Thinking Biblically About the Poor
Be AGITATED, GRIEVED, MOVED by the way poverty assaults the dignity of every poor image-bearer of God. We cannot be Christ-like and be apathetic. We cannot be Jesus-followers and be passive about the plight of the poor. Cherishing every human being is required of anyone who claims to love God—because there is a direct link between loving God and loving his image bearers.
After loving the Lord, Himself, with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, the Christian’s second responsibility is to love our neighbor as ourselves. When asked what this command meant for our everyday living, Jesus told the outrageous story of a man walking down the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, being attacked, robbed, and left for dead but how the good Samaritan, at risk to his own safety, stopped, bandaged his wounds, transported him on his own donkey to an inn where he spent the rest of the day caring for him. The next day he left a considerable sum of money with the inn keeper to continue to care for the wounded man, saying, “if this is not enough, I will cover the extra costs when I return.” Commenting on this passage, author/pastor Tim Keller writes:
“Jesus commands us to provide shelter, finances, medical care, and friendship to people who lack them. We have nothing less than an order from our Lord in the most categorical of terms, ‘Go and do likewise.’ Our paradigm is the Samaritan who risked his safety, destroyed his schedule, and became dirty and bloody through personal involvement with a needy person of another race and social class. Are we as Christians obeying this command personally? Are we as a church obeying it corporately?” (Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road). This episode seeks to look at poverty through a biblical lens, understanding it’s causes, misguided attempts to solve it, and especially what fulfilling our responsibility to care for the poor looks like.
God’s Design for Mankind to Flourish Econimically
As we saw in the first episode in this series, God’s design to provide humans with the sustenance they need to flourish was not just a lush garden full of fruit trees; it was a plan for them to “subdue” the earth. The command “to subdue” implies that, although all that God made is good, it is, to some degree, underdeveloped. God left creation with deep untapped potential for cultivation that humans are to unlock through our labor. Tim Keller elaborates:
We are not to relate to the world as park rangers, whose job is not to change their space but preserve things as they are. Nor are we to “pave over the garden” of the created world to make a parking lot. No, we are to be gardeners who take an active stance towards their charge. They do not leave the land as it is. They rearrange it to make it more fruitful, to draw the potentialities for growth and development out of the soil. They dig up the ground and rearrange it with a goal in mind: to rearrange the raw material of the garden so that it produces food, flowers, and beauty. And that is the pattern for all work. It is rearranging the raw materials of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people, in particular, thrive and flourish (Every Good Endeavor).
The development of creation’s potential is built upon and requires shalom—the OT word for harmony and flourishing in relationships. God’s design for economic flourishing as described above in Genesis 1 requires harmony in the four basic relationships of life:
- Right relationship with GOD—My mission is to exercise dominion over all of life for him, out of love for him.
- Right relationship with SELF—My worth and dignity are eternally assigned to me by God who made me his image bearer and equipped me with the abilities to do the good works he planned for me to do from eternity.
- Right relationship with OTHERS—My responsibility is summed up in the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
- Right relationship with CREATION—I am to be its steward developing the potential God placed in it for God’s glory.
The Cause of Economic Poverty
In his book, Walking With the Poor, Bryant Myers describes the fundamental nature of poverty, “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Due to the comprehensive nature of the fall, every human being is poor in the sense of not experiencing the flourishing of these four relationships in the way God intended. Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy with God, a poverty of internal wholeness and emotional health within himself, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship. Let’s dig deeper.
Adam and Eve were designed to be God’s image bearers, reflecting his nature as a worker and moral ruler. As moral rulers who had the law of God written on their hearts, they were to exercise dominion in a way that pleased God as culture developed and diversified. Human flourishing was the result of shalom in the four relationships of life: 1) Walking in harmony with God’s righteousness, they would have respected private ownership (theft forbidden by the 8th commandment), honest business practices (lying forbidden by the 9th commandment). 2) Experiencing pre-fall wholeness–internal peace with themselves—no sense of inferiority, insecurity, competitiveness, or envy. Sinful selfishness has not exerted itself—and their call to vocation was the call to use their talents, innovation, and resources to make products to serve others. 3) Experiencing pre-fall harmony in their horizontal relationships with each other; their hearts were not governed by greed, selfishness, cheating each other, or jealousy. 4) There was harmony in the created order. There was no poverty that had resulted from natural calamity like earthquakes, floods, or volcanoes erupting. Let’s use this lens to consider the holistic, biblical approach to alleviating poverty in our cities—restoration.
A. Overcoming the poverty of being. Only God knows how profoundly slavery and racism have crushed black men and women’s dignity. I wonder how many centuries it may take to undo such evil attacks on the self-esteem of those who bear the image of God. I’m told by those engaged in city ministry that this shattered self-esteem is linked to many outward symptoms of this brokenness:
- a teen boy’s desire to prove himself a man through his sexual prowess.
- a teen girl looking for love in the arms of a male who just wants sex.
- a teen girl who wants to feel needed by getting pregnant and having a baby who needs her and, to some degree, loves her back.
- a boy committing violence to win the respect of the others in his gang.