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 begins Visiting Scholar David Kotter‘s examination of the New Testament’s teaching on poverty.
Can the advance of the gospel reduce poverty until it is ultimately eliminated in heaven? Can the gospel change hearts and lives in ways that lead to the creation of wealth?
This brief series will attempt to answer these questions, beginning with a survey of the causes of poverty described in the teachings of the New Testament.
The New Testament has much to say about poverty, its causes, and the principles undergirding its solutions.
Jesus Christ incarnated the love of God through personal ministry, which included proclaiming “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:17-18). The Apostle Paul coordinated a relief mission for the poor while preaching the gospel. He reported that remembering the poor was “the very thing I was eager to do” because the gospel provides solutions that address the underlying causes of poverty (Galatians 2:10).
Indeed, Jesus did something even greater for the poor: he sacrificed his life on a cross so that both the rich and the poor could be forgiven and enter the kingdom of God. This gets to the heart of God’s compassion for the poor: poverty and hunger are problems that should be alleviated on earth, while the ultimate solution is the full realization of the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20-22).
The Distinction between Wealth & Riches
First, however, we want to start the discussion with what the Bible says about people who have money. The Bible uses both “wealth” and “riches” when describing such people. Though “wealth” and “riches” are often used interchangeably, there is a conceptual distinction based on heart attitudes and the means of procurement.
In the New Testament, riches were associated with ostentatious displays of gold and fine clothes (James 2:17), sumptuous feasting (Luke 16:19), self-indulgence (Luke 19:16-20), stinginess toward the poor (Luke 16:19-31), fraud against workers (James 5:4), and wandering away from the faith (1 Timothy 6:9-10). With this in mind, the New Testament appropriately condemns rich people with self-indulgent heart attitudes, while also encouraging the creation of wealth.
Wealth is created as people obey the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 to subdue the world and make it useful for human beings. In the first century, this was mostly accomplished through diligent farming and honest trading (2 Timothy 2:6; Acts 18:1-3). As wealth was created, people were prepared to share with those in need (Ephesians 4:28). Such people were expected to view wealth as a stewardship (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). For example, Lydia was a wealthy merchant but was not distracted by her expensive goods from hearing the gospel message from Paul (Acts 16:14).
Therefore, amassing riches is one of the causes of poverty, but the creation of wealth through obedience to the cultural mandate alleviates poverty.
Causes of Poverty in the New Testament
One cause of poverty in the New Testament was those who became rich by oppressing the poor (James 5:1-4) or by hoarding riches in the face of obvious needs (Luke 12:15-21). In the first century, creating wealth was difficult because the vast majority of the population was employed in subsistence farming. Riches were commonly accumulated through oppressing workers, exploiting slaves, and taxing people heavily.
A second cause of poverty resulted from laziness or moral foolishness such that an individual failed to create wealth through honest work (2 Thessalonians 3:11; Ephesians 4:28; Luke 15:11-24). Church leaders were instructed to admonish the idle (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and rebuke the lazy (Titus 1:12-13). The expectation of believers was to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
A third cause involved sudden disasters that destroyed wealth, or calamities—such as droughts—that inhibited farmers from creating wealth (Luke 15:4-9). Limited technology and markets made recovery from loss much more difficult in the first century, and this contributed to ongoing poverty. For example, a shepherd could only expect to increase his flock in the birthing season, whereas a modern factory could make up for lost production using three shifts around the clock.
Problems associated with living in a fallen world – such as old age, illness, or loss of family members – constituted a fourth cause of poverty. Blindness or other infirmities prevented many from working to create wealth. Women were frequently widowed and needed to rely on their children or even grandchildren to care for their needs (1 Timothy 5:3-4).
However, altogether, each of these causes had one thing in common. Essentially everyone was poor and lived at the edge of subsistence because of one root cause: sin. We’ll discuss this idea further in the next post.
How do we help the poor now while still looking forward to the coming kingdom of God? Leave your comments here.