God Is Not on the Side of the Poor

God Is Not on the Side of the Poor May 26, 2010

It’s often said that God is on the side of the poor/oppressed/marginalized, and, indeed, there is much in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that suggest that God has an eye out for those who who have less voice in society than others.  But YHWH is more than happy to use rich kings as well as naked prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus embraces tax collectors and fishermen alongside the blind and lame in the Christian scriptures.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

To the statement, “God is on the side of the poor,” one can ask, “How poor do I have to be for God to be on my side?” Because poverty — or marginalization or oppression — is always relative.  I may be poor compared to my neighbor, but I’m rich compared to a person living in Appalachia, who is rich compared to someone in Burundi, who is rich compared to a serf who lived in 1243.  Compared to a first century tax collector, I am not poor.

The other problem with claiming that God is one someone’s side, over against someone else, is that it gets to sounding a bit like members of a sports team who claim, upon winning, that the victory was somehow authored or blessed by God.  Most of us scoff when one team claims that God is on their side.  But how different is it to claim that, based on our own human measurements of poverty, that God favors one group of people over another?

Rather than claiming that God is on the side of the poor in an unqualified sense, better to note that we are all poor, relative to God.  Or just to state that God is on the side of everyone.

N.B., This post is part of a series exploring apophatic statements about God.

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  • Jay

    God is on the side of fairness. If anyone is a victim of unfairness or oppression, God will be their advocate. It just so happens that money is power and power corrupts… so it is more often that God is needing to come to the defense of the poor.

  • Tony,

    These apophatic posts of yours are very interesting for me to read. The reason they are so interesting is because Im not sure how to reconcile them in light of your previous books and writings that made it clear that you embraced a postmodern epistemology.

    These apophatic statements are clearly propositional truth claims and I could string them together and make the claim that you’re constructing a systematic theology.

    Has there been a change in your epistemology or are you just being selectively postmodern?

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  • Or we might take, “God is on the side of the poor,” not as a statement about God, but about how we ought to stand vis-a-vis the poor. While I’m not generally in favor of reducing “God” statements to a form of “It’s really about us,” those I hear making this kind of statement seem to be implying something like this.

  • James Gilmore

    “[God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
    He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
    He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.”
    Luke 1:51-53

  • Tony
    From South Africa, a few thoughts. Would this be the same as saying that God has a “preferential option for the poor”? And what if the poor is a category for those who are oppressed, as Bosch suggests, would you still hold the view that God does not have a preferential option for those who are oppressed?

  • Dan Hauge

    I need to keep reading these before I decide to really weigh in or not, but so far I’m a bit confused. For the moment, I’ll just point out that “God is on the side of everyone” is not an apophatic statement. Wouldn’t we need to say “God is not on the side of anyone”? Actually, I like the first statement better, but that’s because I do not find this practice of only speaking of God in the negative particularly compelling.

    • Dan, that’s a good point. I was thinking of ending the post with,

      God Is Not on the Side of No One.

  • I was raised in a church (RCC) that clearly teaches a preferential option for the poor, despite how we as a denomination have acted/still act over the centuries. There are so very many verses that make it clear how very *wrong* it is to mistreat/ignore the poor and oppressed. Of course God loves all of us–rich and poor alike–but whereas God might not have a preference for the poor, WE are to show one (and even treat them like we would Christ), it seems to me.

    I clearly need my morning coffee. 🙂 Thanks for these, Mr. Jones!

  • I think we mix got is on the side of the impoverished, and those who are on the suffering side of injustice. God is a just God. Those who get screwed out of everything due to the fact that they lack resources, are less educated and have a different lot in life suffer injustice. God is their justice.

    Poverty is a mixed bag. I do not have a thriving savings account, but my bills are paid. Am I poor? no, I am provided for. My neighbors got kicked out because he lost his job, she is horribly ill and governmetn support has dried up. Are they poor? Yes. Are they suffering injustice because of the condition they are in, yes.

  • I agree that God does not favor some people over other people. I do, however, think God shows special concern for the poor. In Jesus, God became a poor person.

    • Really, Josh? On what basis do you assert that Jesus was “poor”?

