III. Poverty: Not in the Congregation

This is part 3 of a four-part series. Here are links to Part I and Part II.

When God made the heavens and the earth, he did not create slums. His creation was made to be in a state of flourishing, benevolently governed by humans made in his image. Later, God set his affections on a slave race in order to demonstrate to the world his intentions for human shalom-prosperity-flourishing, and set up an economic and social system so that "there should be no poor" among them (Deut. 15:4); they would lend to many nations but would never need to borrow (Deut 28:12). Land would be redistributed on a regular schedule (Lev. 25) and debts were forgiven on a seven-year cycle (Deut. 15) in order to insure no one would be driven so deep into poverty that they could never get out.

In the early days of the church we glimpse once more God's offense at poverty and his intention to establish a poverty-free kingdom.

When Paul and Barnabas went before the Apostles to be certain that their kingdom-building efforts among the Gentiles were not in vain, "They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do." (Gal. 2:10). Of all the theological issues the Apostles might have emphasized to Paul and Barnabas in the early days of establishing the church, their only concern was that Paul knew the importance of remembering (or caring for) the poor.

The church, like the nation that God established among the former Hebrew slaves, was to be a place where poverty was non-existent, or at least a rare exception. The early followers of Jesus entered into a community without private ownership or personal hoarding. As a result, they lived a reality that did not include poverty:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32-35 (Also see Acts 2:44).

In order to eradicate poverty from among them, the followers of Jesus not only denounced private ownership and embraced the idea of communal wealth, but they undertook social programs, such as daily distribution of food to widows. Such systems required time, effort, intention, and a layer of management which they dubbed "servants," (diakonos in Greek) or Deacons. These were the systems and structures adopted to insure that “there was not a needy person among them,” (Acts 4:34) or in the words of the Old Testament Law, “there should be no poor among you.” (Deut. 15:4)

The church was an organism which was to express Christ's kingdom on earth. As such, poverty would not be tolerated. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul and James all addressed issues of poverty and wealth in their teachings which indicated God's intent that his image-bearers might live lives of material sufficiency and radical generosity.

But what of Jesus' statement that, "you always have the poor with you," (Matt 26:11, Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8)? The point of Jesus’ comment was that showing kindness to the poor is something the disciples would have ample opportunity to do, but that anointing Jesus' body for burial was not. The concern about using the anointing money to help the poor was a deception anyway. It was something Judas Iscariot raised because his intent was to take the money for himself (Jn 12:6). His concern was not for the poor. Jesus' statement is not resignation to poverty. His words do not encourage us to accept poverty any more than if he had said "there will always be brothels," would encourage us to accept sexual exploitation. Sin may not be completely eliminated before his return, but this is not license for us to allow evil to flourish.

In God's abundant creation, in the national laws that he established for his people, and in the teachings of Christ and the operation of the early church it is clear - Poverty is anathema for those who know, love and follow the God of the Universe and its existence is an offense to be addressed by his people.

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