Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Who Is Poor in the New Testament?
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 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
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
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
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.
Next: Maccabees (by Elizabeth McNamer)