1. Poverty and the Prodigal
Wealth and Discipleship in Luke
Centrality of the Poor in the Teaching of Jesus
Some Sabbatical Year Principles for Welfare Reform
Poverty As Powerlessness
Abundance and the Poor
Does God Give Approval to Economic Inequity?
The Worldly Gospel of Wealth
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
Poverty and the Prodigal
The injustice in the destribution of resources essential to life throughout
the world is related to the deep biblical commitment to the poor. Recent studies
reinforce the relationship of the beloved story of the Prodigal Son (Luke
15:11-32) to the special concern for poor in the Gospel of Luke.
The relationship of the prodigal, a confessedly deep sinner, and the poor
must be guarded, however. In contrast to an alarmingly increasing attitude
towards poverty, the Scripture does not view poverty as resulting from a defect
in character. The context for poverty most commonly is injustice: "May he
[the king] give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor" (Ps 72:4 NRSV).
On the other hand, the poor are not romanticized. "The poverty of the
poor is their ruin" (Prov. 10:15). "GIve me neither poverty nor riches
. . or I shall be full and deny you . . , or I shall be poor and steal" (Prov.
Professor J. Albert Herrill has recently demonstrated how the parable of the
Prodical Son emphasizes the extremely low economic position of the son to
heighten the drama of the acceptance by the Father (Journal of Biblical
Literature , 714-17). The impact is that the restoration of God is not
only for the public sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes, who form
the context of the story (vv. 1-2). These were certainly not all economically
deprived. With economic emphasis the priority of the good news to the poor also
enters the story.
After the prodigal becomes propertyless, he experiences the life of the most
poor. In the midst of famine, he is in need. He is dying of hunger, and no one
gives him anything (v. 16). Professor Harrill shows that his "hiring
himself out to one of the citizens" expresses the depth of his distress. He
enters into "indentured labor," in which he was required to work for a
master for a specified period and suffered the degradation of having to do any
task that he was told to do--for a Jew, even care of pigs. Flight was the only
recourse to get out of the relationship before the contracted end.
The prodigal thus joined the lot of the diverse populace suffering from
injustice, which in the biblical conception means being forced to the edge of
the community. He was removed from the social and religious community by being
forced to feed the pigs, religiously unclean, and living among Gentiles. In his
loss of property and lack of material essentials of life, he was outside the
economic community. He even was beyond the community's network of aid: he got no
charity (v. 16).
His reception by the father shows the relationship of justification in
salvation to justice. Justification restores not only to the divine community,
to friendship with God; it also restores people to the human community: the
context is Jesus in human community with those who were being excluded (vv.
The son was willing to be restored merely to the edge of the community as a
servant (v. 19). The father demonstrated justice by restoring him fully to
community as a son with the privileges entailed (vv. 22-24). God's justice is
not improving the position of the oppressed but bringing them into the fullness
of community. It was with reference to community that the son "was dead and
is alive again."
In light of Luke's unqualified blessing of the poor (e.g. 6:20), the parable
of the Prodigal shows that the gospel provides hope not only for moral and
spiritual alienation but also for material deprivation.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
Wealth and Discipleship
It is often said that the Bible nowhere condemns wealth as such. In the woes
which are parallel to the beatitudes in Luke, however, the rich are condemned
without qualification: "Woe to you who are rich because you have received
your comfort" (Luke 6:24; cf. v. 25). For Jesus, one either receives one's
reward now or later, as the story of Lazarus and the nameless rich man states
(Luke 16:25). This is an emphasis of Luke.
Frequently Jesus' demand that the "rich young ruler" sell his
possessions if he wishes to be a disciple (Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22)
is said not apply to every one. Rather it is supposed to apply only to those
whose wealth gets in the way of their faith. In Luke, however, twice the demand
of putting aside superfluous possessions is a requirement of discipleship for
everyone. "Any one of you who will not give up his or her possessions
cannot be my disciple" (14:33). "Sell your possessions and give
A distinctive characteristic of the call to discipleship in Luke is leaving
one's possessions behind. Only in Luke do we find John the Baptist's
pronouncement that the fruits of repentance (3:8, 10) include giving away
superfluous clothes and food (v. 11). Unlike Mark, in Luke's account of the call
of the fishermen, Peter, James and John, they "leave everything" and
follow Jesus (5:11; cf. Mark 1:20; Matt. 4:22). Only in Luke is the tax
collector, Levi (Matthew), said to have "left everything" in becoming
a follower of Jesus (5:28; cf. Mark 2:14; Matt. 9:9). The call of the other tax
collector, Zacchaeus, occurs only in Luke. Zacchaeus responds by giving half of
his goods to the poor. Luke does not give the impression, often claimed, that
Zacchaeus kept the other half for himself. Zacchaeus also took responsibility to
restore four times the amount which had been extorted from anyone. The current
practices of tax collecting could well have given the understanding that he
would then have had nothing left (19:8). Finally, in the call to the rich young
ruler, Luke intensifies the demand by adding the word everything (panta):
He is to sell not merely "whatever he owns" (Mark 10:21) but now
"everything of whatever he owns" (Luke 18:22). (This picture of
Luke's calls to discipleship is completed with a passage, shared with Matthew.