      • Bruce

        Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58
        But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
        Matthew 10:9–10 (in instructing the disciples how to carry about their business)
        “Don’t take any money in your money belts—no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveler’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.”
        Matthew 17:24–27
        On their arrival in Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”
        “Yes, he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house.
        But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the people they have conquered?”
        “They tax the people they have conquered,” Peter replied.
        “Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free! However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”

        Is the evidence circumstantial? Sure, but it’s there.

      • TR

        Also, when Jesus is presented in the temple for consecration according to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary bring two turtle doves rather than a lamb, suggesting they couldn’t afford the lamb (Lev. 28:12).

  • Tony,

    I’m surprised that the entire focus of your post is on being FINANCIALLY poor, but entirely leaves out the frequent (perhaps most common) Biblical emphasis on SPIRITUAL poverty. And I have to wonder whether understanding poverty in this way would change your proposition that God is not on the side of the poor. Certainly, He is on the side of the spiritually poor — whether they be tax collectors, fishermen, or kings.

    • Andrew, that’s what I meant when I wrote, “we are all poor.”

  • Bishop John Shelby Spong calls this “tribal thinking.” He points out that we invoke God’s name into every activity including our football games. His hilarious observation: We pray to win “in His name” as if he has a favorite football team…

    Interesting post. 🙂

  • Simon

    Great post Tony!

  • Jeff Straka

    When we continue to understand God as an omnipotent “Big Guy in the Sky”, we continue to see God as “tribal” (on one side or the other) and the one responsible to magically “fix” things.

    When we begin to understand God as the mystics and process-relational theologians do – a God IN all, a God that limits his power and thus desperately NEEDS us – it changes the perspective. When we see God IN US, WE have to become the ones on the side of the poor and the oppressed. When we see God IN OTHERS, we are provoked/persuaded into to serve the Holy Presence that stands before us. And finally, when we see God flowing IN (and connecting) all things, there is no longer even an us/them – we are all One. And when our Brother or Sister is hurting (and this can be Brother Earth and Sister Sea), WE hurt.

  • Well said Jeff.

  • Tony–

    Jesus was born to peasants who would become refugees, practiced carpentry as a trade, seemed not to have a home, and did not have even a single coin on his person when he was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. Robin Meyers writes: “[T]his places him at the lower end of the peasant class, among those who had lost their land. And in the Greco-Roman world, the great divide was between those who had to work with their hands and those who did not.”

    Ron Sider thinks that “God reveals a special concern for the poor in every part of the Scriptures–both the Old Terstament and New, prophetic writings and wisdom literature, the Gospels and Epistles.” Sider suggests that God “is truly unbiased and thus cares equally about everyone,” but that “in comparison to the actions of the rich and powerful, God appears to have a powerful bias toward the poor.”

    • Josh,
      They were refugees for political, not economic reasons.
      For all we know, the carpenter was the richest man in town in those days.
      The text does not say that he did not have a coin; it merely said that he asked for one.

  • If only God had taken on human form and come to earth as a poor man, I might could make a good case that God really is on the side of the poor…

  • Jay

    Lev 12:8 And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.

  • So much has to do with what Scripture means by poor & rich, which is far more nuanced and complex than what we most often mean when using the term. “Blessed are the poor/in spirit” is a prime example of how poverty (and by implication wealth) was understood as something more (though not unrelated to) material poverty. Perhaps we might find better understanding in Jesus statement that He came to the sick, not the well. Good, challenging thoughts, Tony. Thanks!

  • Tony–

    Before writing anything else, I want to repeat something I said above: God does not favor some people over other people. God loves everyone, including both the rich and the poor. Broadly speaking, God chooses to show God’s favor (grace) to humankind; in the incarnation, God becomes wholly human, thereby embracing the whole of humanity.

    Having said that, I also want to maintain that God shows “special concern” (Ron Sider) for the poor (and, unlike so many American evangelicals, I am not spiritualizing poverty). Again, it is primarily the incarnation that reveals this concern. In Jesus, God became a poor person. God could have become a wealthy landowner with many servants or a powerful king of a geopolitical kingdom; instead, Jesus was born to regular rural folks. This choice shows that God is especially concerned about the poor, not because God plays favorites or loves the poor more than the rich, but because the poor are more vulnerable than the rich.

