What Does the Bible Say about Poverty and the Poor?
- John D. Barry Inspiration from Jesus’ Economy, a Nonprofit that Created Jobs & Churches 2012–20. See the book, Jesus’ Economy. JesusEconomy.com.
- 2019 21 Jun
The poor are near and dear to God’s heart. How we treat the impoverished is a major concern throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. You simply cannot have the gospel of Jesus and neglect the call to care for impoverished, marginalized, and outcast — those on the underside of power.
But what does the “whole counsel of God” have to say about the poor, poverty, and how we address it (Acts 20:27)? It’s impossible in an article format to cover comprehensively what the Bible says about poverty, but here are seven major themes that have emerged from my research on poverty for my recent book, Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change.
1. Jesus’ economy is based on self-sacrifice
Understanding the issues of poverty starts with understanding Jesus’ ministry — and what he called people to do. Near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he goes to his local synagogue and quotes Isaiah 60:1–2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because of which he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to send out in freedom those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19 LEB).
Right away, we see that Jesus’ ministry is “good news to the poor … release to the captives … recovering of sight to the blind … freedom [for] those who are oppressed.” Jesus has a whole new economy in mind, one where the poor have their needs met. This is what it means for the “favorable year of the Lord” to arrive in the personhood of Jesus.
To make this economy real and tangible, Jesus calls his followers to self-sacrifice. Jesus told a rich young man to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:18–30). When being asked about “eternal life,” Jesus tells the story of a man giving his own wealth for the sake of a beaten and robbed person he finds on the side of the road—the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). And these are merely two of dozens of examples. We address poverty by each choosing to be sacrificial. Jesus’ economy is based on self-sacrifice.
2. Jesus’ currency is love
If Jesus’ economy is based on self-sacrifice, then his currency is love. When Jesus asks the rich young ruler to sell all he has and follow him, this is because Jesus’ economy does not function like our economy (Luke 18:18–30). Jesus wants us to use all of our resources for the sake of those in need. Instead of looking at what we lack, Jesus invites us to look at how what we have can be used for the betterment of our world.
Consider the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Matthew 22:39). The Parable of the Good Samaritan starts with a discussion about this commandment and what “eternal life” means. The Good Samaritan shows what it means to love my neighbor as myself. How do I want my neighbor to love me? The Parable suggests that I want my neighbor to empower me — to help me out of the injustices I experience. I want my neighbor to show self-sacrificial love, even when I am an anonymous person beaten on the side of the road. The question behind the Parable is “Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)? The Parable answers: everyone, especially those who are hurting. The Parable teaches that we should show self-sacrificial love to those in need.
Self-sacrificial love is the currency of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ economy. It’s love like the Samaritan shows to a broken and hurting man. It is love to the poor.
3. Old Testament laws make provision for the impoverished
Jesus’ teachings on poverty (and the hurting and marginalized) are based on Old Testament laws that made provisions for the impoverished. The people of Israel were instructed by God to make margin for the poor. Rather than consumerism operating their economy, provision was made to leave parts of their harvest. Room was made for the poor and the refugees:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you must not finish the edge of your field at your reaping, and you must not glean the remnants of your harvest—you shall leave them behind for the needy and for the alien; I am Yahweh your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
There are dozens more examples of God’s community, his people, being commanded to care for the impoverished. These laws teach that we should make room in our lives for the poor and refugee.
4. The Prophets were infuriated when the poor were neglected
Despite the great vision for a community that cared for the poor, the words of Israel’s prophets show that the impoverished were often neglected and oppressed. The words from the book of Isaiah that Jesus quotes near the beginning of his ministry (Isaiah 61:1–2, quoted in Luke 4:18–19) were the vision of a better world, where the poor were loved. But Isaiah shows us that this vision was far from real in his lifetime:
“Wash! Make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do good! Seek justice! Rescue the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Plead for the widow!” (Isaiah 1:16–17 LEB).
Other prophets show a similar frustration, commenting that the poor being treated with disdain is one of the gravest of sins:
“This is what the LORD says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed’ ” (Amos 2:6–7 NIV).
There are dozens (perhaps hundreds) more examples like the above from Isaiah and Amos.
5. The Psalms and Proverbs highlight the needs of the poor
Throughout the book of Psalms and Proverbs — Israel’s book of worship and book of wisdom, respectively — we see that the God-fearing and wise choose to care for the impoverished and marginalized. We’re told that “the needy shall not always be forgotten; the hope of the poor shall never perish” (Psalm 9:18 LEB). And we’re reminded:
“In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor — let them be caught in the schemes they have devised. For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD” (Psalm 10:2–3 NRSV).
Similar warnings surface in Proverbs, “He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but he who has mercy on the poor blesses him” (Proverbs 14:21 LEB). This very brief survey of Old Testament texts shows just how prominent the theme of caring for the impoverished is in Israel’s history. This is where Jesus’ theology emerges from and part of why the early church cared for the poor.
6. The early church focused on smart giving, right away
But how are we to care for the impoverished? To start with, it begins with each of us examining our own resources to see if we can give more. We see a testimony to this in the early church. The radical, self-sacrificial giving that Jesus proposed actually happens. Some of the earliest descriptions of the church in Jerusalem include these lines:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44–45 NIV).
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32 NIV).
The resources the early church pooled together were used for the impoverished, for those on the underside of power:
“There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:34–35 NIV).
Such efforts were directed at caring for the people most in need in their society, the widows and orphans — and a plan was put in place to do so (Acts 6:1–6). The global church embraced the same ideals, as Paul’s writings show (see Galatians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 8; Romans 15:25–29). This means that the churches that sprung up around the world were instructed to see themselves as part of a global church, meeting the needs of each community (as needs arose).
The early church had a real strategy in place for caring for the poor — and it was smart and sustainable. (For supporting research and its implications today, see my book Jesus’ Economy.)
7. True religion includes caring for the marginalized
Jesus’ economy of self-sacrifice, his currency of love, was central to the early church. The care for the most destitute is core to the gospel of Jesus. Jesus even says that he will recognize his followers when he returns based on how they cared for the poor, marginalized, and those on the underside of power (see Matthew 25:31–46). James summarizes this message when he says:
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27 NKJV).
If we desire God’s religion, the religion of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we must be people who prioritize loving the impoverished. This is a tough road, but it’s the road of the gospel. You can’t have the gospel and forget the poor.
Photo credit: Pexels/Skitterphoto
Want to go deeper into this subject? Check out John D. Barry’s new book, Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change. Shane Claiborne calls it, “a beautiful vision for a world where everyone has enough.” Robert D. Lupton says it is “a fine handbook for practical mission work.” With simple, everyday choices you can make the world a better place. Learn how to live Jesus’ economy, the currency of love. One hundred percent of the author’s proceeds go to the nonprofit Jesus’ Economy, to fuel the movement of creating jobs and churches in the developing world.