The scriptures reveal a God who hears the cries of the poor and is determined to secure justice for them. As we seek to follow in his footsteps, we see that loving and serving the poor is an essential part of Godly living.
To understand God’s love for those who are in need, and to comprehend how we can best reach out and work for justice, we open our hearts and minds to listen to God’s word and the voices of those living in poverty.
Creation: The World God Wants
The Bible’s creation stories show us the world as God intends it to be. God creates a beautiful and productive earth and gives its vegetation to humankind and the animals for food (Genesis 1:29-31). Humanity, created in the image of God, is given responsibility to manage the earth and its resources in a fashion that fulfils God’s purpose (Genesis 1:26-28). That is, we are to build communities that reflect the character of the Creator – just, loving, graceful, generous, kind; where everyone has sufficient to meet their needs; and where the Creator is worshipped.
Fall: The World God Doesn’t Want
Rather than being content with our creaturely status, human beings threw off the reign of God and sought to order life after our own purposes. Violence, greed, poverty and idolatry came to mark life, calling forth the judgement of God (Genesis 6:1-6).
Israel: Modelling the World God Wants
God is determined to restore the world to what he intends it to be. He calls Abraham and promises that through Abraham’s descendents blessing will be restored to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). To this end Abraham’s descendents, the Israelites, are rescued from slavery in Egypt and brought to Canaan, where they are to model life under God (Exodus 19:4-6). This includes provisions to ensure all Israelites are able to enjoy the abundance of the land, participate in community life, and worship God.
Israelite culture is based on subsistence agriculture, each household having their own plot of land on which they grow the food they eat. Poverty is tied up with landlessness. Widows, fatherless children and foreigners are vulnerable to poverty for land is held by adult Hebrew males. Adult males who grow indebted and are forced to sell their land are likewise at risk of poverty. To guard against this:
- laws of debt required Israelites to offer interest free loans to one another and forgive the unpaid portion of the loans every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15);
- laws of jubilee required all land to be returned to the original owning households every 50th year (Leviticus 25);
- laws of harvest required landowners to allow the landless to participate in the harvest (Deuteronomy 23:24-25; Leviticus 19:9-10)
Israel’s Fall: Failing to Model the World God Wants
Israel fails to live the way God called them to. The prophets point out that they follow after other gods and fail to enact justice toward the poor (eg Isaiah 1, 58). In other words, the laws of debt, jubilee and harvest are ignored. Instead the wealthy exploit the poor and deny them their rights to land and the abundance of the land (eg Isaiah 5:8; Micah 2:1-2). Poverty then is not the result of a dysfunctional creation, nor is it the fault of the poor. No, Israelites are poor and hungry because the wealthy and powerful deny them land.
Jesus: Bringing the World God Wants
Against this background Jesus comes to Israel declaring the reign of God is arriving, which is good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). He declares God is restoring Israel and the world to what he always intended them to be. So he brings restoration of relationship with God, announcing sins are forgiven and the repentant welcomed into the kingdom. He also brings restoration of relationships at the social and personal level. He calls the wealthy to repentance (eg Luke 6:23-25; 16:19-31), which in context means enacting the laws of debt, jubilee and harvest, and creates a new community where wealth is shared, the hungry are fed, and the wounded receive comfort (eg Luke 6:27-35;12:32-3; 14:1-14; Matthew 25:31-46).
It is not surprising that opposition to Jesus is fierce among those with vested interests, and Jesus ends up crucified. God however raises Jesus from the dead, validating his call to Israel and opening up a future in which Christ continues to restore people to God, one another and point the way to a more just world.
Church: Witnesses to Christ and the World God Wants
The church continues the way of Jesus, pointing people to Christ and the world he seeks to create, and living out the values of that world in their life together. So the same emphasis we saw on right relationship with God and with one another in the life of Jesus continues in the early church. And in the minds of the leaders of the church this includes right relationship with those who are poor (Galatians 2:10; James 1:27). On the one hand this calls for generosity on the part of those who enjoy sufficient (1 John 3:16-18; James 2:14-17; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). On the other hand it calls for justice, for a reordering of social and economic systems so that the poor are not exploited or oppressed (eg James 1:27; 5:1-5)
New Creation: The World God Wants
The Bible concludes with a vision of the world finally restored to what God wants. Idolatry and injustice have come to an end and a world where God is fully known and there is no crying, mourning or pain emerges (Revelation 21-22).
As this brief survey makes clear, God seeks a world marked by faith, justice, equity, compassion, love and generosity. Where idolatry is the ultimate sign of lack of faith, poverty is the ultimate sign of a lack of justice, equity, compassion, love and generosity. True worship and love for people who are poor are therefore central to the life of the people of God.