What does Poverty (2) mean in the Bible?


Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament - Poverty (2)
POVERTY.—That the life of Christ was one of poverty is an impression very generally derived from the familiar words of Is 53, and also from Philippians 2:7 (‘took upon himself the form of a slave’) and 2 Corinthians 8:9 (‘he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich’). But the general picture of the surroundings of Christ which we find in the Gospels is one of healthy active life. Throughout NT times, until the final agony, the resources of Palestine were well used, and the population was able to bear considerable taxation with comparative ease; and though Judaea was liable to scarcity (cf. St. Paul’s care for the Jewish Christians, 1 Corinthians 16:1, Acts 24:17), Galilee was a hive of industry (see Swete, Gospel of St Mark, p. lxxxii; and Buhl, art. ‘New Testament Times ‘in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , Extra Vol. p. 45, with authorities cited at end). In accordance with this distinction, the contact of Jesus with the poor as described in the Gospels is almost confined to Judaea and Jerusalem (Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:21 the rich young ruler; Mark 12:42, Luke 21:1 the poor widow; Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:5 ‘this ointment might have been sold for much and given to the poor’; Matthew 20:30, Mark 10:46, Luke 18:35 the blind beggars outside Jericho; cf. Matthew 25:35).
1. The place of poverty in Christ’s own life.
(a) The home in Nazareth.—That Christ’s parents were not wealthy we gather from St. Luke’s narrative of the Infancy (Luke 2:24), where the offering of the poor is brought at the Presentation; that ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke 2:7) does not in itself show that they were badly off. Nor does the fact that Nazareth was an inconsiderable town [1] condemn all its inhabitants to poverty (see Edersheim, Life and Times of the Messiah, i. 183). Since we are entirely without direct information on either side, we can only conjecture that the form of the townspeople’s question as given in St. Mark (‘Is not this the carpenter?’ Mark 6:3; cf. Matthew 13:55), and the movements of His family (John 2:12, where His mother and His brethren are staying at Capernaum; John 2:2, where His mother and His disciples are guests at Cana) imply a certain position of independence (cf. John 1:38 ‘Where dwellest thou?’).
The story in Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica iii. 19, 20) of the grandsons of Judas ‘the Lord’s brother’ being summoned before Domitian, and removing his suspicion of them by the appearance of their horny labourers’ hands, can hardly throw light on the circumstances of Christ’s own home.
(b) The active Ministry.—Christ and His disciples, certainly did not subsist on charity; true, the Son of Man had not where to lay his head (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58); but this shows only that Christ was content not to have a home of His own, not that He could not have had one. The little party had a common ‘bag’ or purse (John 12:6), from which they purchased necessaries (John 4:8; cf. Matthew 16:5, Mark 8:14) and gave to the poor (John 13:29; cf. Matthew 26:9). The disciples’ question before the feeding of the five thousand, as given in St. Mark (Mark 6:37 ‘Shall we buy two hundred pennyworth of bread?’ cf. Luke 9:13), though doubtless ironical, does not suggest actual penury. It would seem that Jesus was in the habit of paying the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24). As the firstborn, He would under ordinary circumstances have the larger share of whatever property His father might leave. That He was not without well-to-do friends, and used their hospitality, is certain. Zebedee would seem to have been in a good position (Mark 1:20 ‘with the hired servants’; one of his sons is personally known to the high priest, John 18:15). Perhaps it was through his help that Jesus was able to have a small boat constantly in attendance on Him when preaching at the Lake of Galilee (ἵνα πλοιάριον προσκαρτερῇ αὐτῷ, Mark 3:9). The same thing may be gathered of the household at Bethany (Luke 10:38; and still more John 11:3; John 11:45; John 12:3); certain women, including the wife of Herod’s steward, ‘minister’ to Him (Mark 15:40, Luke 8:3). He is able to secure an ass on which to enter into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:3, Mark 11:3, Luke 19:31), a lodging at night through the last week (Matthew 21:7, Mark 11:19, Luke 21:37), and the use of an upper room for the Passover (Matthew 26:18, Mark 14:15); nor is there anything to suggest that Christ’s hunger when He was passing the barren fig-tree was the result of inability to procure food (Matthew 21:18, Mark 11:12).
