The rich and the poor. The stereotype in America is that the prominent political parties, Republicans and Democrats, seek out the interests of each of these groups, respectively. While this is a stereotype, there is some truth to the statement as to whose concerns weight heaviest when they are in conflict. While consciousness of these statuses, or very similar ones, are present throughout many societies throughout history, it is due to the influence of Marxist notion of the class struggle that has largely influenced how the West and significant parts of Asia have construed class and wealth.
These distinctions are present in Judea. The epistle from James is littered with references of compassion towards the poor and anger and judgment towards the rich. The church in Jerusalem seems to have been particularly predisposed towards the poor, having been relegated to the margins by much of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus Himself also uses language showing His consciousness about wealth and status, but I will come back to that in a moment.
There is a difference between the early Christian response to these class distinctions and the injustices that emerged from them and the Marxist response. The early Christian response looks towards the reversal of status where, in the word of Jesus, the first become last and the last become first because God is going to do something earth-shattering. This reflects the language of prophets, where God tears down rulers and raises new leaders. However, the assumption of a same or similar socio-political structure or hope remains: they expect a king as God had given them from David. The change that is looked for in the midst of injustice and impoverishment is a change in who will lead, guide, and direct. However, this king would still be guided by the lead and instruction by God, particularly through the Torah.
Marxism, by contrast, looked towards not a change in leadership, but a change in the very socio-political structures of society. Having lived in shadow of dramatic technology, cultural, and political transformations in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Marx saw the clash of classes culminating in an entire reordering of society such that the way society is ordered will overlap with the interests of all people, getting rid of any distinctions of class and status, any source of inequality, as all share equally. However, what happened in the rise of communism, was a change of political structures that became more totalitarian and more unequal, not less. In effect, the destabilization of society leads to the disruption of the basic norms by which leadership are evaluated, allowing the leadership greater and greater leeway to make their own decisions. Marxism under the ideology of equality granted even greater power and become a greater source of inequality by the way it dramatically disrupted the structure of society and its norms, because the principle of equality motivates us more in closer, more personally significant but becomes less of a motivating factor the further, more distant, and more abstract people are to us.
I make this distinction because there are different ways one can address and relate to the concerns of the poor, needy, marginalized, and disaffected. But, some of these responses lead to greater inequality, as sometimes those who advocate for the poor become the greatest perpetrators of inequality. When it comes to the poor, not all response are of equal effectiveness.
That brings me to Jesus and his language about the rich and poor. The Greek word for poor, πτωχός, occurs 20 times in three synoptic Gospels and 4 times in the Gospel of John. The rich, πλούσιος, are mentioned 16 times the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It does not occur once in John. I mention the Gospel of John because there is no criticism of the rich, and the only one who is mentioned advocating for the poor is was Judas Iscariot.
Allow me to suggest that the Gospel of John isn’t trying to portray concern about the poor in the negative light, but rather portraying those who use the moral appeal of the poor for manipulative purposes. As I mentioned in the last past, concerns about needy people is a lowest common denominator (LCD) moral principle that is shared by almost all human groups; while some cultures limit the needy to people with whom they share the same social identity (such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.), concern for the needy is a familiar principle. This is precisely why it concern about the poor, marginalized and needy is so powerful and persuasive to influence people’s think because a) people understanding it and b) because so many people get it, there is a bandwagon effect where the moral principle moves everyone to action. Judas is, in effect, employing the powerful moral motivation because the poor for an ulterior agenda of himself: he would benefit himself by the power he would garner by appearing to be concerned about the poor.
What Judas was doing wasn’t unique to him however. It is a not uncommon tactic of people who have some base of power and status to use their wider spread of influence to extend their power base through morally powerful ideas. That is, to say, the rich and wealthy will often times reach out to the poor, but with ulterior agendas at all; similarily, those with ambitions will also appeal to powerful moral ideas for their own benefit.
Read the wisdom of Sirach 4.1-10:
1My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
2 Do not grieve the hungry,
or anger one in need.
3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
or delay giving to the needy.
4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
or turn your face away from the poor.
5 Do not avert your eye from the needy,
and give no one reason to curse you;
6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,
their Creator will hear their prayer.
7 Endear yourself to the congregation;
bow your head low to the great.
8 Give a hearing to the poor,
and return their greeting politely.
9 Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor;
and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
10 Be a father to orphans,
and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
and he will love you more than does your mother.
What is apparent here this: at the core of Sirach is the concern that one’s actions on behalf on the poor has on oneself. Those who refuse the concerns of the needy may be cursed (v. 6) but those who take care of them will be like a father, husband, and son of God, all terms of power in that culture. One’s own power base is extended by charity. While these statues in and of themselves are not bad, Sirach role as a Jewish scribe certainly provides insight into the practice of almsgiving by the “hypocrites” of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes in 6.2-4. Sirach reflects a consequentialist wisdom about concerns for the poor; to be concerned about the poor provides benefit to oneself. (To be clear, I am not saying Sirach is manipulative in his concerns; I am saying that his instruction has influence on the way concerns for the poor were construed by the Pharisees)
You see a similar concern for the poor in Sirach 13 when he contrasts their unjust treatment with the injustice actions of the rich. Sirach’s distrust of the rich but concern for the poor places him in the line of those who seek to be a hero for the poor. While Sirach does not go here, it can readily go to the point that an advocate for the poor is being a hero on behalf of the poor to cement and expand their own power and status.
This is not the only way Jewish wisdom construed how one exhibits concerns for poor. 4Q Instruction, fragments of wisdom of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran had a different response to the poverty. These fragments make repeated reference to the audience being impoverish, saying “you are poor.” In 4Q416 2 III, you see the following
- vss. 2-3 – “And remember that you are poor… and what you need you shall not find…”
- vss. 8-9 – “You are poor, desire nothing except your inheritance. And do not be confused about it lest you move your boundary.”
