Hope to the Poor
The economic system of the Hebrew Bible ensured that the even least fortunate in Israelite society would be taken care of. This was one of the terms and conditions of the Covenant – in return for being allowed to live in the Land. When Israel reneged on their part of the agreement, the Israelite prophets reminded them that to ignore the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan was to go against God’s ways. Along with idolatry and following pagan practises, the oppression of the poor was something that would invite exile from the Land. In this respect, Yeshua` of Nazareth was following in the footsteps of the biblical prophets when he spoke up for the poor.
The life of the poor
Most poor people in Galilee owned just the clothes on their back – a tunic and a mantle – and nothing else. Their homes belonged to someone else, their tools and instruments were someone else’s, even their seed was on loan, and they were expected to pay back what they owed through their harvested crops. They owed their landlords, their employers, and the state. Most people reached a stage where they were virtually indentured debt slaves, and could never hope to have their debt paid off during their lifetimes.
Torah legislated in favour of those who were forced to live like this. They were to have their debts forgiven every Sabbatical year – completely wiped clean. However, most rich people ignored these commandments of Torah. This was an injustice against the poor. The Covenant was not being adhered to, and poor people suffered as a result of this.
The forgiveness of debt therefore features large in Yeshua`’s teaching. It is a fundamental part of God’s plan in Torah to help the poor. Just as the land is allowed to rest in a Sabbatical Year, so also the poor and needy are allowed to rest from their debt.
It was not in the interests of the rich to observe the laws concerning the poor. A Sabbatical year meant that they would lose out financially, not only in the Sabbatical year, but also years subsequent to it, since most people were so deeply in debt that their creditors counted on the life-long income generated by their debt.
It is in this context that Yeshua` would have reprimanded the rich – not for simply having money, but for not using that wealth in the way God intended it to be used. In the New Testament, Yeshua`’s disdain for the rich is evident; however, perhaps because of the complex religious/economic background to that criticism which is inherent in prophetic Judaism, the New Testament does not go into the reasons for Yeshua`’s criticism in detail.
If we want to understand why Yeshua` criticised the rich, we have to understand his criticism in the light of the commandments of Torah. We envision rulers in our day rule the land for the benefit of its people; the Judean and Galilean nobility ran the country for the benefit of themselves.
Torah says that all land belongs to God; the rich were treating the land as if it belonged to them. Torah says that all Israelites were merely tenants in the Land; the rich behaved as if they were the landlords, not God. Torah made provision for debt slaves to be forgiven of their debt every seventh year, and for slaves to be released in the fiftieth year; the rich largely ignored these commandments.
Yeshua`’s message to the poor.
One can imagine how desperate the lives of the poor were, how they could see the rich prosper, and yet they continued to subsist in dire poverty. It was this atmosphere that could possibly have tempted poor people to forget God, to look at their plight and wonder where God was.
What Yeshua` did, was meet people at their point of need. He preached over and over again, how wondrous and virtuous a thing it was to forgive debt; he reminded the poor of God’s promises to them, letting them know that God their heavenly Father was constantly by their side.
And he put forward practical advice on dealing with the stress of their lives. He taught the poor not to worry about things – about relying on our Heavenly Father to provide. Since nothing we have belonged to us anyway, but was a merciful gift of God, as long as the economics of His Torah was followed, the poor would be taken care of.
Yeshua` advocated putting one’s absolute faith in God. God was in charge; there would be trials, but everything would come right in the end for the just and faithful.
The Kingdom of God
One reason why Yeshua` emphasised the Kingdom (or Reign) of God in the present now, was to contrast how human beings ran earthly kingdoms, with how God runs His Kingdom. His Kingdom was a reign of justice, where the poor were taken care of, and where YHVH’s Torah was adhered to.
YHVH is blessed at the end of every meal to thank Him as the provider of the food. The mindset of the Israelite religion is such that it regards YHVH as the source and provider of everything. It would therefore follow that the devout followers of a just and compassionate God would make themselves the conduits of YHVH’s charity.
The early community of Yeshua`’s followers collected money together from among the community, so that money could then be distributed to the poor. Such generosity, in the Israelite mindset, did not come from the donors of the money, but from God, since the money belonged to God anyway, and charity was an obligation, not a choice.
Charity was the rent that YHVH exacted for living in the Land of Israel. Torah provided the means for the redistribution of wealth. As long as that system was followed, the poor would be taken care of.
The forgotten and forsaken who suffer so much at the hands of human beings, had to be reached as part of Yeshua`’s ministry. He was sent to the poor and rejected by God to let them know that God was actively working in human lives to change things for the better.
Prophets like Yeshua` reminded the poor that they had a right to God’s wealth under the system of the Torah, that they had a right to be free of the burden of debt, and that they had a right to live free instead of as slaves.
To close, I want to quote a commandment that encapsulates the Yahwist mindset on the poor:
“Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or a resident foreigner living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to YHVH against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deut 24:14-15)