2. Teaching about poverty.—The blessedness of the poor is the subject of the first Beatitude (see the following article). In the same discourse occur the prohibitions against taking anxious thought (Matthew 6:25) and laying up treasures (Matthew 6:19). Prayer for temporal wants is to be for ‘daily bread’ (‘bread of the coming day’ or ‘bread of sufficiency,’ ἄρτος ἐπιούσιος; see Lord’s Prayer) alone (Matthew 6:11, Luke 11:3). Christ bids the disciples of John observe that the poor have the gospel preached unto them (Matthew 11:5, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18), and specially contrasts the widow with the rich donors to the Temple treasury (Mark 12:42, Luke 21:3). The danger of wealth is constantly pointed out (Matthew 19:23, Mark 10:23, Luke 18:24 ‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven’; Matthew 18:8 ‘If thy hand or thy foot cause thee to stumble, cut it off’; Luke 16:19 the parable of Lazarus and Dives; Luke 12:16 the parable of the Rich Fool, following on Christ’s peremptory refusal to divide the inheritance between the two brothers). Cf. the command to the rich young ruler, ‘Sell all that thou hast,’ Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22, in which there was evidently some personal appropriateness; the demand was not universally made. According to our accounts, the Temple was cleansed of buyers and sellers both at the beginning and the end of the ministry (John 2:14, and Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15). That Christ had the true Israelite contempt for money and commercial prosperity is at least hinted in the story of the Temptation (Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8), and shown quite plainly in the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard: ‘It is my will to give unto this last even as unto thee,’ Matthew 20:15,—a principle which, as Ruskin saw (Unto this Last), is a defiance of political economy as ordinarily understood. Compare the anti-commercial statutes in Deuteronomy 15:1 f., Exodus 23:10 f., Leviticus 25:1-15 as to the remission of debts and the reversion of holdings in the Sabbatical year and year of Jubilee. If faithful to the Law, it was impossible for Israel to be anything but a comparatively poor nation (note, however, Deuteronomy 15:4), as would necessarily be the case with the Christian community which obeyed the rules, ‘Give to him that asketh thee,’ and ‘Lend, never giving up hope,’ μηδὲν ἀπελπίζοντες (Luke 6:35; cf. Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4). Peabody (Jesus Christ and the Social Question) points out the further opposition to current Socialism implied in the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:29, Luke 12:48; cf. Matthew 13:12).
An interesting echo of this teaching on poverty, or on the openhandedness that must prevent the dangerous accumulation of wealth, is found in the Gospel of the Hebrews (fragm. 11), where the rich man who came to Christ in the attitude of the young ruler is told that he could not have kept the Law, since people are dying of hunger at his gates. What we do not find, however, in the Gospels, is any eulogy of poverty for its own sake; it is enjoined simply as an almost indispensable aid to serving God aright. And the fact that Christ constantly mixes with what we should call the middle classes and the well-to-do, without rebuking them or bidding them give up all, shows that poverty must be understood in a relative sense, and not as the equivalent of penury. His life was one long protest against the attitude of ‘virtus laudatur et alget.’ To take Matthew 26:11, ‘Ye have the poor always with you,’ to mean that the existence of poverty must be acquiesced in, is to forget all that was said about mercifulness and liberality by Him who, when He saw the multitudes, ‘had compassion on them’ (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14). Christ demanded the surrender not of money in itself, but of everything that could interfere with the interests of the Kingdom of heaven; in this sense the verb ἀφίημι, ‘to give up, leave’ (Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:28, Matthew 4:20, Mark 1:18; cf. Luke 9:60), is characteristic of the Gospels,—as characteristic as it is in its other meaning of ‘to forgive.’ The ideal is not poverty but service (Matthew 20:27, ‘Whosoever would become first among you shall be your servant’).
Literature.—Edersheim, Life and Times of the Messiah; Schürer, HJP [2] passim; Delitzsch, Artisan Life in the Time of Christ: Vogelstein, Landwirtschaft in Palästina, 1894; Merrill, Galilee in the Time of Christ; for good remarks on the place of poverty in Christ’s teaching, see Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (‘Das Evangelium und die Armut’); Expos. 6th ser. xi. (1905), 321.
W. F. Lofthouse.

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