A bit like Norway…
I’ve twice been involved in the running of two small businesses and neither was a great success which is overstating it a bit really. Those more able and talented at business than me will do better financially and I’m OK with that because when I talk about equality I don’t mean everyone literally earning exactly the same amount of money and having the same things. Instead I mean a society where both governmental policy and individual charity ensure that everyone has enough and that as a result the gap between rich and poor is a narrow and not a wide one; a bit like Norway.
Most scholars I’ve read, rightly, focus on the powerful equalising force of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 and its reminder in v23 that the land is not ours but God’s. Jubilee ensured that no family would be generationally in poverty and was intended to be the strongest of safety nets. It is the clearest example of governmental policy that seeks to create and sustain an equal society.
Examples of individual charity are also much in evidence in the Old Testament. The super wealthy Abraham and Job are also examples of generosity. Abraham allows Lot to take the best the land has to offer and he gladly tithes to Melchizedek. Job on the other hand in Job 31:16-28 has his record of generosity and compassion put to the test and just as importantly says that had he put his trust in wealth he would have been sinned and been false to God (v24-28).
This generosity is not to be overlooked; it is the voluntary redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. It recognised that this pleased God and reflected His character. This theme of generosity is echoed in the New Testament in the Jerusalem church in Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-37.
This rejection of confidence in wealth is robustly proclaimed by Jesus in Mt 6:19-21 and repeated by Paul in 1 Tim 6:16-19. James makes plain that the religion God loves is one which cares for the poor and that we should ignore all earthly displays of wealth - a gold ring in his time - because it was evident that God chose “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him”. (James 2:5)
The message and the examples are clear: those who have more than they need give up their surplus to give to those who do not have enough. This is no Mugabe land grab or even big government tax grab, it is radically generous giving and the result was, “no poor among them”.
We’ll come back to the question ‘who is poor?’ in a moment.
As I hinted in my last post, the clues we get from Exodus are perhaps the most significant. When they were stranded in the wilderness, God stepped in to provide food for his people (Ex 16:16-21), and did so in a way that allowed people to have varying amounts but never too little nor too much. He also did it without compromising the importance of their worship. They didn’t need to gather on the Sabbath so the day could remain devoted to God.
Before picking up the manna theme, Paul reminds us that our example in all this is Jesus (2 Cor 8:9) who was rich, but became poor so we who were poor could become rich. While we can argue that it primarily talks about our spiritual poverty, Paul applies it in a decidedly material way by using it as an appeal before the offering.
Returning to the manna theme Paul uses it as an example of why we should share with one another, but I think it also addresses the question of relative and absolute poverty. For we must grapple with what is ‘enough’ in the country where we live? Those who don’t have enough, I would argue, are poor in a relative if not absolute sense. They cannot function in the way that those who do have enough can.
Relative matters because it’s the society I live in that defines me most. It doesn’t do me any good to know that I’m better off than the starving of Africa if I still can’t afford the school uniform for my kids, have to work three jobs to pay the rent and suffer from chronic insecurity because I happen to live in a crime ridden sink estate even if I do have a TV. As Matt wisely said, “we can fall into making subjective value judgments about who is or is not the ‘deserving poor’ – a relativism invariably based on our personal judgment of what constitutes necessity and luxury.”
Lastly and most intriguingly, for me, is reflecting on heaven. Everyone agrees that there will be no poverty in heaven and no means by which we could ever become poor – no death, no sickness, no war and I’m guessing no debt crisis. Add to that profound contentment, no greed or need to fulfil, no personal ambition that could be met by money and an awareness that everything there is belongs to the one who made it all make the new earth a profound antithesis to the consumer societies of today. As for those who have been rewarded differently, I believe they will be accorded greater honour and trust based on faithfulness and obedience not wealth and ability. Finally there will be equality as the ‘enough principle’ of this life is replaced by the abundance of the next.
‘Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.’ (Pro 30:7-9)
Finally two recommendations for further reading, one theological and the other socio-political; the best treatment I’ve read on a biblical theology of possessions is Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty nor Riches, and for the political among you of whatever persuasion it’s worth engaging with the work of The Equality Trust.
This is part five of a series on poverty.