Is Poor in the New Testament?"
Jerome H. Neyrey
University of Notre Dame
We often hear references to “the poor” in the New Testament. To understand these, we need to ask several key questions. Who was poor in New Testament times? Was “poor” an economic or social term or both? What part of the population would be considered “poor”? How did people become “poor”?
The Greek language has two terms for “poor”: penes and ptochos. Penes refers to a person who does manual labor, and so is contrasted with plousios, a member of the landed class who does not work. At stake is the social status or honor rating of a “worker.”
The penetes were all those people who needed to work in shops or in the fields and consequently without the leisure characteristic of the rich gentry, who were free to give their time to politics, education and war. This too represents an elite perspective which implies that the “leisured” class were of another species than the masses of “working” people.
A ptochos, however, refers to a person reduced to begging, that is, someone who is destitute of all resources, especially farm and family. One gives alms to a ptochos. A penes, who has little wealth yet has “sufficiency,” is not called “poor” in the same sense of the term.
One historian says of the ptochos: “The ptochos was someone who had lost many or all of his family and social ties. He often was a wanderer, therefore a foreigner for others, unable to tax for any length of time the resources of a group to which he could contribute very little or nothing at all.” Thus the “begging poor” person is bereft of all social support as well as all means of support.
At the tope of the social stratification of ancient society were monarch and/or aristocratic families (1-2%). Moving down the ladder, we find a retainer class: tax gatherers, police, scribes, priests, etc. (5-7%). The bulk of the population (i.e., 75%) consists of merchants, very few of whom were well off; artisans, almost all of whom lacked worldly goods; and farmers and fishermen, some of whom owned more and some less land. Finally below these are the untouchablers (i.e., 15%) who are beggars, cripples, prostitutes, criminals, who lived in the hedges outside the cities.
The rise of cities and empires in antiquity took place because peasants were able to produce an agricultural surplus. Of course, they never kept it, for in the pecking order there were always stronger and cleverer folk who took it away from them, either by plunder or by taxes. The following kind of taxes were common lin the Greco-Roman period: 1) head tax, 2) land tax, 3) requisitions (i.e., billeting soldiers, surrendering food and animals for military use, impressed labor), 4) tolls on all produce and manufactured good brought to market, and 5) tithes.
Let’s look at Jonah the fisherman and his sons Peter and Andrew. They paid a fee to fish in the lake, not anywhere, but in a specific area; they paid a tax to the toll collectors just to take their catch to market; when the fish was sold, that too was taxed. On top of all of this, the tax collector came annually to collect the other taxes listed above. Even if they caught a boatload of fish (Luke 5:6-7), after tolls and taxes there could not be much left. The taxation system might take 30-40% from peasant farmers and artisans.
When taxes were so high, life for peasants was at best “subsistence,” that is, they had only several months of food stored. The wolf was always at the door. And there was no unemployment insurance, no social security, no disability and no medicare. The state took the surplus from the peasants and gave them nothing in return.
Roman taxation of Palestine became so oppressive that it created a flood of debtors who finally lost their lands because they could not pay their taxes; here we find a major source of those who becoming “begging poor.” About the crushing burden of Israelite taxation in the time of Tiberius Caesar we read: “The provinces of Syria and Judea, exhausted by their burdens, were pressing for a diminution of the tribute” (Tacitus, Annales 2.42). Both Romans and Jerusalem aristocrats began a process of creating large estates by the annexation of small plots, a task made easy by the hyper-taxation of the peasants. Elites, as absentee landlords, lived in the city; peasants worked the land. This ought to give us a better purchase on certain motifs in the gospels. For example, how often in the gospel parables an absent landlord appears (Matt 21:33-41; 24:45-47; 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-8). Recall, also, how frequently “debt” is talked about: 1) “Forgive us our debts” in the Our Father (Matt 6:12), 2) the parable of the two debtors (Matt 18:23-35), 3) the frequent mention of “debt” in the gospels (e.g., Luke 7:41). Failure to pay taxes, moreover, results in loss of land, as noted above, as well as slavery and/or torture (Matt 18:25).,
Let us briefly tour some of the major passages in the gospels where “poor” are in view, the causes of their poorness and its alleviation.
Poor. Jesus’ response to the imprisoned Baptizer indicates both his power and generosity to the least in the land, to the blind, the lame, the lepers and the dead, whom we consider “begging poor.” And so the last item in the Jesus’ list (“the poor have the good news preached to them,” Matt 11:5/Luke 7:22), also belongs to this category of “begging poor.” “The ‘poor’ you have always with you” (Matt 26:11/Mark 14:7; John 12:8) refers likewise to the “begging poor.”
Blind Bartimaeus begging on the road (Mark 10:46-52), Lazarus begging at the gate of the house of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), and the crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:1-10) exemplify the degradation of the begging poor forced out of cities and towns and consigned to roads and gates to beg for alms. In several parables we learn that the elite wealthy refuse the king’s supper, which is then feasted upon by the very opposite in the social scale, the unclean outcasts, the “begging poor”: “Go out to the alleys and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame. . .Go outside the city to the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:21-23). Furthermore, anyone with a family who might carry them to Jesus is not “begging poor.” People without any social or material resources such as the disguised in Matt 25:36-45 are “begging poor.”
