The Bible contains over 2,000 verses about poverty and presents a number of descriptions for what it was like to be poor in biblical times. There are the orphans and widows (Exodus 22:22; Isaiah 1:17; Deuteronomy 14:29; James 1:27), the sick (Matthew 25:36; Acts 19:12), the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13), lepers (Matthew 8:12; Luke 7:22), debtors (Deuteronomy 15:1; Matthew 6:12), the hungry (Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:35), and the thirsty (Deuteronomy 28:48; Matthew 25:35), all listed among the poor. Poverty in the Bible is a condition of factors that marginalized the poor person from the wider community. Behind poverty lay economic imbalance and struggle (Ecclesiastes 4:1). The injustice of indebtedness created a severe system of impoverishment and slavery (Nehemiah 7:66-67; Exodus 20:17; 2 Kings 4:1; Amos 2:6-7, 8:4-6). Unfair wage practices also presented economic conditions that kept people in poverty (Job 7:1-2; Deuteronomy 15:16-17). Amos, Micah, and Isaiah witness to God’s demand for justice in light of the commercialization of land and the abuses it created in exploiting the poor (Isaiah 3:13-15; Micah 2:1-2; Amos 8:4).
Like in the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament), debt played an especially destructive role in the Christian Scripture (New Testament) times as well. Through debt, ownership of the land of the peasantry — needed to farm crops for their food — was taken from them. All the Roman laws, set by the elite, favored the elite creditors and forced the peasantry further into debt. If odious debt could not be repaid, as was often the case, the debtor – or member of the debtor’s family – was sold into slavery or imprisoned.
The poor in the Bible are unable to maintain their inherited status because of misfortune or the injustice of others. They were socially vulnerable: religiously, economically, politically, and domestically. The poor in the Bible faced situations of utter vulnerability and powerlessness that left them deeply impoverished materially and robbed them of the honor and dignity that was part of their inherited status in life.
Whether impoverished because of misfortune, the injustice of others (or a combination of both), being poor in the Bible meant one lacked access to the necessities for the provisioning of life; both tangibles (food, water, clothing, shelter) and intangibles (honor, dignity). The poor faced situations of utter deprivation and despair that left them unable to participate in society at all levels. The Bible also makes clear that the poor suffered because those with resources either oppressed them (Proverbs 14:31) or ignored their needs (Proverbs 21:13). The rich and powerful had honor and dignity in the world’s eyes, but God was set on a great reversal where honor and dignity had nothing to do with worldly riches and power (Mark 10:31).
God’s Preferential Option for the Poor
Theologians and biblical scholars agree that “God has a preferential option for the poor.” But what does that mean? Does God love poor people and hate rich people? No; not exactly. God is love and God loves everyone the same. The Gospel According to John tells us that Jesus came so that all may have abundant life (John 10:10) – this includes rich and poor alike. This does not mean, however, that God remains neutral or on the sidelines when it comes to treatment of the poor and oppressed.
The Bible makes clear that God identifies with the needs of the poor (Job 30:25; Proverbs 19:17, Matthew 25:40), is on the side of lifting them out of their poverty (Exodus 3:7-8; Deuteronomy 26:6-8; Psalm 12:5; Psalm 113:7; ), and that God wants to reorder unjust systems that oppress impoverished people (Psalm 140:12; Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18). God is even known to cast down the rich and powerful when their wealth is gained through oppressing the poor, or when they fail to help the needy (Proverbs 28:20; Luke 1:52-53, 6:24-26). Scripture even demands that political leaders (hence, also those who elect them) assume responsibility in delivering the poor from their poverty (Psalm 72:4).
God identifies so closely with the needs of the poor and oppressed that when we oppress the poor we insult God (Proverbs 14:31), and when we help them, we honor God (Proverbs 19:17). Scripture goes even further: God considers treatment toward the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed as how we are treating God directly (Matthew 25:31-46). This last point makes clear that not only does God have a preferential option for the poor, but God demands that we do as well.
About the Moral Economy Series
The Moral Economy Series looks at the faith tradition of proclaiming economic justice, economics’s roots in moral philosophy, and how we might restore a sense of ethical economics toward building a moral economy that works for all. The Rev. Jay Lawlor draws on over twenty years of exploring the intersection of faith and economics in this new blog series on the Moral Economy. You can follow the Rev. Jay Lawlor’s blog – including the Moral Economy Series, by subscribing to updates via email, and/or following post updates on Facebook, and Twitter.