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Who Is Poor in the New Testament?

by Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.

We often hear references to —the poor— in the New Testament. To understand these references, 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—?

Who is "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 were 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— peoples.

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 top of the social stratification of ancient society were monarch and/or aristocratic families (1-2 percent). Moving down the ladder, we have a retainer class: tax gatherers, police, scribes, priests, etc. (5-7 percent). The bulk of the population, i.e., 75 percent, 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 untouchables, i.e., 15 percent who are beggars, cripples, prostitutes, criminals, who lived in the hedges outside the cities.

Taxes

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 kinds of taxes were common in the Greco-Roman period: (1) head tax, (2) land tax, (3) requisitions (i.e., billeting soldiers, surrender of food and animals for military use, impressed labor), (4) tolls on all manufacture and produce 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 toll collectors just to take their catch to market; when the fish were 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 percent from peasant farmers and artisans.

When taxes were so high, life for peasants was at best —subsistent,— i.e., 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 medicare. The state took the surplus of 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 the taxes; here we find a major source of those who became —begging poor.— About the crushing burden of Israelite taxation in the time of Tiberius we read: —The provinces of Syria and Judaea, 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 cities; peasants worked the land. This ought to give us a better purchase on certain motifs in the gospels. For example, how often in the gospels an absent landlord appears in parables (Matt 21:33-41; 24:45-47; 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-8). Recall, also, how frequently —debt— is talked about: —forgive us our debts— in the Our Father (Matt 6:12), the parable of the two debtors (Matt 18:23-35), the frequent mention of —debt— in the gospels (e.g., Luke 7:41). Failure to pay taxes, moreover, might result in loss of land, as noted above, as well as slavery and/or torture (Matt 18:25).

What This Looks Like in the Gospels

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 indicated 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 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.— Moreover, Jesus— remark, —The —poor— you have with you always— (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 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 villages 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 filled with the very opposite of the social scale, the unclean outcasts, the —begging poor—: —Go out to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame... Go out to the highways and hedges— (Luke 14:21-23). The urban —begging poor— and the outcasts represent the bottom of the population, but they find favor, just as do —the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind— who should be invited to one—s table (Luke 14:13). 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 person in Matt 25:36-45 are —begging poor.—

Made Poor for the Sake of Jesus The original four Beatitudes included mention of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the mourning, and those cast out. If we start with the last of these, we discover the chief reason why these disciples might be —poor,— hungry-thirsty, and mourning. The last Beatitude calls honorable those disciples of Jesus whom their families disown and excommunicate for their loyalty to the Teacher. When a family 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 barns; but this male, who has no more 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 but when she looks at the lilies she sees that God clothes them. Once they were —working poor,— but for the sake of the gospel they became —begging poor— (no economic or social resources).

Begging Poor and Almsgiving. 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— (Sir 35:2) and even a form of worship after the temple was destroyed. In this context we note how often people were exhorted to give alms (Matt 6:2-4; Luke 11:41; 12:33); some people are canonized for their almsgiving (Acts 10:2-4). 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 meant more than money. When the king separates the sheep from the goats, he praises one group and condemns another according to the criterion 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 staying —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 foolish, prodigal and wasteful of rare family assets. In contrast those who did not give such alms to the begging poor were considered wise, prudent, clever. But not in God—s eyes, for God turns foolishness into wisdom and wisdom into folly. The bottom line, then, endorses the radical care of the —begging poor— by the —working poor.—

What Return Shall We Get? It is a truism in the biblical world that some sense of balanced reciprocity governed all alms, all patronage, and all benefaction. Give, and get! Give, but don—t 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 are moderately wealthy patrons 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 are normal in patronage: the centurion builds the Judeans a synagogue, and when his slave is ill, he calls in the debt. On his behalf, the synagogue elders approach Jesus for help, arguing that since the centurion was generous to the Judean peoples, then they in turn should help him.

Ideally, then, the scales are 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 gives half of his possessions to the (begging) poor (Luke 19:8). All he gets in return is the praise of Jesus.

What Do We Know If We Know All of This?

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 then 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 layers higher on the social pyramid than the —begging poor.— Relative to their own strata, the —working poor— enjoyed some honor and wealth; not so the —begging poor.—

The political world served as a vacuum cleaner to suck up by means of taxes as much surplus as a peasant to produce and more. It was impossible, then, to —better oneself.— With heavy taxation came crushing debt and eventually loss of land and assets: these people were the source of the ever-replenishing ranks of the —begging poor.— At best, such —begging poor— could find —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 —poor— status that 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.

Jerome Neyrey, S.J., has a Ph.D. from Yale University and teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

Next: Maccabees (by Elizabeth McNamer)

 

Living With Scriptures

As disciples of Jesus, most of us would acknowledge our obligation to pray for the poor, but what exactly does that mean? Matthew's Beatitudes call the poor in spirit blessed. Who are they, and are we numbered among them? Luke's Beatitudes call "you poor" blessed. Who are they today, and how should we bring them before God?

 

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