Friday, February 17, 2012

Wealth and the Poor Then 3

continued from earlier
But amazingly, the entirety of the biblical texts are united in their sense that God wants his people to care for those who cannot take care of themselves. It is true in the Old Testament Law. It is true in the Prophets and the Writings of the Old Testament. It is certainly true of the gospels and Acts. It is true of Paul and the letters. It is ironic that so many Christians today are so sure about so many things that the Bible does not clearly teach or that do not clearly relate to today and yet can question, even vilify those who make it a priority to help the poor today.

To be sure, there are some very significant differences not only with the poor of the Western world today but also in how we think about money today.  Most Western countries today have some sort of "safety net" in place that aims at caring for those without the resources to care for themselves. For some reason the United States in particular seems to have a welfare system that creates problems of its own, where families get into a cycle of poverty. Children are raised with no sense of how to support themselves but instead know little but to continue the life of complete dependency they learned growing up.

Many of the homeless also are enslaved in a way that would need much more than food or shelter to lift them out of their condition. Some are, in a sense, enslaved to their way of life. Some do not want to leave their situation. It is not like the days of the Great Depression when the bulk of the homeless would have gladly worked to get out of their plight. [1] There is a sense in which the majority of homeless today often are in need of something much more profound than the Lazarus of Jesus' parable.

In such cases, "helping the poor" is still a solid Christian value, but the question of exactly what help they need is much more complex.  It seems much more difficult than simply giving food or clothing, although we must be grateful for the soup kitchens and homeless shelters that "give a fish" to those who are hungry today and those who want to get out of the cold today. We will not find Jesus ever saying of such people, "It's your own fault that you are on the streets, now you must experience the consequences of your actions."  We will look in vain for any sentiment of that sort in the gospels.

And let us also be clear that Jesus considers it an obligation for the rich man to take care of the poor man Lazarus. There is no sense that the rich man's money is his own, his own deserved possession. Rather, the New Testament largely operates with a sense of "limited good."  We are either to infer from the parable that the rich man is tormented after death either because he did not help the poor man Lazarus or perhaps even simply because he was rich in the first place!

The ancient world was not a monetary economy that functioned primarily on the basis of money. Most people, as we said, lived on a subsistence level. They had enough to feed themselves and their family in a minimal sense. We would thus consider almost everyone in the ancient world to be below the poverty line. People still primarily exchanged goods and what money did exist reflected more concrete value.

There was thus a clear sense that if one person amassed more, then someone else would have less. An Arab proverb from the time not long after Christ captured it well: "Every rich man is a thief or the son of a thief." [2] It is thus possible that the rich man's wealth in itself was seen as an indication of his wickedness. They would have thought that in order to have such wealth, he would have had to cheat many, many people in the process.

Think of it this way. Let's say there are 10 of us in a room, and we each have one apple to eat for supper. Then let's say that when we leave the room, nine of you have no apples and I have all ten. That is how people at the time of Christ likely thought about wealth. Of course that is not the way resources work today, so we must be very careful when applying biblical passages about money and resources. We must take such differences into account.

But it is also no surprise to find that the New Testament has almost nothing positive to say about wealth or the wealthy. Virtually everything it has to say is not only negative but virtually condemnatory...

[1] I am not referring here to the many unemployed in the current situation in the United States and elsewhere today who would gladly work if the jobs were available. I am speaking here of the perennially homeless.

[2] Malina

1 comment:

davey said...

It would be good if you could say what percentage, or such, you think are the perennially homeless etc. I think some people think erroneously that it is a very large percentage.