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   Bible Studies  - # 1 - 4 - # 5 - 9 -  #10 - 13 -  #14 - 21  


1. Poverty and the Prodigal

2. Wealth and Discipleship in Luke

3. Centrality of the Poor in the Teaching of Jesus

4. Some Sabbatical Year Principles for Welfare Reform

5. Poverty As Powerlessness

6. Abundance and the Poor

7. Does God Give Approval to Economic Inequity?

8. 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. 30:8-9).

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 [1996], 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. 1-2).

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 in Luke

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 alms" (12:33).

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

Centrality of 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 [1995]).

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 Reign.

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 Mott

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 self-help activities.

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 as Powerlessness

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 distress.

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

 Abundance 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

 Does God 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

 The Worldly 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 "different" gospel.

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. 6:45).

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.

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