“Another Word on Poverty in the Christian Worldview,” by Andrew J. Schatkin
I am proposing to comment once again on poverty in the Christian worldview. I just recently wrote an essay entitled “Rich and Poor: Poverty and Riches.” In that essay, I set about to analyze and understand the Jewish understanding of riches and wealth in the Hebrew bible in which there is a view taken that riches and wealth are evidence of God’s favor and, on the other hand, in the Hebrew bible there are many passages, particularly in the Psalms, directing our responsibility to those in poverty and in need. I then made the point that Jesus in a number of his sayings not only directs us to aid and help the poor, but advises us to embrace poverty in our lives to the extent of giving away and selling our goods.
In this present essay, I wish to speak again of poverty and the Christian worldview. It is quite clear that Jesus had a particular concern and affinity for, and identification with, the poor during his lifetime. There are many examples I can refer to. For example, in Matthew 5:3, Jesus makes the statement that the poor in spirit are blessed. Again, in Matthew 22:1-4, Jesus gives a parable called “The Parable of the Marriage Feast.” The Parable is that the King gives a marriage feast for his son and sends his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast. Those persons would not come. The King sends other servants to those who were invited telling them the dinner is ready. The persons who were invited make light of the entire situation and then they seize the servants and kill them. The King is angry and sends his troops to destroy these murderers and burn their city. The King then states to his servants that the wedding is ready but those who were invited were not worthy He instructs his servants to go down in the streets and gather all they can find both good and bad. It is quite clear in this parable that people who will not respond to God or Christ as a person, even though they are invited, are like the guests who, when they are invited, do not come. It seems to say here that the persons in the streets, good or bad, will be taken in. Again, there is an emphasis that God or Christ is no respecter of persons but will take all even the poorest and the most disgraced in the street.
In Luke 6:20, Jesus states the poor are blessed. Again, in Luke 12:15-21, Jesus states that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Later on, in 12:3, Jesus states that when our souls may be required of us our laying up treasure for ourselves will do us no good in relation to God. Again in Luke 16:19-21, there is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in which the rich man pays no attention to the suffering poor man at his door. When the poor man dies, he is in heaven whereas the rich man is in hell and torment. We are told that when the rich man requests that Lazarus be sent to cool him with some water, Abraham says that in the rich man’s lifetime he received good things and Lazarus received evil things. And now the poor man is in comfort and the rich man in anguish. Again, we have a lesson here that when we do not pay attention to the poor, there is the danger that we will be condemned and the poor placed above in heaven and eternal joy.
Again, in Mark 2:15, Jesus is criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. There is an apparent statement here that Jesus had a positive relationship with the underclass in society. In Mark 10:17-31, there is the story of the young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and at the end the young man is specifically told that even though he has obeyed the commandments he lacks one thing. Specifically, he is told to sell all his possessions, give to the poor and follow him. Again we are told here that poverty is positive quality, or attribute, in the sense that our riches and possessions may impede our commitment to God and Christ alone. I would add that this particular incident may be interpreted as stating that anything we hold onto and put above our relationship to God and Christ must be given up.
These particular passages that I have chosen are illustrative of Jesus particular concern for and relationship to the underclass in his society at that time. I would add that Jesus himself worked as carpenter or a working man and that in the three years of his ministry there is no indication that he had any material goods or possessions. It is also quite clear that the disciples in following him apparently did not bring anything with them, nor is there any indication of their having wealth or possessions. It is quite apparent in reading the four gospels that Jesus mostly associated with the poorer classes in society. In fact, he not only attracted their attention but they came to follow him in great crowds. On the other hand, the more important individuals, religious leaders, or government officials, the wealthier classes, and the religious leaders of his time, the Pharisees, who often opposed him, were not necessarily respected by Jesus, as he chose to be with the poor and working men of his time.
I would end this essay with a general statement that the Christian religion is not an elitist, racial, sexist, or economically based religion. There are times when the rich may have attained control of the church. However, in general, the church has taken the position of the denial of class, economic, racial and sexual distinctions. Perhaps to understand fully the connection of the Church and Christ to the poor and poverty may be found in Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church where he states in Chapter 2, verses 5-12, that Jesus himself took on poverty. St. Paul states that Jesus was in the form of God but did not count equality with God and instead took on the form of a servant. Being in human form, Jesus humbled himself even to death on the cross. This particular statement of St. Paul explains why the church has such a great concern for its identification with the poor in society. Jesus himself came down from heaven and, being God himself, humbled himself to take on the limitations of human form or better put took on the limitations of our humanity. There can be no greater act of humility and poverty than in what St. Paul defines here. The Church is seen as following Christ not only to exhibit a great concern and identification with the poor but, in some sense, seems to give the option to us all to embrace poverty and even to give up our property entirely.
This counsel and these passages I have just analyzed are what gave rise to the monastic movement where individuals chose to have no possessions and live like Christ and his disciples, unmarried and obedient and in poverty.
The Church will never cease in its concern and identification with the poor in the world since ultimately it was God himself who was willing to take on the poverty of our humanity, both flesh and spirit. It is only when we understand this act of humiliation and poverty that we can grasp why the church will never cease in its commitment, concern, and love for the poor and all social classes.
This essay is taken with alterations and modification from chapter 38 of my book “Essays on Faith, Culture, Politics and Philosophy,” published by the University of Press of America, pp. 105-107 (2016).