Christian Treatment of the Poor

In the last three years many people here in the United States have been hurt by the economic downturn. I know people that have lost jobs or are working part time jobs out of necessity and really don’t have much money left over after paying their bills. Christian blogs have written a bit about the economic situation that we are in but I haven’t noticed as much as I would expect.

Doesn’t the Bible have anything to say about economics and how we (“we” being all people not just Christians) are to conduct our business and treat the poor? The answer is yes. The Mosaic Law wasn’t just a moral code, it was a set of laws that God considered to be sufficient to govern an entire nation. While we are no longer “under the [Mosaic] Law” it seems reasonable to me that we all can learn from the Mosaic Law how Jehovah (Yahweh) wanted the citizens of Israel to treat each other economically. How should we treat the poor? I pass panhandlers every day going to and from work. Should I be giving them a dollar when they hit me up? I knew that in 2 Thessalonians Paul gave instructions not to feed those who will not work:

10 In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.”
11 For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work [of others].
12 Now we command and exhort such people, by the Lord Jesus Christ, that quietly working, they may eat their own bread.

2 Thessalonians 3:10-12

Then there are verses in the Book of Proverbs that speak of sluggards (King James Version) or slackers (Holman Christian Standard Version):

Of course these verses don’t speak well of slackers but are the new poor that seem to be cropping up way too often slackers? There is a difference between someone who won’t work and someone who can’t find work.

A couple of months ago I stumbled upon an article at bible.org titled “Taking Interest in Your Neighbor” (click here to link) which is very interesting. The author, Bob Deffinbaugh, goes through a lot of what the Mosaic Law has to say on the subject of how Israel was expected to treat the poor.

I should mention that some Jews did go into slavery to pay their debts, that is part of the Mosaic Law. Before any reader becomes horrified at this I want to say that slavery in Israel was not the same as the chattel slavery that existed in the United States at one time. For instance, slaves in Israel could own property. The one thing that few people realize is that in ancient Israel anyone who was in debt was considered to be a slave to the lender. That means that they would consider me to be a slave to the bank that holds my mortgage which, sometimes, doesn’t seem to be that far off the mark. I still think we would benefit greatly as individuals and as a nation if we were to imitate Israel’s treatment of the poor.

I plan on making a series of posts on this topic over the next few weeks. Not only do I have Bob Deffinbaugh’s article as a resource but I am also going to try and use the Mosaic Law more directly. According to the Judaism 101 web site, 13 of the 613 commands (see the complete list here) in the Mosaic Law deal with how to treat the poor and unfortunate:

40.  Not to afflict an orphan or a widow (Ex. 22:21) (CCN51).
41. Not to reap the entire field (Lev. 19:9; Lev. 23:22) (negative) (CCI6).
42. To leave the unreaped corner of the field or orchard for the poor (Lev. 19:9) (affirmative) (CCI1).
43. Not to gather gleanings (the ears that have fallen to the ground while reaping) (Lev. 19:9) (negative) (CCI7).
44. To leave the gleanings for the poor (Lev. 19:9) (affirmative) (CCI2).
45.    Not to gather ol’loth (the imperfect clusters) of the vineyard (Lev. 19:10) (negative) (CCI8).
46. To leave ol’loth (the imperfect clusters) of the vineyard for the poor (Lev. 19:10; Deut. 24:21) (affirmative) (CCI3).
47. Not to gather the peret (grapes) that have fallen to the ground (Lev. 19:10) (negative) (CCI9).
48. To leave peret (the single grapes) of the vineyard for the poor (Lev. 19:10) (affirmative) (CCI4).
49. Not to return to take a forgotten sheaf (Deut. 24:19) This applies to all fruit trees (Deut. 24:20) (negative) (CC10).
50. To leave the forgotten sheaves for the poor (Deut. 24:19-20) (affirmative) (CCI5).
51. Not to refrain from maintaining a poor man and giving him what he needs (Deut. 15:7) (CCN62).
52. To give charity according to one’s means (Deut. 15:11) (CCA38).

