Old Testament Perspectives on the Poor

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By Fr. James H. Kroeger, M.M.

MANY books in the Old Testament pay significant attention to the poor. The book of DEUTERONOMY calls upon the Israelites, who have the means, to assist the poor, relieve their burdens, and seek to combat the causes of poverty.

The first step in alleviating poverty is for the wealthy to voluntarily renounce their rights and claims upon the poor. For example, they are to take no interest on loans (Dt 23:19-20); periodically, they are to forgive the poor their debts (15:1-6); they should release their bonded servants after six years of service and give them generous provisions (15:12-18); part of the harvest is to be left for the poor (24:17-22).

For Deuteronomy, unmitigated self-interest is the breeding ground of communal injustice. Thus, Deuteronomy asks people of means to act in a manner that runs contrary to their personal self-interest. Following this godly path assures them that such magnanimous behavior will bring them blessings, because all blessings ultimately come from God; only then will they prosper in the land.

The books of the PROPHETS often accuse people of material means of subverting the divine plan. Frequently, they criticize rulers and judges for their offenses against the poor. Jeremiah says: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness … [and] makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” (22:11).

Scathing criticism is leveled against wealthy land-owners and creditors who foreclose on simple peasants who owned some land. In Israel, this resulted in the concentration of the land in the hands of a few; it created many landless farmers. Micah asserts: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and … covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away” (2:1-2). The prophets vigorously denounced such actions and called for divine judgment upon those who oppressed the poor.

Most of the statements made in the Old Testament about the poor are found in the WISDOM BOOKS. The book of Proverbs urges compassion for the poor: “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you yourself will cry out and not be heard” (21:13). Again, Proverbs sought to motivate people to compassion by asserting that any kindness done to the poor is a kindness done to God: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (19:17).

The Wisdom tradition recognizes that the rich and powerful are responsible for creating and perpetuating poverty. While the Wisdom tradition is balanced in tracing the various origins of poverty, it certainly is not neutral regarding the responsibility of the rich. Poverty calls for action from the wealthy to alleviate the burdens of the poor.

The PSALMS are replete with references to the poor. They portray the poor as meek, lowly, faithful, humble, hopeful, and righteous. The poor are those who have surrendered themselves completely to God; this is particularly evident in the lament psalms (3, 5, 6, 22, 44, 74, 79, 83). “Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name” (74:21).

These psalms of lament always conclude with an expression of full trust in God, because God is the protector and refuge of the poor. God even combats those who would trample on the rights of the poor. Though other forces may ultimately fail, God will always be ready to help the poor in their needs. “To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame” (22:5). God’s poor ones (anawim) could always rely on God’s justice and providence; they believed God ultimately vindicated the just.

Can society today hear the profound insights of the Old Testament regarding poverty and those who cause others to become poor?

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