One seeking to follow Jesus is told that, unlike the foxes and birds, Jesus
"has no place to lay his head" [Luke 9:58; Matt. 8:20].)
With this meaning of following Jesus in the Gospel, the ideal of discipleship
in Acts is not surprising. Luke includes in it the account of how everyone who
had land or buildings sold them so that the money could be used for anyone who
needed help (4:34-35).
In an excellent recent summary, J. Crowe shows several other ways by which
Luke in his usage of Mark and the source he shares with Matthew (Q), as well his
own sources, radicalized the demand for renunciation of possessions and
heightened the dangers associated with riches (Australasian Catholic Record,
1992, 344-49). These changes reveal Luke's intentions and thus what is
authoritative in the texts for us. We do need to consider the rest of the
Biblical materials on possessions as well, but as disciples of Christ we cannot
simply set aside these harder challenges of our call.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
the Poor in the Teaching of Jesus
There is an obvious emphasis on the poor in the Gospel of Luke. For example,
in Luke the poor are blessed without qualification (6:20). To be a disciple
requires selling one's possessions and giving them to the poor (12:33). The poor
man Lazarus died and went to heaven in contrast to the rich man who neglected
him (16:19-31). One should give to the poor so that poor may welcome us when we
get to heaven (16:9).
The pertinence of these materials in Luke for the social stance of Christians
regarding real poverty today has been undercut in two ways. The first is the
argument that this was a concern that the writer of Luke brought in, not a
concern of Jesus himself.
The second way has been to claim that the references to the poor refer not to
the economically poor. The poor were those who humbled themselves in dependence
upon God and God's salvation in Christ.
There are several severe inadequacies in these interpretations of the
Gospels, and Luke in particular. Recent studies of a Gospel source known in
scholarship as "Q" strengthen this criticism. They reinforce the
genuineness of the priority that Jesus gave to the economically and socially
impoverished and of the actions that he took and called forth on their behalf.
The verbal agreements that Matthew and Luke have together in contrast to the
Gospel of Mark are so great that there seems to be a source containing sayings
of Jesus that they used. This projected source is called Q. Many contemporary
scholars of a variety of personal theological stances accept the existence of
such a source.
One of best known scholars who has concentrated on Q has recently shown that
a central theme of Jesus' theology in Q is concern for poor who are struggling
for physical survival. Professor James M. Robinson of the School of Theology at
Claremont argues that Q provides us with a trajectory indicating that Jesus
himself was committed to the fate of the poor. We can ascertain this with a
clarity sufficient to cause to be uncomfortable with a commitment that is any
less (in The Gospel Behind the Gospels, ed. Ronald A. Piper ).
Professor Robinson argues that in Jesus' pronouncement of a special place in
God's Reign for the poor, the hungry, and the mourning there is a reevaluation
of the status of all victims of social neglect and oppression (Luke 6:20-21 [Q
is cited by the passages in Luke where it is found although it is present also
in Matthew]). Rather than being despised, they have a prior share in God's new
The sayings in Q deal with people with actual physical hunger. For example in
Luke 11:3 the petition that God's Reign come is interpreted by the request,
"Give us for today a day's ration of bread"; and bread is meant
literally as a square meal. Q comments on the Lord's prayer, of which this
request is a part, by giving assurance that when they ask, they will be
provided, as with bread and fish by humans, with good things by God (vv. 9-13).
As they give themselves to God's Reign, God will provide them with sustenance,
even if through human action (Luke 12:22-31).
We find in such materials neither asceticism nor romanticism of poverty but
an elevation of masses who are even without bare necessities of life to a
central theme of theology. Jesus went about doing something about it. His
followers today can make the poor no less central to their understanding of God
and God's ways. We must use the means and opportunities of our day similarly to
act for their well-being.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles
Some Sabbatical Year
Principles for Welfare Reform
The heart of the
welfare provisions of the Mosaic law tie the needy people of the community to
the land in institutions that came to be associated with the various forms of
the sabbatical year. They express principles that provide a rule and guide for
some of the most important relationships in the social community.