I think there is truth in these laws that we can use today even though we do not live in an agricultural society. Of course we must be careful as to how we do that. Pastor Deffinbaugh does a good job of summarizing that at the end of his article:

When we seek to interpret and apply the 25th chapter of Leviticus to 20th century Christianity, we must reckon with the many differences between the Israelite of Moses’ day and the contemporary Christian. Think, for a moment, of some of the differences:

(1) Israel was a theocracy, where God ruled over His people, either directly or through a king. We live in a day when government is that of men, very often unbelieving men (cf. Rom. 13:1ff.).

(2) The Israelite lived under the Old Covenant, we live under the New Covenant.

(3) The Israelites lived, by and large, in the land of promise, and their economy was primarily an agricultural one. In our day, few are farmers, and we live in an urban, industrial environment. By helping a needy Israelite to stay on his land or to return to it, he was able to work the land and to prosper. Helping an individual to recover from a condition of need to one of prosperity is not so easily accomplished today.

(4) Israel’s society was a stable one; ours is high mobile. An Israelite knew his neighbors, and thus was able to respond quickly and knowledgeably to his needs. In our society, people drive into the church parking lot and ask for help whom we have never seen before, and who we will likely not see again. It is very difficult to determine genuine needs from the many “sob stories” which are a way of life for the slothful, who live off of the sentimentality of Christians.

We must therefore be careful not to attempt to practice in a wholesale fashion these commands which are given to the Israelite. On the other hand, there are striking similarities in the principles which underlie the Old Testament commands and those which we find taught and practiced in the New Testament. Let me conclude this message by highlighting some of the most critical timeless principles which underlie both the law and the New Testament teachings and practices…

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6 Comments on “Christian Treatment of the Poor”


  1. I’m writing my thesis on the Economics of Christianity. Keep up the good work. Great topic that needs to be discussed more.

    • Glenn Says:

      Thank you! I have some other resources on Christianity and economics that I can provide you with. I think all of them are written by Calvinists who seem to have taken a particular interest in the topic for some reason. If you are more interested in, for instance, the Roman Catholic view of economics I can’t help you.

      Thank you for the comment.

      Glenn


      • Sure. I’m not sure how you want to send them to me but I’m open to any pragmatic idea.

        “For some reason”. . . I think you know well the reason, but that is but a thought I had when I glossed over. . .

        I study economics, not one particular view.

        Thanks for commenting on my comment.

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi Keith,

    I really don’t know why it is the Calvinists among all of the protestants who have dug into this question. I could venture a guess but I don’t like doing that. If you want to tell me why they have studied so much about biblical economics then feel free to share.

    There are three resources that I have for you. One is free and the other two will require you to order books. The free materials can be found at the Institute for Christian Economics web site. You can go to the by subject section and scroll down to the economics section.

    At the American Vision book store they have a goodly number of economics books available. There is some overlap with the free books I listed above.

    The last resource is Freedom and Capitalism which can be purchased from the Trinity Foundation.

    I hope this is of use.

    Glenn


    • Murray Rothbard speaks on Calvinism:

      http://mises.org/daily/4070

      You can search more on the site. For Rothbard, the history of economics has an unusually broad scope. To him it include not only economic theory but virtually all of intellectual history as well. He has a lot to say about Calvinism. He rejects Weber and asserts that capitalism happened longed before the Calvinism, which is true.

      Thanks and Godspeed.

      • Glenn Says:

        Keith,

        I read Rothbard’s article and it was interesting. When I said that I wasn’t sure why Calvinists seem so interested in economics I meant that from a theological standpoint.

        From what little I know I agree that capitalism began before the reformation. However the Protestants seem to have implemented it in a different way than the Catholics and the Rothbard article seems to agree with that.

        Thank you for the link.

        Glenn


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