The Shame of Being Poor

When looking at poverty through a New Testament, Middle Eastern cultural lens, there are insights on how Christ related to and responded to the poor that the western cultural lenses that we read the Bible through completely miss. A worldview that dominates Middle Eastern societies is one of honor and shame. All interactions and conversations either honor a person or shame them in the way they are addressed and treated socially. One’s standing in the community may be one of honor or shame based on their position, wealth and influence, and whether they are able to fulfill their social obligations.

In order to understand why Jesus honored the poor and shamed the rich who hoarded their wealth, it is important to know the economic structure of 1st century Palestine where wealth and resources were limited. According to New Testament scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh the concept of “limited good” is the key to understanding the dynamics of wealth and poverty and the attitudes towards the wealthy.[1] Modern economies operate on the basis of unlimited supplies of resources and commodities. If there is a shortage, more can be produced. So if one person got more of anything, it did not automatically mean that another person got less. Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the very different reality of 1st century Palestine, which was based on “limited good”.

But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else[2]…Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud…To be labeled ‘rich’ was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his.[3]

Professor of ancient history at York University (Canada), Philip Harland notes that most scholars acknowledge that the economic situation of the peasantry was precarious due to subsistence-level farming and the expenses for taxes, rents, and seed, as well as the threat of natural disasters and famine.[4] As taxation from the Romans and the demands from the Temple authorities in Jerusalem increased, the poor were pushed further into destitution.[5] Palestine, which was transitioning from a barter economy to a ‘money’ based economy under the Romans, forced the poor to trade what little they had for survival and for their food needs to acquire money (coins) to pay their taxes and Temple dues. Various scholars estimate that as much as 40% of what a peasant produced went towards taxes and religious dues.[6] Besides this, farmers were subjected to blackmail, bullying and over taxation (Lk. 3:13-14). As the cities grew, they required increasing amount of resources and food from the rural areas. The urban elite procured these on terms that they dictated to the poor, which were often grossly unfair. In addition, any emergencies such as accidents, ill health, and crop failure forced the poor into debt, with them having to borrow money at exorbitant rates.[7] If they failed to repay the loans, they would not only lose their land but also could also be enslaved or imprisoned (Mt. 5:25-26). As a result, most of the peasants in the rural areas did not have any surplus and were poor and destitute.

It is hard to understand the social impact of poverty in 1st century Palestine (and in much of the majority world today[8]). There was shame attached to being poor as it meant that with limited resources they could not fulfill their social and religious obligations.[9] New Testament scholar at Notre Dame Jerome Neyrey writes, “Although most people had meager possessions and low status, there were families or kinship groups who could no longer maintain their inherited status in regard to marriage contracts, dowries, land tenure and the like. Loss of wealth translated into lower status, which meant loss of honour.”[10] The lack of wealth and influence, and being unable to fulfill one’s social and religious obligations resulted in shame so that the poor were not treated as a normal part of society. They were thus marginalized and ignored.

Jesus uses this paradigm of honor and shame to teach how God treats the poor and how He abhors the rich who hoard their wealth and ignore the needs of the desperate around them. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31) Jesus does something that was culturally radical. The parable is about the rich and poor in 1st century Palestine, where the rich were immortalized in lavish burial tombs that honored their name and memory. Going against the cultural norm, Jesus instead honors Lazarus, who was not only poor but also a beggar who had nothing and no social standing, so that he is remembered by history through the living memorial of the parable because he has a name. However, Jesus leaves the rich man anonymous and thus having no lasting honour. By giving Lazarus a name, Jesus identifies him as a unique individual and not just as one of the poor who hide in shame.

In the parable, the name that Jesus pointedly chooses for the beggar is Lazarus, which is derived from Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār, meaning “one whom God has helped”. Through that He reveals the heart of God for the poor and the broken. The dogs, whose saliva is healing for his sores, care for Lazarus. God’s creatures had more compassion for the beggar who was sick and desperately hungry than the rich man, who was oblivious of Lazarus’ existence as he passed him everyday as he went in and out of his house. The poor are not just an anonymous category on a socioeconomic scale. Each of them has a name with their own dreams and struggles. By acknowledging their name they become human, even though they may be vulnerable and in desperate need. Because they have a name, it challenges us to acknowledge their existence.

In the parable neither man is a great sinner. Lazarus is not accused of being lazy or being of poor moral character. The rich man is not condemned for being rich, but for not being concerned for the poor. His concern right to the end remains only for his family and never for those who are not part of his social circle. He excludes the outsider as not being worthy of his attention and care. Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian Arab historian and sociologist, wrote that tribes survived by taking care of their own and rarely those who did not belong to their tribe. Jesus challenges this prevailing attitude that a family’s and tribe’s only concern should be for their own, to the exclusion of all others.

The most remarkable thing in the parable is that Lazarus never complains nor speaks through out the parable. Culturally he would not have been allowed to speak to the rich. How can one so shamefully poor and socially outcast speak with an honorable member of the community! God breaks through this stifling cultural barrier and honors him by speaking for him who has no voice.

I wonder what it would look like to pick up the poor and the broken from the shame of their every day lives and honor them. I do know that if we did, it would thrill God that His children reflect His very nature and character.

[1] See also Alicia Batten, “Brokerage: Jesus as Social Entrepreneur,” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, eds. Dietmar Neufed and Richard E. DeMaris (London: Routledge, 2010), 168.

[2] It is only when this is understood, is the concept of the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55) understood. All debts were to be cancelled, and land that had been sold could then be redeemed.

[3] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 400.

[4] Philip A. Harland, “The Economy of First-Century Palestine: State of the Scholarly Discussion,” in Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches, eds. Anthony J. Blasi, Jean Duhaime and Philip-Andre Turcotte (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2002), 521 and Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science, 390.

[5] Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 134.

[6] Harland, “The Economy,” 521.

[7] Ibid, 516, 520.

[8] Also referred to as the global south and the developing world.

[9] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science, 390-391, 400.

[10] Jerome H. Neyrey, “Loss of Wealth, Loss of Family and Loss of Honour: The Cultural Context Of The Original Makarisms In Q,” in Modelling Early Christianity: Social Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, ed. Philip F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995),140.