In an agrarian economy the land was the productive property. The implication
for welfare reform today of this concern to give access to land is to discover
ways of tieing disadvantaged people to productive property, such as through
schemes of worker ownership.
The most significant welfare provision was the Jubilee, in which periodically
productive property was restored to every basic economic unit of the community.
In Old Babylon a newly inaugurated king would make a decree of justice (męsharum)
which would provide emancipation by annulling debts, debt servitude, and real
estate transactions. As Stephen Kaufman points out (in In the Shelter of
Elyon, 1984), the Hebrew Jubilee also was based on a proclamation of freedom
(Lev. 25:10). (The word for freedom here is also tied linguistically to the word
used for emancipation in the Babylonian texts.)
A distinction of the Jubilee, however, is its periodicity, an innovation
which was applied also to debts (Deut. 15:1). The Jubilee was to recur at a
stated interval. There is no evidence of any fixed periodicity in the
Mesopotamian amnesty decrees according to Kaufman. The Torah has taken the
return to one's productive property and the cancelling of debts out of the realm
of royal whim and institutionalized it as a regularly recurring institution. A
challenge of welfare reform is to escape the whim of the legislator's budget
knife as well as what Jonathan Edwards called the precariousness of voluntary
charity. A basic premise must be dependability and stability.
The periodic cancelling of debts was a decisive intervention to eliminate
economic handicaps from the past. One contemporary application might be new ways
in which bankruptcy provisions could give individuals and small businesses and
farms a fresh start.
Another distinction of the Jubilee was its universality. Unlike the
neighboring Ugaritic society, no real estate transaction of land could be
labeled an exception (as "irrevocably transferred'). The Jubilee applied to
all hereditary land that had been sold, not only that of the poor. The poor
might benefit the most from it, but all members of the society had an interest
in it. Universal programs are sounder and more durable than programs that aid
only the poor.
Access of the poor to fallow fields, vineyards, and orchards was another
welfare provision. The practice of leaving land fallow is a nearly universal
agricultural practice which is essential when modern methods of fertilization
are lacking. In Israel it was required every seven years. An interval that
infrequent is unattested in agrarian practice, Kaufman notes. The
distinctiveness of the Hebrew institution, however, was that the fallow ground
was for the poor (Exod. 23:11). The concern was welfare, not horticulture. In
this provision the poor were given access to the final stage of production for
Scholars take the sabbatical welfare structures, including the Jubilee, more
seriously today than did those of the last generation. They have become
increasingly aware of similar distributional practices in other tribals
societies and elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. Our modern societies are
backward in substantial and meaningful welfare. Because of our individualism and
corresponding privatization, we have lost some ancient principles of economic
solidarity and adjustment.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
Poverty in Scripture is not merely a matter a lack of material goods; it also
involves a deficiency in power. The poor person is defined as one "whose
power is insufficient" (literally, "his hand does not reach"
[Lev. 14:21 (hand metaphorically means "power"]). In Leviticus
25:35 a person who is poor is one whose "power slips" in relation to
the rest of the community ("with you"). The poor are described as
being on the verge of falling out of the community because of their economic
Recently, Professor C. R. Dickson has demonstrated this understanding of
poverty in Psalm 82 (Hervormde Teologiese Studies 1995, 1029-45). In this
Psalm the subordinate divine beings, angelic beings similar to the fallen powers
and principalities of the New Testament, are judged by God. They have failed in
their responsibility over human culture to provide justice to the poor.
Professor Dickson shows verses 1-4 to be interlaced with the conception of
power. God's sovereign power is expressed by God's "standing" in the
divine council and judging the gods (v. 1). The references to the poor are
framed (in a chiasm) by two references to the wicked that have almost the exact
pattern in Hebrew: The gods "show partiality to the wicked," and they
do not deliver the poor "from the power ["hand"] of the
wicked" (vv. 2, 4). The wicked are described primarily as the powerful. In
fact, they are so powerful that the angelic caretakers have yielded to them in
giving them unjust partiality.
Within this framework of unjust wicked power, the reference to the poor
translated as "the lowly and the destitute" (v. 3, NRSV) is
itself framed by two phrases to describe the poor which are very similar in the
Hebrew: "the weak and the orphan, " "the weak and the
lowly." Weak translates the same Hebrew word (dal). The
powerlessness of the poor expressed in this term is reinforced by its being
paired with orphan and its own lexical connotation as "a limb
dangling down." The various words for the poor in these two verses are
linked closely together so as to share in the common meaning of powerlessness.