The original four Beatitudes included mention only of the “poor,” the hungry/thirsty, mourning, and those cast out. If we start with the last of these, the final and longest of the four, we discover the chief reason why these disciples (“. . .for my sake”) are “poor,” hungry/thirst, and mourning. The last and climactic Beatitude call honorable those disciples of Jesus whom their families disown and excommunicate for their loyalty to Rabbi Jesus. When a family banns and disowns its offspring, the children immediately drop from “working poor”to “begging poor.”
Similarly, we hear about a banished couple who are told to “look at the birds of the air. . .look at the lilies of the field” (Matt 6:25-33). Males worked in the fields to grow grain, which they harvested and gathered into storage areas; but this male, who has no land, looks at the birds whom God feeds. His wife, one of whose tasks was clothing production, has no sheep, no wool, no flax, and no loom to make clothing. But when she looks at the lilies she sees that God clothes them. Once this couple was “working poor,” but for the sake of the gospel they became “begging poor” (no economic or social resources).
Simply put, beggars beg for alms (Acts 3:;2-3; Luke 16:19-21). Almsgiving was a sacred obligation in Israel: “. . .who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering” (Sirach 35:2), a form of worship after the temple was destroyed. In this context we note how often people are exhorted to give alms (Matt 6:2-4; Luke 11:41; 12:22); some people are canonized for their almsgiving (Acts10:2-4). The inner circle of disciples around Jesus regularly gave alms to the begging poor (John 13:28-29).
Yet in one of the most celebrated of Jesus’ parables, he implies that alms means for than money. When the king separates the sheep from the goats, he praises one group and condemns the other according to the criteria of their almsgiving to the begging poor: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35-36). Nothing could be clearer, except how foolish it would have been to lavish the goods of a subsistence family on non-kin. The old saying, “Charity begins at home,” certainly applied in Jesus’ world where one’s kinship group was the sum total of all social support available. Hence, those who bestowed such alms on the “begging poor” were thought of as prodigal and wasteful of rare family assets. In contrast those who did not give such alms to the begging poor were considered wise, prudent and clever. But not in God’s eyes, for God turns the foolishness of this world into wisdom and worldly wisdom into foolishness. The bottom line, then, endorses the radical care of the “begging poor.”:
It is a truism in the biblical world that some sense of balanced reciprocity governed the giving of all alms, all patronage, and all benefaction. Give and get! But “Give and do not get” is folly. Why give alms to the “begging poor”? What good will it bring me? Indirectly, the New Testament addresses this. Luke especially has a clear teaching on how those who have resources should “make friends with their money.” That is, they should invite to their table those who cannot repay them (14:12-14); they are to act as patrons, but without accepting the debts that naturally accrued to those who played the patron. Balance and return is normal in patronage: the centurion build the Judeans a synagogue, and when his slave falls ill, he calls in the debt. On his behalf the synagogue elders approach Jesus for help, arguing that since the centurion was generous to them, they in turn seek to help him.
Ideally, then, the scales get balanced all around: everybody gives and gets. But this is not the gospel view of patronage. For example, Zaccheus serves as an excellent example of a patron: as a chief tax collector he grew wealthy by taking from others as much as he could; now as a disciple, he give half of his possessions to the (begging) poor (Luke 19:8). All he gets in return is the praise of Jesus.
First, remember to shift cultural gears when reading about “poor” in the Bible! “Poor” was much more than an economic calculation, because the most valuable thing one possessed at that time was family, who alone provided food, clothing, shelter, loyalty and support. To lose family means immediate descent into the ranks of the “begging poor.” “Working poor” were yards higher on the social pyramid than the “begging poor.” Relative to their own strata, the “working poor” enjoyed some honor and thus respect; not to the “begging poor.”
The political world served as a vacuum cleaner which sucked up by means of taxes as much surplus as a peasant produced and more. I was impossible, then, to “better oneself.” With heavy taxation came crushing debt and eventual loss of land and assets. People who experienced such became the source of the ever-replenishing ranks of the “begging poor.” At best, such “begging poor” would struggle to find their “daily bread.” With only few exceptions, the disciples of Jesus and Paul were all “working poor.” The occasional person of means was prevailed upon to open up his house for group assembly, but nothing indicates that he ever fed anyone. Being “poor” was never a virtue or value; one’s choice to follow Jesus might imply a choice to leave all, family included, and to lose one’s life for the kingdom. Yet this was always balanced with a calculus that the “begging poor” status which results would be resolved by the prospect of a Heavenly Father who promises a new family with heavenly resources to the tune of a hundredfold.
Hamel, Gildas, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries C.E (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990)
Malina, Bruce J.,“Wealth and Poverty in the New Testament and Its World,” Interpretation 41 (1987): 354-67
Neyrey, Jerome H. , “Loss of Wealth, Loss of Family and Loss of Honour. The Cultural Context of the Original Makarisms in Q,” Modelling Early Christianity. Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context, ed. Phillip F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995) 139-58.
Jerome H. Neyrey