    In response to the parts of the Jesus-story I mentioned above, you have written: “They were refugees for political, not economic reasons. For all we know, the carpenter was the richest man in town in those days. The text does not say that he did not have a coin; it merely said that he asked for one.”

    My point in recalling that Jesus and his family were refugees was not to point to poverty as the reason for this status. My point was simply that refugees tend to be poor. They leave behind their land and most of their material possessions.

    As far as a carpenter being “the richest man in town in those days,” this possibility seems unlikely. Translated woodenly (pun intended), the Greek word that is rendered “carpenter” means “wood-worker.” Jesus was not a contractor; he was the hired help. Wood-workers built furniture for vineyard owners–people who were some of “the richest…in town in those days.”

    Finally, you are correct that the biblical text does not say that Jesus asked for a coin because he needed one. Perhaps he did have one on his person. If so, then I have no idea why he did not use his own coin for his object lesson.

    Jay has helpfully cited above a passage from Leviticus. The reason this passage is helpful is that it shows that the sacrifice offered by Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:22-24 was that of the poor. As Joel Green puts it, “The sacrifice is for Mary’s purification following childbirth (Lev 12); the offering she gives is that of the poor (Lev 12:6, 8).”

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  • Pat

    Good word. I’ve often felt that while churches focus (and rightly so) on the economically poor and those in the inner city, we neglect to think that those who are not economically disadvantaged don’t need our help as well. Some who are not struggling to make ends meet to those that are wealthy are often struggling in other ways. Maybe behind the doors of many McMansions are people who are desparately unhappy or unfulfilled. Maybe some are trapped in loveless, abusive marriages. Others could have wayward children that they are at a lost to reach, etc., etc. We are all poor at some level and to think the poor are only those without material resources is to overlook one’s own poverty and need for Jesus. It is also to unwittingly buy into the notion that money makes things alright.

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  • s

    Jesus told us that whatever we do for the least, which he defines as the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, we do for him. He does not say this about the powerful. When Christians say that God is on the side of the poor, they mean that the good of the least advantaged in society and in the world is the primary social value for Christians.

    By the way, this isn’t apophatic theology. No one thinks that people predicate “has a preferential option for the poor” of the divine substance. Apophatic theology either comes by the way of cataphatic theology (we are embarrassed into silence by our prolixity according to Denys Turner) or apophatic theology is the way of negation that proceeds from the way of causation (according to Thomas).

    • S,

      If you care to comment on my blog again, use a name and a real email address.

  • Jeff Straka
  • Jeff Straka
  • Thanks for the clarification, Tony. I see it now. Looking forward to more of these posts. PAX

  • Tony,

    I find it hard to see good reasons not to conclude that Jesus chose a voluntarily poor and un-ruling life (economically, socially, spiritually, politically, etc.). That isn’t to say that Jesus (God) is automatically on the side of the generic “poor” either, as though, on the other hand, he avoided teaching or performing signs among certain classes of people. But one’s faith, as I understand it, determines the extent to which God (Jesus) affirms or blesses what you do and who you claim to be.

  • Tony Arens

    Perhaps on the other side, after this short and “poor” physical existence is over, and all is made “right” in the eyes of the Lord, this question will seem rather silly.

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  • Pabitra Bhandari

    May be the question is definition of the poor and least in the society, but its not that God is not on the side of the poor…
    You don’t know who is poor does not mean that God doesn’t consider them in a special way…
    James 2:5 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
    Luke 4:18-19 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Matthew 19:21-24 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    there is a special connection between being poor and only depend on God for everything and having riches and superficially acknowledge God on their side… its not the poverty itself that bring God on their side… But, they have only God to look on in the times of Need.

  • Craig

    “…better to note that we are all poor, relative to God. Or just to state that God is on the side of everyone.”

    Too bad Mitt Romney didn’t explain his “I’m not concerned about the very poor” comment this way: “After all, relative to God we are all very poor, including myself. So I am familiar with what it is like to be very poor.”

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