The powerful wicked are used to frame the reference to the poor in order to
point out the contrast between their power and the weakness of the poor.
This analysis of poverty as powerlessness requires a response that goes
beyond the symptoms. When poverty is treated symptomatically, it is considered
to be the lack of certain items. The response is then to give the poor those
items rather than to deal with the causes.
The divine mandate in Leviticus 25:35, however, is to empower the powerless
person (literally, "cause him to be strong" [the verb "to be
strong" in the causative conjugation). The community's responsibility is to
restore them to participation in community. The goal is that the needy may
regain their power as mutually participating members of the community:
"that they may live beside you in the land." (v. 36).
In the context of Leviticus 25, the way of carrying out this responsibility
is institutionalized as a proscription on exploitive power: "You must not
charge [them] interest on a loan, either by deducting it in advance from the
capital sum, or by adding it on repayment" (v. 36, Revised English Bible).
Empowering the poor most basically requires correcting inequalities in their
capacity to provide for themselves the standard of well-being. Strikingly, these
verses in Leviticus 25 follow the passage on the Jubilee, in which the land ,
the means of production, is restored to those who have been separated from it.
Psalm 82 calls for defense of such "rights of the poor" (v. 4) in the
political and social institutions.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
and the Poor
Abundance, not scarcity, would mark the economy of the people of Israel,
according to the vision of Deuteronomy. When they entered the land, the people
would find houses filled with goods, flowing wells, and productive orchards and
vineyards. Their needs would be easily satisfied (Deut. 6:10-11).
Because of the abundance, there should be no poverty (Deut. 15:4). The lack
of poverty depended not only on the abundance but also upon the people's
faithfulness in distribution. The perspective is not that no one would become
vulnerable or in need of assistance. A realism is present. "There will
never cease to be some in need on the earth" (v. 11a). The people had a
responsibility for distributing the abundance, which was provided for all: No
one was to be in need (v. 4). "Therefore I command you, 'Open wide your
hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'" (v. 11). They were not
to be tight-fisted or hard-hearted. They were to lend with an open hand for any
need, by any person (v. 7).
The people are channels of God's material blessings. "Give liberally and
be ungrudging . . . for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all
your work and in all that you undertake (v. 10, NRSV)." "There
will be no one in need among you, because the Lord your God is sure to bless you
in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if
only you will obey the Lord your God" (vv. 4-5, NRSV). Their
response to the material abundance from God is to use it to meet their own basic
needs (cf. 6:11) and to pass it on to those who are lacking. Private wealth in
the midst of poverty means that the pipeline flowing from God through the people
to the poor has been obstructed.
Blocking the distribution of God's abundance bears a heavy cost. The
continuation of God's blessing has a condition. "The Lord is sure to bless
you . . . if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this
entire commandment that I command you today" (v. 5; cf. Deut. 23:20).
Jamming up the channel to the poor would bring an end to the abundance itself.
We cannot take the easy way around this challenge through the rationalization
that Deuteronomy 15 is in the Old Testament, that it is for the people of
Israel, not for the people of the new covenant. Jesus quoted this passage and
indicated that this responsibility to the poor is permanent. "'You always
will have the poor with you' [cf. Deut. 15:11], and whenever you want you will
be able to be provide benefits for them" (Mark 14:7). Particularly in a
time when popular attitudes support tax cuts for the rich through restricting
aid to the poor, we must apply to our personal and corporate life the
instructions of Deuteronomy 15 on how to be responsible in the material aspects
of our abundant living.
Jesus warned against retaining material wealth beyond our essential needs. It
is luxury, treasures on earth. He warned that "life does not consist in
having possessions in excess" (Luke 12:14). In contrast to the rich fool
who put his surplus into bigger barns (vv. 16-21), we are to give our excess to
the poor (v. 33).
Jesus' teaching in Luke 12 is the same conception as that of Deuteronomy. God
provides abundantly and lovingly (vv. 28-31). Our basic needs are met, and the
abundant gift of God is then passed on to the poor.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
Give Approval to Economic Inequity?
"Does God give approval to an inequitable distribution of wealth"
was one of the questions provided to guide a discussion
group in which I participated. I was surprised with the response of some members
who earlier had affirmed that the Christian has an obligation to give to those
who are lacking what he or she does not need. To this question, however, they
responded, "Yes." I wondered, "What is the Biblical evidence for
a 'No' answer--that God does not approve of such inequity?"
One type of answer would be to look at aspects of the Law in the Hebrew Bible
which provided a basis for relative economic equality, such as in the
distribution of the land and the provisions to maintain that. Another approach
would be to look at the radical sharing in the early church.
