Dr. Bill Patterson
When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11), his listeners understood. Most of the people of the Bible not only lived in poverty, they had little hope of overcoming it in this world.
I once heard a person say, “God must love the poor—he made so many of us.” She was right. The Scripture teaches that God loves the poor, especially the poor of spirit (5:3). His love and care for the poor are central to his providence (Psalm 9:18; 12:5).
Poverty in the Old Testament
The Bible reflects the widespread poverty common in both Old and New Testament times. The nation of Israel grew out of oppression and poverty (Exodus 1:8-14). God warned the people not to forget their impoverished roots (1 Kings 8:50-53).
If Israel met the conditions of God’s covenant, there should have been no poor among them (Deuteronomy 15:4-6). God promised to bless his covenant people materially; in addition, he instructed that assistance was to be given to the less fortunate. In reality, the people’s sins removed the umbrella of God’s protection and robbed them of many material blessings. Furthermore, those who could help the impoverished often did not do so (15:7-11). Therefore, God made many provisions for the protection and provision of the poor.
For instance, God allowed the unfortunate to collect what remained in the fields after harvest. He instructed landowners not to reap to the edges of their fields or to collect fallen fruit from their vineyards so the poor could collect the leftovers of the grain and grape harvests (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). Ruth’s gathering in the fields of Boaz reflects these laws of gleaning (Ruth 2).
Other provisions to protect the destitute include laws mandating that the underprivileged who became slaves were to be treated as hired servants (Leviticus 25:39-46). The courts were to see that the poor received equal justice, not favorable or unfavorable treatment (Exodus 23:3, 6-9). Also, if a person had to contribute his outer garment in pledge of a debt to be repaid, the garment was to be returned by the end of the day lest the poor man shiver all night. Most poor people in that day had only one garment and no cover other than their outer garment.
In addition, laws enjoined employers to pay their laborers every day, since to fail to do so could mean the employee failed to eat. They forbade interest on loans and also promised the return of sold family land every Jubilee (50th) year. The Law and the prophets taught that the oppressed poor (Jeremiah 7:6; Amos 2:6, 7) would be vindicated (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
In summary, the Old Testament teachings sought to protect the poor and to treat them with dignity and respect because God was their Creator. The scales of Old Testament justice were not balanced; they tilted slightly in favor of the poor in order to protect and preserve them.
The Book of Proverbs, particularly, is full of advice about work, poverty, wealth, and assistance. In general, wealth was considered a reward for a righteous life. Many Proverbs, however, list things that are more precious than riches. A good name (22:1); righteousness (16:8); the fear of the Lord (15:16); and wisdom (3:13-15; 8:11; 16:16) are all considered to be more precious than wealth.
Poverty in the New Testament
Less than one percent of the people in New Testament times could be considered wealthy. There were over 300 types of jobs, mostly jobs revolving around farm life. Workers prospered or suffered according to the annual crop yield. The average family seldom ate meat except at celebrations and religious festivals, while some wealthy families ate meat once a week or more often. Well over half the daily caloric intake consisted of carbohydrates. Most families had wheat flour that women crushed between the millstones but quite a few used the cheaper barley grain. If a family was fortunate enough to have some wool or flax, the women cleaned, separated, and spun it into thread, created cloth on a loom, and sewed for the family.
Most families ate only one large meal a day, dinner. They reserved their leftovers for breakfast and may have had a small snack, if available, in the middle of the day. Women ground grain, a task from which we get our term, “the daily grind.” They spent the rest of their days cooking the flour and any vegetables, drawing water, cleaning the dirt or stone floors, and completing the never-ending tasks of making, washing, mending, and cleaning clothes.
A day laborer might rise early in the morning and go to the town meeting place where prospective employers would hire the best candidates they could find for the day. The typical employer paid a Roman denarius for a day’s work (Matthew 20:2). A denarius would buy enough flour and vegetables to feed a family of five for one meal. In other words, cheap labor abounded.
The abundant number of slaves in the Roman Empire kept wages below poverty level. Whenever the Roman army would conquer a city or region, the captured people would be sold as slaves. Over a million such slaves were sold under Emperor Claudius alone. The ready availability of slave labor severely undercut the wages of average, working families, both of tradesmen and of day laborers.
Working and Sharing
The apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to fight poverty by working hard: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12). Later he added, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
He wrote to the Ephesians, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
When factors like age and health prevent someone from working and lead to poverty, Christians have a responsibility to assist the one who is need.
Making the Teaching Practical
What do you do for the poor? Do you give through the benevolent ministries of your church? Do you participate in feeding or clothing the poor? Have you begun a needed business that will employ others? Do you serve in a soup kitchen, volunteer in a ministry that meets the needs of the unfortunate, take part in disaster relief ministries, or help build a Habitat for Humanity home? Have you intentionally befriended a poor family in order to teach reading, resumé preparation, job, or social skills?
That there will always be poor among us (Deuteronomy 15:11) does not excuse us from helping the less fortunate. That we will always have the impoverished among us means that we always will have some opportunity to share material and spiritual wealth. No one can do everything, but each Christian is called to follow Jesus who “went about doing good.”
Jesus strongly urged us to consider the less fortunate in practical ways. What we do for “the least of these” we do for him (Matthew 25:40).
Dr. Bill Patterson is a freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.