For many years I puzzled over the bible’s teaching on poverty and wealth. Why were Jesus and the prophets so down on wealthy people? Why was poverty so commonly framed as a justice issue? Why the singling out of widows and orphans?
It all came together when I learned the significance of land. The biblical world was marked by wide scale peasant agriculture. This meant that the majority of the population farmed small plots of land on which they grew what they ate. Access to land was the key to livelihoods and the primary cause of extreme poverty was loss of access to land.
In Israel land could be lost for two reasons:
- unpayable debt. A farmer who had a bad crop, fell ill or was the victim of theft would need to borrow to see his household through to the next harvest. If the debt burden became too great he would be forced to sell his land to repay the debt.
- the male household head died without an adult male heir. Land was usually held by adult Hebrew males, so when a man died without an adult male heir the widow and any children would easily be chased away by the dead husband’s family.
Those who didn’t have access to land were locked out of the typical means of generating a livelihood and would seek work as tenant farmers, an arrangement by which the landlord took a portion of the product, or as day labourers hired day to day on a casual basis. In both instances the returns were marginal and left the landless person highly vulnerable to extreme poverty.
To ensure no-one lost access to the produce of the land God gave Israel four sets of laws:
1) laws of debt: if an Israelite fell into need s/he was to be given a loan that was interest free, and every seventh year all outstanding debts were to be forgiven. See Deuteronomy 15
2) laws of Jubilee: every fiftieth year all land was to be returned to the original title holders. At the heart of these laws was the understanding that the land was owned by God, who assigned tenancy rights to the people. A person could not sell their land. What they could sell was rights to the harvests remaining before the next year of jubilee. See Leviticus 25
3) laws of harvest: portions of land were to be left for the landless to harvest. Rather than depending on the charity of the rich, the landless joined in harvesting for themselves. See Deuteronomy 23:24-25, Leviticus 19:9-10;
4) laws of dignity: a series of laws were designed to ensure the landless were treated with dignity and respect. See Leviticus 19:13-15; Deuteronomy 24:8-15
Had these laws been followed Israel would have been a community where no-one languished in extreme poverty. Those in need of finance would have found it, those in need of food would have been fed, and those who lost their land would sooner or later regain it.
This explains why the prophets and Jesus rail against the rich. Isaiah, for example, condemns those who add “house to house and field to field” (Isaiah 5). Jesus declares “woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6). In the subsistence agriculture economy of Israel one only got rich by buying up the land of others and relegating them to the status of tenant farmers or day labourers. In the biblical world wealth acquired was nearly always wealth acquired at he expense of someone else, taking advantage of their vulnerability to acquire their land.
I find Jesus teaching makes sense in the light of this. For example, when the rich young ruler insists he has kept all the commands of the Law Jesus exposes the hollowness of his claim by inviting him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. If he had truly understood the law he wouldn’t have acquired the land of the poor and would willingly return what was rightfully theirs.
This also explains the repeated focus on widows and orphans, for they above all were vulnerable to loss of land and poverty.