According to Acts 4:32-37 and 2:44, the early believers held everything that
they owned in common. Those who had excess to share in lands or houses sold it
and the proceeds were "distributed to each as any had need." The
effort was successful: "There was not a needy person among them" (NRSV).
That the writer intends to portray economic equality is seen in the fact that
he selects phrases used in Greek philosophy to describe ideal
utopian egalitarian societies: "one soul, " "nothing
his or her own," "in common" (Acts 4:32).
In considering the broader significance of this radical sharing, we must note
that Acts is not intended to be taken as a mere historical narrative. The early
church is presented as an ideal to be emulated. Luke is looking back from a
later period in which the church has suffered decline. He confronts this church
with God's intention for the church as presented in the ideal church of the
beginning. He portrays the power of the Spirit and the bravery of the witness
(Acts 4:31). In this normative context we also find the community of property
(v. 33a). This equality is an ideal for the church of God.
This ideal is not limited to the church. The church in its obedience is a
vanguard for the Reign of God. It manifests what God desires for all of life.
God indicates God's desire for equality in economic relationships. Since it is a
Scriptural norm, we should be informed by it as much as possible in all our
relationships Our mandate is to be zealous that all of life reflect the
will of "the mighty one, God the Lord, who speaks and summons
the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting" (Ps. 50:1). We work by
analogy. We cannot expect as pure an obedience in secular life, but we approach
the norm as much as possible.
One valid conclusion would be that God does not give approval to an
inequitable distribution of wealth.
From The Word
by Stephen Charles Mott
Gospel of Wealth
The Gospel of Wealth is the teaching that God loves God's children and has a
marvelous plan for their life that they be financially prosperous. None should
be poor. Poverty is said to be the result of the fall of the human race into
sin. God has delivered the believer from that. To be content to be poor is to
accept spiritual defeat. Such a believer is an embarrassment to God and a bad
witness to the world. One leader is reported to have provided expensive gold
pens to young Christians telling them that they are the King's Kids and that
they deserve nothing less. Similarly, Christians should not be sick, and young
people are told that they should expect to be successful in their careers.
Professor Ward Gasque, in his critique of this teaching (Evangelical
Review of Theology, 1996), notes that several passages used to support this
position are taken out of context. For example, in the statement about Christ
giving us life more abundantly (John 10:10) and in the epistolary greeting
wishing the readers to prosper (3 John 2), abundance and prosperity are
misinterpreted as material luxury.
Other texts cited include those that promise that God will grant any request
made by the believer (e.g. John 16:24). In the context of faith in the God of
revelation, however, the request must be in accord with the revealed will of
God. The Scriptures are clear that God calls us not to luxury but to a lifestyle
of sufficiency for which we live in dependence on God. One can identify with
Professor Ward's suggestion that the Gospel of Wealth is in fact a partial or a
In the most important passage in the Bible on possessions, Luke 12:15-34,
Jesus warns that "life does not exist in having possessions in excess"
(v. 15). Possessions in excess are "treasures" on earth. When that
occurs, our heart, the center of our affections, is fixed on earth, which is the
sphere of destruction (cf. vv. 33-34). It is the rich and damned fool, not the
blessed believer, who retains God's gifts for his or her own consumption (vv.
16-21). Instead, we are to seek the new society, the Reign, that God is creating
and its values (vv. 22, 31). This means that we are to give our excess to the
poor so that our treasure is in heaven (vv. 33-34). God will provide as we
depend upon God. What is promised, however, is not wealth, but the basic needs
of food, clothing, and shelter.
The saints of the Scriptures, Professor Ward notes, were called to carry
their cross like Christ, living a life of social shame, suffering, deprivation.
The exemplary figures of the Hebrew Scriptures often were persecuted and
impoverished (Heb. 11:32-38). We are asked cheerfully to accept the
dispossession of our goods. Our vindication is certain, but not in this life
(Heb. 10:33-36). In this life, God in love and mercy sends the material
blessings of sun and rain not on the just, but on the just and the unjust (Matt.
Professor Ward suggests that the Gospel of Wealth is a theology born not out
of Scripture but out of historically and geographically unusual situations of
wealth and optimism, under which Christians have been contaminated by the values
of the world. Globally, the majority of Christians even today are poor.
The danger of this teaching is that it suggests to poor believers that they
are deficient or sinful when they may be more mature than those who are
affluent. It also calls the believer away from the biblical lifestyle of
sufficiency, in which one girds one's loins for a ministry of evangelism,
giving, and social justice for the poor.