- vss. 11-12 – “Praise his name always, for from poverty he has lifted your head and with the nobles he has set you. Over an inheritance of glory he has given you dominion.”
- vss. 15-16 – “Honor your faith in your poverty and your mother in your lowly state…”
Rather than the wisdom of an educated and relatively high status scribe of ben Sira, here the wisdom of Qumran reflects the life of people who live in poverty. Rather than a wisdom that calls people to be a hero for the poor, here is a wisdom where people are to life live according to their state of poverty.
It is this mentality that Jesus shows greater affinity towards in his ministry. Compare vss. 11-12 to Matthew 5.3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some influence upon Jesus is plausible, given his relationship to John the Baptist who lived out in the wilderness just as the covenanters at Qumran/the Essenes did. Also, compare vss. 15-16 that call for honoring parents in the midst of a lowly, impoverished state to Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 15.1-9 where they find legal traditions to abscond themselves from such actions.
This isn’t to state Jesus simply reproduces this Qumranic wisdom; there are some notable differences. There are some notable differences. Whereas, it seems vss. 2-3 may be stating that the poor should just accept nothing coming in life, Jesus by contrast advocates for a trust in God to take care of one’s needs as one seeks God’s Kingdom and Righteousness in Matthew 6.25-34. Whereas the Qumran covenantors were essentially living an ascetic lifestyle, whether by life circumstances or by choice, Jesus was not ascetic in lifestyle but he would party and enjoy meals. So, Jesus isn’t a facsimile of this type of wisdom.
However, this does put the responses of Jesus and the Pharisees into their historical context: Jesus reflects a response to the poor where one identifies as poor, whereas the Pharisees reflect the actions of those who seek to be heroes for the poor. Put differently but perhaps oversimplified: Jesus is the response of the poor for the poor, whereas the Pharisees is the response of the rich to the poor.
This puts Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61.1-2 as describing his own ministry in Luke 4.16-30 into context. Often used as a sign of a more heroic ministry on behalf of the poor in many Christian contexts, Jesus isn’t saving as a hero liberator from the outside, Jesus himself identifies with the very people he seeks to liberate, experiencing their own struggles and pains but yet overcoming them.
There is thus a difference between the two responses. Charity is an action of heroism. It is not evil in and of itself; charity can be a good thing when one has the resources. But charity is also easily manipulable for other purposes. Identifying with the poor, however, is more a matter of living life in accordance to the realities and possibilities of lacking. It is not simply an action one does, but an attitude that determines all behaviors across various context and circumstances. It is, I believe, reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4.12: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
But, it is tempting in a charity/heroic mindset to read Jesus’ language about riches and poverty in the idea that people who are rich are somehow not doing their duty or are evil. For instance, the rich young ruler of Mark 10.17-27 is construed in the negative fashion of a person who is condemned because he is rich. But let’s note that the character of the ruler would be considered impeccable, if he is speaking the truth of himself: he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t defraud, and he even honors his parents like the poor are more likely to emphasize. If there is a man who you would likely expect to treat the poor well and with justice, it is probably a person like him.
When one hears the words of Jesus: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” it is often tempting to read the failure of the ruler as that he doesn’t give to or care for the poor. But allow me to suggest that it is a LCD morality that leads to the interpretation that charity is the significant point Jesus is driving home. Jesus’ ultimate instruction for the ruler is for Jesus to follow him: he is calling him to identify with the life of poverty by directly alienating himself from his riches to follow him. Jesus is not simply instructing the rich young ruler to give to charity; his spiritual problem isn’t his lack of concern for the poor. It is, rather, the attachment he has to his wealthy status that hinders him from going beyond the moral status of being obedient to the commandments to something more complete in discipleship to Jesus.
Jesus message about storing up riches, how what you surround yourself by influenced who you are, and idolatry to money in Matthew 6.19-24 reflects the rationale behind Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: a person who has in saving everything has hoarded himself in riches has become such a person that he worships money over God. There isn’t in Jesus’ words a criticism of failing to do enough for the poor, of not being charitable and giving. It is something else: one’s heart is possessed what one’s life is surrounded in. Jesus is presented an entire way of life that is defined by being poor in spirit. It isn’t reflective of literal poverty, but a matter of the person whose heart is not deeply attached to the riches of this world.
While both those with a poor in spirit attitude and those with a heroism for the poor similarly can be charitable to the poor, there are different, underlying rationales for the charity. The poor in spirit are not attached to their wealth; consequently, there is little resistance when it comes to giving when the occasion arises. They are motivated by the good that is done by the giving. However, when one is attached to one’s riches and wealth, then charity frequently needs further motivation; there needs to be some quid pro quo, some reciprocation, or some immediate benefit to oneself to give to others. It may be as simple as the reward of feeling morally good superior in your own eyes or it may be as nefarious as trying to build a public persona, but charity without the attitude of poverty in spirit will need some other motivation to get people to overcome their attachment to the money they have.
The attitude of poverty of spirit is a much deeper, much rarer attitude than simply a habit of giving to and advocating on behalf of the poor. The Gospel is not seeking heroes for the poor and needy; that role was filled by those who were actively seeking to develop their own power base. Nor is the Gospel seeking ascetics who reject the idea of any possession within the world; if that is the case, then this quickly became forgotten in the early Church. Rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is calling people to identify with a mindset of impoverishment and forming them into that way of life.
Charity is not Christian, but is a more or less universal value of the LCD morality; poverty of spirit is not universal and it begins to approach what it means to follow Jesus. In the next post, I will push further into what attitude of poverty of spirit is leading towards.