Remember The Poor: Why Simon Pettit Was Right
I’ve also been told that it was exegetically wrong.
Simon’s text was Galatians 2:10, in which Paul explains that the Jerusalem apostles had urged him to “remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” From this, Simon issued an urgent appeal to church leaders everywhere, that we should continue to carry the same burden Paul did, and remember the poor in all we do as churches. A number of the more theologically inclined people in attendance, however, subsequently argued that although the heart of his message was spot on, the text he used did not support it. Paul was not, in the immediate context, saying that Christians everywhere should remember the poor in their communities – which is how Simon applied it – but rather, saying that he had been encouraged to remember the poor in the Jerusalem church as he went about his Gentile mission. As such, the meaning of this text for us today is that we should be looking to serve the poor within God’s people, but not necessarily that we should be looking to serve the poor in the towns and cities around us.
This “Jerusalem poor” view has a long and distinguished history, stretching back to Jerome and Chrysostom and forward through to modern interpreters like Martin Hengel, J. Louis Martyn, Ben Witherington and Richard Horsley. For many contemporary interpreters, it is absolutely certain that Galatians 2:10 is talking about Christians in Jerusalem, rather than pagans in Galatia, or Mumbai, or anywhere else – Holmberg calls it “an undisputed fact”, Witherington says it is “quite clear”, and so on – and therefore that Simon Pettit was wrong to apply it as he did. Presumably it is this consensus that led a number of Bible teachers to question Simon’s exegesis all those years ago, even as they embraced his exhortation in a broader sense. When read in context, the call to “remember the poor” applies specifically, many would say, to poor Christians.
So it was interesting to discover this week that Bruce Longenecker, in his recent book Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World, disagrees with the academic consensus and agrees with Simon Pettit. In a full-length scholarly monograph on care for the poor in Pauline churches, including fifty pages on Galatians 2:10, Longenecker debunks the “Jerusalem poor” view, and argues that the poor in general was meant. He points out that Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius, along with all interpreters in the first three centuries of Christianity, took it to mean the poor without geographical restriction, and it was only in the fourth century that it began to be limited to the poor in Jerusalem. The author of James, he argues, is unlikely to have urged that very poor communities across the Mediterranean basin send their meagre resources to support the poor in his own city. Not only that, but it is very hard to see why Paul would be concerned about the acceptability of the offering to the Jerusalem believers (Rom 15:30-31), if in fact it had been suggested by them in the first place. And as those who believe in predictive prophecy, we have an additional reason to question the “Jerusalem poor” view, because Acts 11 makes it clear that the offering for Jerusalem was prompted by a prophecy from Agabus, not by an exhortation from Peter or James.
For Longenecker, the Jerusalem apostles were most concerned to ensure that, as the gospel spread to Gentiles, the imperatives in the Jewish scriptures to look after the needy remained in focus. Here’s his explanation of where Galatians 2:10 fits into Paul’s argument:
The Jerusalem leaders might well have assumed that Jews who accepted the “good news” would be unfailing in their attempts to remember the poor, having been immersed in longstanding Jewish traditions regarding the necessity of caring for the vulnerable ... But the Jerusalem leadership appears to have been apprehensive about gentiles who accepted the good news, since there was no guarantee that the previous practices of those gentiles would have been regulated by Jewish traditions about the essential nature of remembering the poor ... Without standing on constant guard to control how such an expectation was being interpreted in far-flung Jesus-groups, a request to “send money to the poor among us here in Jerusalem” may well have sent out extremely confusing signals about patron-client relationships between Jesus-groups. But the charge to “remember the poor” carried no such specificity; instead, it replicated an essential feature of Judeo-Christian identity – that of caring for the needy, without geographical restriction.
In this sense, the Jerusalem apostles’ exhortation to Paul was not aimed at him (as in, “please remember to fundraise for us”), but at his target audience amongst Gentiles (as in, “please make sure the Gentiles who become part of God’s people continue to live as the Jewish prophets have always urged us to, and remember the poor in their communities”). This, Longenecker argues, would not have come naturally in a world where there was a marked lack of concern for the needy amongst Gentiles, in contrast to that which existed amongst the Jews:
The stipulation to “remember the poor” was made in an effort to ensure that gentile Jesus-followers were recognisably more “Jewish” than their pagan environment – or better, to ensure that gentile Jesus-followers were recognised more readily as having aligned themselves with and been transformed by the deity of Israel.
That’s a great sentence, and one that deserves re-reading. Finally, here’s Longenecker’s stirring conclusion:
Paul knew from Israel’s scriptures that the deity of Israel had staked his own reputation as the cosmic sovereign to the overthrowing of unjust systems and the refreshment of the disadvantaged; and Paul probably knew from early remembrances of the Jesus-movement that Jesus himself had invoked the Isaianic narrative to encapsulate his own kingdom-message of “good news to the poor” ... If “remember the poor” is not simply “church politics”, neither does it represent a dubious, second-rate theology. It lies at the very core of the Judeo-Christian tradition, having been showcased in Israel’s scriptures, in Jesus’ proclamation and ministry, and in the best practices of the early Jesus-movement – including those Jesus-followers whose corporate life had been established and nurtured by Paul.
I love that. If Longenecker is on target, which it looks like he is, then the exhortation to “remember the poor” applies to all of us, and is for the benefit of all the poor. And it means Simon Pettit was right.