Does Paul have anything to say about poverty?
The Apostle has something both unique and relevant to contribute to our thinking on economic issues, argues Simon Jones
Everyone seems to have an opinion on the financial crisis. Economists and commentators, theologians and activists are pitching their ideas into the debate about how to make things better, fairer, more just.
Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins: Giovanni Paolo Panini, via Wikimedia Commons
One voice that’s curiously absent seems to be the apostle Paul’s. But I’ve made a stab at correcting that in a new booklet from Grove, for I believe that Paul has something both unique and relevant to contribute to our thinking on economic issues.
He was a manual worker who lived by making tents, shop awnings and other canvas and leather goods; if he didn’t make and sell his goods, he didn’t eat and couldn’t pay his rent. He lived like other artisans in the empire in a rented workshop, sleeping on a mezzanine floor above his bench, tools and canvas or in a room behind his workspace.
He bought his food at a street café if he’d made a sale and shared it with fellow craftworkers as they talked about Jesus and how they might embody his values in their lives.
Paul lived in a world where an elite one-to-three per cent owned pretty much everything, called the shots and lived lives of hitherto unknown luxury.
The other 97-99 per cent got by as best they could. A few earned enough to enjoy a modest surplus – maybe a week’s cushion, a month’s in boom times; most scraped by a day at a time – if they got work today, they ate and kept the landlord happy till tomorrow.
So everything Paul says about money, he says against this background – a context that has a curiously modern ring to it.
Paul also joined a movement that already had some firm views about money. And economic justice, in the form of frequent acts of redistribution to ensure equality among his people, was at the heart of the Bible that Paul grew up reading.
The Sabbath cycle ensured that the poor were not neglected. Every harvest was to be taken in such a way that the crops at the edge of the fields were to be left for the poor to glean. Every seven years, the land was to be left fallow, allowing anything that grew on them to be picked by those without fields to work (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7). On top of that, slaves were to be released (Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). And debts were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1-6).
God’s idea seems to have been that no one, regardless of whether they’d brought it on themselves or not, was to be left in unsustainable debt and everlasting slavery. Grace was built into the economy.
everything Paul says about money... has a curiously modern ring to it
Then every 50 years, everything was to return to how it was when the people entered the land. All the families would return to their portion of Israel. It was a reminder to the nation that the land belonged to God and they only worked it as tenants or stewards, managing it for their landlord, God (Leviticus 25:10-16).
Paul absorbed these radical economic values and they became the bedrock of his understanding of how the Christian community should work. And while he outlines how the principles of mutuality and equality should work within the Christian community, he does so because he believes this to be God’s blueprint for human society everywhere.
It’s interesting that Steve Keen, professor of economics and finance at the University of Western Sydney, has suggested total debt cancellation as a way of getting the global economy out of the mess it’s been pitched into by an over-reliance on debt-financing of everything! He argues that a debt jubilee is politically improbable because it would cause the failure of many banks. But the alternative is a decade of economic stagnation with the poor picking up the tab for the rich world over-dosing on debt.
I can see Paul nodding in the door of his tent…
In Galatians 2:10, 5:13-14 and 6:7-10 Paul outlines an ethic based on mutual sharing and seeking the good of others – especially those in the household of faith. In Philippians 2:1-4 he argues that we should seek one another’s interests rather than our own, since through Jesus we have been freed from sin and competition and he offers his own life as an example of being content with our economic circumstances because God will provide all that we need to live in the context of thanking them for sharing economically with him while he was in need (4:10-20).
And in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 we have an outline of the heart of his thinking about money and mutualism that is based on the key jubilee principles of release and restoration. By the grace of God, the Macedonians have been released from the prevailing greed of the culture, freed to share their surplus with those in need, so that they in turn might have a measure of prosperity restored to them. And at the heart of this vision is equality (v13-15).
For Paul the simple principle that everyone should have what they need and share what is left over with those who are in need determines our economic relationships. He was gathering support for believers in Judea because they were hammered by hunger and a crashing economy.
Paul’s economics are probably not directly transferable from his world to ours. But his was a world where government was weak and a wealthy minority called the shots; his was a world where the have-nots were hung out to dry by those who amassed wealth for themselves; and his was a world where the poor were squeezed by rising prices, high taxes and a lack of opportunity.
So perhaps his economic principles of mutualism and equality have something to say to our world of foodbanks, falling incomes, growing inequality and entrenched economic injustice. You can see if it does by reading Paul and Poverty: An evaluation of the Apostle’s Economic Location and Teaching (Grove Biblical Series B72) available from www.grovebooks.co.uk
The Revd Simon Jones is Ministry Team Leader at Bromley Baptist Church. He blogs at a sideways glance