I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
- what is so good about the Old Testament?
- Why should we welcome the stranger?
- How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?
- What does scripture say about disability?
- What are the scriptural roots of our understanding of preaching?
- How do we make sense of the psalms of conflict?
Here I explore what Scripture says about poverty—and the paradox that we should never have it, but it will always be with us.
Scripture says two contradictory things about poverty: first, that it should never exist; and secondly, that we will always have it. How and why does it say this, and how do we make sense of this contradiction?
Poverty should never exist
The biblical narrative repeatedly insists that our world has been created by a good God who provides abundantly for his creatures. This insistence begins on the very first page of Scripture; the creation account in Genesis 1 rings with the refrain ‘And God saw that is was good…it was good…it was very good.’ The picture here is of a world bursting with life and dynamic energy, in which provision is made for all. And it reaches its completion and climax when God creates humanity, male and female in God’s image, who are intended to be ‘fruitful and multiply.’ As they exercise the dominion of God over the world, it will supply all their needs.
This refrain is repeated throughout the Scriptures, with the clearest expression being Ps 104.
He makes grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth (v 14).
The celebration of wine and bread that follows found its way into Jewish prayers of thanksgiving, and will have been words that Jesus used at the Last Supper when he ‘took bread…and took wine…and blessed’ God. This regular and reliable supply for all our needs is not only a reflection of God’s gracious character but also a testimony to his faithfulness.
Jesus reaffirms God’s abundant provision in his teaching about trust in Matt 6.25–34. If God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will he provide for us! Jesus invites us into a great exchange—we swap our anxiety about life for trust in God’s provision, and knowing his care for our needs then allows a focus on his kingdom.
Poverty will always be present
In tension with this clear emphasis, we see another consistent theme. Though the earth was intended to provide for all our needs, because we have turned from God, now ‘through painful toil you will it food from it…it will produce thorns and thistles…by the sweat of your brow will you eat your food’ (Gen 3.17–19). Scarcity of resources is a sign of a world gone wrong—and where there is scarcity, there is then competition, and the strong trample the weak.
Alongside the celebration of God’s provision in the wisdom literature, we also find despair at the inequality and inequity in the world around us. The wealthy and the wicked
…have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagues by human ills (Ps 73.4–5)
The psalmist’s complaint that seeking God and his righteousness is no protection against poverty and misfortune sounds like a commentary on contemporary wealth disparity.
If the writer of Proverbs tells us that God will prosper those who honour him, then the writer of Ecclesiastes replies ‘I did, and he didn’t.’ As a result, ‘all is vanity.’
If you see the poor oppressed…and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised… (Eccl 5.8)
When Jesus responds to a sign of extravagant love with the saying ‘The poor you will always have with you’ (Matt 26.11) he was neither being resigned nor fatalistic. Rather, he was citing God’s command to his people to always make provision for those in need, since they will always be present amongst us in a fallen world (Deut 15.11a).
Responding to Poverty
This then leads to our response to this tension—the provision of God, yet the presence of poverty. The simplest command that we find in Scripture is the most practical:
Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land (Deut 15.11b).
This is underpinned by a theological reality: the earth and all its wealth belongs not to us, but to God (Ps 24.1). We therefore have no right to accumulate its wealth for ourselves, but are obliged to share what we have been given (1 Cor 4.7). This is the principle behind the Jubilee redistribution of wealth in Lev 25; the whole land belongs to God, and he shares equally. At every point, Scripture struggles with the idea of unequal distribution of wealth.
But poverty has even greater theological significance. Because wealth leads to complacency, and cuts us off from realising our dependance on God, the poor become iconic of trust in God. They are the ones who know their need of God—and point us to the poverty of the human condition, a poverty that Jesus himself took up (2 Cor 8.9). To be human is to be dependent on God, so the comparatively ‘rich and poor’ (Rev 13.16) alike face his judgement.
God’s coming to the world brings a great reversal, when the poor who trust in God are lifted up, and the rich who ignore God and neglect the poor will be put down (Luke 1.51–53). As we care for the poor amongst us, we anticipate that great day.