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Ancient Rome, Mosaic Law, and Poverty Relief

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Editor’s Note: Today we continue our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty. Today’s post continues Dr. Walter Kaiser’s chapter entitled “Poverty and the Poor in the Old Testament,” which examines some key Old Testament passages about poverty and poverty relief. 

The Old Testament perspective on the poor is made clear throughout the Torah and the wisdom literature. Now, we want to see how we can apply this Scripture to our society by taking a look at examples from ancient Rome and from the ancient Israelites.

The New Deal in Ancient Rome

H.J. Haskell describes Rome’s welfare system in his book, The New Deal in Old Rome. He says that the system did not begin with an income test. Only those willing to stand in line for bread could take advantage of subsidized prices. At first, this system was based on effort and incentives rather than circumstances.

When Clodius Publius ran for the office of tribune, he offered free wheat to all, which was enough to get him elected. There were about 320,000 persons on the government dole when Julius Caesar came to power ten years later. This dole had already become a hereditary right to receive government help by the time of Emperor Aurelian. Every day, two pounds of bread were distributed freely to all citizens who applied. Pork, olive oil, and salt were periodically added to this dole without charge.

As might be expected, such reliance on the government had a deleterious effect on the people’s incentives and character. They came to expect something for nothing. This handout from the government had to be financed with increasingly heavy taxes on the citizens, which eventually strangled the Roman government.

In this story, the government quickly spun from giving out a couple loaves of bread to facing a collapsed welfare state. This provides evidence against handouts, which muddle incentives and bring about a society that expects something for nothing. So, drawing on what we have learned from the last blog, how should the Church approach poverty alleviation?

The Biblical Perspective

Some want to make a biblical case for governmental largess like that of ancient Rome by appealing to the gleaning law of Deuteronomy 23:24-25. This law permitted a needy or poor person to glean the edges or corners of a neighbor’s field when in need. This privilege, however, was not to be abused. The poor were not to come into a neighbor’s field with a basket or a sickle, as this would have indicated that they were going to take more than what they needed to satisfy their immediate needs.

These biblical provisions are clear signs of concern and care for the poor and the needy, but modern solutions diverge sharply in how they address the same problems. First, Mosaic Law did provide a “safety net” to catch any of the poor and needy facing hard times, but government was very limited in this role. The emphasis was more on the local level and on the need for individuals to respond.

Second, the scriptures never advocate a wholesale redistribution of all income in an attempt to restructure society. The gift of help and aid came in a direct line, from the one who farmed the land with privileges given for gleaning, all the way down to the indigent, needy person. There was nothing impersonal about it, as occurs so frequently in our modern system of taxation and government help.

A third difference could be seen in the fact that these gifts of grain or fruit did not remove the incentives of the poor to work. Nor did they belittle the dignity of the person receiving help. The person in need was expected to expend his or her own efforts at collecting grain by gathering up what was left in the field.

This leads to a possible fourth difference: generosity was commanded by God, but those who received aid needed to willingly respond. The provider of grains and fruit was morally obligated to give. Yet the recipient was similarly obligated to bury his or her pride and to work honestly for what was received. One need only look to the book of Ruth for an illustration of this principle.

For these reasons, one cannot make the argument for governmental largess using the gleaning laws found in Deuteronomy. So what should be the Church’s role in fighting poverty, then? We’ll answer that question next week.

How can we apply biblical principles to our efforts at poverty alleviation today? Leave your comments here.

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