Obligations of the rich
Although it is not popular to say this in many circles today, disparities in wealth, even between rich and poor, are not necessarily signs of injustice, as Leviticus 19:15 shows, where we are told to administer justice fairly without showing partiality to either the rich or the poor. At the same time, however, Scripture is very clear that the wealthy have responsibilities to the poor that God takes very seriously.
The first responsibility of the rich to the poor is to treat them fairly. The rich are condemned in Scripture for failing to pay workers promptly and completely (Deut. 24:15). Workers should be paid a just wage for their labor and should not be exploited in any way by their employers.
The rich are also condemned for using the courts to defraud the poor (e.g. James 2:6). In today’s terms, there is a multitude of ways people with money can use the legal system to take advantage of those without it. Perhaps the most obvious is to drag out litigation to force your opponent either to give up or go bankrupt, though there are other ways to game the system with high end lawyers.
Beyond the courts, the well-connected also are able to use zoning to block anything that would interfere with their own quality of life from coming into their neighborhoods—thereby pushing it into other, poorer areas. This is one explanation why toxic, hazardous, or undesirable industries are frequently found in poor neighborhoods.
Taking advantage of another’s misfortune is also forbidden in Scripture, for example by the prohibition of taking a cloak in pledge for a loan (Deut. 24:12-13, 17) and of charging interest on loans (Lev. 25:36). In fact, you are to treat those in need with dignity (Deut. 24:10).
Preserve the dignity of the poor
The concern to preserve the dignity of the poor is also a component in the Law of Gleaning, one of the central provisions for care of the poor in the Law of Moses (Deut. 24:19-21). Landowners were prohibited from harvesting every last bit of their crops, but were to leave some for the poor who could come collect it.
The poor were thus required to do some work for their food, which in turn kept them from being reduced to complete dependence on charity. Since work is part of what it means to bear the image of God, providing opportunities for work affirms the dignity of the poor while meeting their needs.
The importance of work for human dignity is also a part of the institution of slavery in the Old Testament Law. In the ancient world, slavery was found in every culture. Slaves were either prisoners of war or people who fell on hard times who sold themselves (or were sold) into slavery to pay their debts. In a world with no social safety net, that was sometimes the only option for avoiding starvation.
The Law of Moses took this practice and transformed it. According to the Law, any Israelite in great need could sell himself into slavery as was the custom throughout the ancient world, except this slavery was not a permanent state: on the Sabbath year, every Israelite slave was to be set free.
This approach to slavery thus functioned as a social welfare program in which the “buyer” paid the slave ahead of time for the number of years of work he would perform and provided the slave’s room and board. This allowed the Israelite time and resources to clear his debts and get a fresh start. And once again it affirmed his value as a human being by giving him the opportunity to work.
The emphasis on work as an essential part of human dignity was a unique contribution of Judaism and Christianity to world culture, but its implications for helping the poor have often been forgotten. Earlier generations understood this, however. Well into the nineteenth century, many of the wealthy believed that their wealth was given to them so that they could support local farmers, manufacturers, and businesses by purchasing their products.
Similarly, they hired servants in their households in part to provide employment for young men and women. This continues to be the case in other parts of the world. Mennonite missionaries in the Philippines, for example, found that despite their commitment to living simply, they had a moral obligation to hire servants, since failing to do so would have hurt the families in the community by not providing them the opportunity to earn income they sorely needed.
The conscientious wealthy
Although as we look at our own history we view the activities of the rich as nothing more than conspicuous consumption, if you read their writings you will find that they clearly saw their wealth as giving them a moral obligation to provide employment and support local businesses to prevent people from falling into poverty. While there were certainly excesses, up until at least the industrial age, the wealthy spent their money in part as an effort to support people in their communities.
The emphasis on the local community brings up another important concept in dealing with people in need. Our responsibilities are greatest to those who are closest to us, an idea theologian John Schneider calls “moral proximity.” Thus Scripture is clear that our first responsibility is to our family, extended to two generations up and down (Prov. 13:22, 1 Tim. 5:4).
From there, we have responsibilities to those in our churches and our communities, in concentric circles outward. This is not to say we have no responsibilities to those dying of AIDS in Africa or of starvation in South Asia, but that responsibility is secondary to the needs of those closer to us.
Today, given the changes in society produced by the industrial revolution and large agribusinesses, it is much more difficult to use wealth to support local producers, and even where that is possible the people we support are generally not the truly poor. So how do we apply these principles today?
Scripture is clear that when we are confronted with immediate, emergency needs, we meet them. Giving to the poor without thought of repayment is a moral obligation in both the Old and New Testament. It is important, however, not to create situations that force the poor into dependency. When the immediate need is met, the type of assistance should be transitioned away from charity and toward opportunity to earn their own living, with the goal of paying it forward toward others in need (e.g. Eph. 4:28, note the reason for the instructions).
Providing employment, whether in businesses or even simply hiring them for yard work or snow shoveling, is a better method for dealing with needs than simple handouts. It may require us to spend money we would rather keep for ourselves, but if we take seriously our obligations to provide for those in need, we may need to hire sacrificially, not just give sacrificially.
Yet another option is to help set people up in their own businesses and to patronize them. We see this in the developing world with microfinance programs. In America, the number of options is limitless, from helping someone get a lawnmower and yard tools to helping them start an online business. (Computers with internet access are available free in public libraries.) Networking with others in your church or community to provide skills, support, and patronage can help get these businesses off the ground, which in turn can change the lives of those involved.
The Bible was written in an era in which state run social welfare programs simply did not exist (unless you were in the city of Rome itself in the New Testament period). Its instructions concerning the poor were thus written with the assumption that any aid given to the poor would come directly from the wealthier members of the community (or in one case by other churches coming to the aid of the poor in Jerusalem).
With the advent of the modern welfare state, we have other alternatives to care for the poor today that were not available when the Bible was written. To what extent does state-supported welfare change the nature of our obligations to the poor? Should we simply pay more taxes and let the government take care of those in need? We will explore this in more detail in the next article.
Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, www.breakpoint.org.