The New Testament documents a moral movement of the poor and rejected. It portrays the survival struggles of the marginalized, the solidarity and mutuality among different communities, and the critique of a social, political, and economic system that oppresses the vast majority of people. Given his leadership in that movement, it is not surprising that the main theme of many of Jesus’s teachings and his ministry in general is bringing good news to the poor and marginalized, standing up for righteousness, and ending all forms of discrimination and oppression. Nor is it surprising that Jesus was recognized by Rome as a threat to the status quo and crucified, the punishment reserved for revolutionaries and those deemed insurrectionists.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical leader and the founder of Sojourners magazine, has written that one in every four stories in the Bible is about poverty, making it far and away the most common theme. Certainly, stories about poverty are much more numerous and prominent than those that pertain to issues such as marriage or sexuality or prayer in schools. At the very beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4, Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and announces that he has come to fulfill the mission laid out in it—to proclaim release to the captives and bring good news to those who have been made poor by systems of oppression. In passages such as Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that what we do to the least of these, we do unto him. The Apostle Paul, following his revelation of Jesus, started a collection for the poor of Jerusalem.
Jesus’s teachings and actions around poverty, wealth, and power create a picture of him as a leader of a social, political, economic, and spiritual movement calling for a world without poverty, want, or oppression. The Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and his other lessons show him to be a “New Moses”: a liberator and freedom fighter who brings instruction about how to treat the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the marginalized. Jesus was a teacher too. Contemporary and historical stories, prophetic instruction, and moral guidance were central to his revolutionary work. His was a ministry in which he educated while he organized, taught as he fought, walked as he talked, learned as he led. He admonished his followers and other movement leaders to morally resist the authorities as they built an order of justice and equality in the here and now. The purpose of his education and leadership-development practices was to reveal the lies enshrined in the status quo and to wake people up to the possibility of another way—what he named the Kingdom or empire of God.
This revolutionary Jesus and the instruction left for his followers, as summarized by the books of the New Testament, follow the prophetic teachings of the Hebrew scriptures. The revolutionary teaching of the early Jesus movement is found not only in the sermons and parables, but also in the lives and community practices of Jesus’s followers. The many references to material poverty and simplicity, especially that of Jesus and the disciples, have an important relationship to the lived experience of the poor, who made up the base of that movement during the Roman empire. The asceticism of the Jesus movement followers, given the economic and debt practices of the empire, can be seen as both a necessary response to the reality of their poverty and resistance to the established order. Rather than romanticizing a simple life, one should read passages such as “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat” (Matthew 6, Luke 12) as comfort for people who are facing serious chronic financial difficulty. These passages tell the poor and rejected that they matter to God, that they can lead a powerful movement even if they own nothing themselves, and that by seeking God’s justice together they can build a world without want. In that context, it is possible to interpret Jesus’s instructions on how to be disciples—going out with no staff or money or bread, asking for meals to be provided—as a necessity of their economic situation, rather than as a voluntary decision to be poor. In this way, Jesus’s teachings can be seen as a declaration of justice over charity and the conviction that poor and oppressed people are agents of change who do not have to wait for religious leaders or those with more resources to fix society’s problems. Having heroes and leaders from the ranks of the poor and among those who have been rejected and marginalized for who they are is important for any moral movement. Jesus’s own poverty and homelessness (beginning with his humble birth) and Paul’s emphasis on his own personal struggles show that the early church was made up of people who did not have much and required a commitment to prosperity through community survival rather than individual accumulation and greed.
In Jesus’s time, like our own, the leisure of the wealthy and powerful was held in high esteem. The common sense of those societies said that to work was to be low, dirty, and marginalized. But the people of the Jesus movement, drawing on a tradition stretching back to the Hebrew prophets, challenged that common sense and instead emphasized the value and dignity of labor. They announced that God’s desire is for people to benefit from the fruits of their labor. The examples of Jesus, James, Paul, and other leaders of the Jesus movement working for a living—as carpenters, tent-makers, and fishers—affirm the dignity and worth of people who have to work in order to survive. It affirms that the intention in the Kingdom of God is to have community flourishing and prosperity for all, from the bottom up. Living wages are an important theme throughout the Bible for this very reason.
In addition to the reality of poverty and oppression among the leaders of the early Jesus movement, there are examples throughout the New Testament of communal practices of economic redistribution, antipoverty measures, and support for a social, spiritual, economic, and political movement opposed to Rome. Paul’s concept of the collection is a central example. He suggested that the best way to spread the Jesus movement throughout the Roman world, to Jews and Greeks, was through this act of solidarity in which the poor of many diverse nations could support the lives and actions of the poor in Jerusalem (rather than the imperial center in Rome). This ancient act of solidarity and protest against the Roman empire is also a survival strategy of sharing resources. It makes it possible for poor people not just to feed, house, and clothe themselves, but also to develop a movement with other poor people who want to build a different world. Today, we do not hear much mention of the collection for the poor. When we do hear about it, it is in reference to Christian giving (to the church and through charity). The collection, however, is not about giving to the church, nor is it a big Christian charity program (like the Salvation Army). It is about forging relationships of mutuality among diverse poor people to meet their needs. The collection for the poor is an example of the kind of practice called for in Acts 2:44–47 (New Revised Standard Version): “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In Paul’s epistles, we hear that the resolution to disputes about who could be counted as part of the Christian community is participation in the collection for the poor; that one can demonstrate allegiance to the Jesus movement by offering material resources in support of its mission. And through these practices of the poor, a community where everyone prospers is possible.
There are other economic practices present throughout the New Testament that emphasize justice over charity and abundant life for all over riches for a very few. References to exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, and other Hebrew scriptures emphasize the ideas of liberation, forgiveness of debts, and economic justice. While the early Christians could have chosen any parts of the Old Testament for their New Testament references, the texts related to the elimination of poverty, the exodus from slavery, and the critique of the domination of power and empire resonated most closely with the lived experience of the early Christians. Freedom and liberation and the end of bondage and debt are mentioned throughout the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament reappropriates liberatory themes from Hebrew scriptures, and this reappropriation is focused on poverty, love, and justice issues in particular.
Although we do not know extensively about the communities that documented the stories of Jesus, we know that they were communities of poor people and prophetic leaders who stood up for justice and peace. We know that they developed communal practices to survive, to spread their movement, and to challenge the theology, ideology, and practices of the empire. The Gospel of John was written by an ostracized and oppressed community. Mark was written by a community of followers from shortly after the destruction of the Temple, facing escalating imperial taxes and debts. Paul points out to the Galatians that they welcomed him, shared what they had with him, and healed him when he first arrived, rather than killing him as an outsider. It’s important to see how all of these Jesus followers and communities, especially those from the bottom of society, created communal strategies for sharing and living cooperatively. Several of the New Testament stories, from the feeding of the five thousand to the messages of many of the parables to the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4, fit into this type of collective survival through mutual support and organization.
The New Testament contains numerous critiques of the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the way that systemic greed gets in the way of loving and honoring God and the neighbor. The other side of these critiques is the call to move from hierarchy to mutuality. Some of the passages that are most explicit include the teaching that one cannot worship God and Mammon, James’s condemnation of the oppression of the poor by the rich (especially using the courts), and the parable of the rich young man who is told by Jesus that to have eternal life he must give what he has to the poor.
Many New Testament books explicitly critique the wealthy. This includes passages such as “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19); “The first shall be last, and the last first” (Mark 10); “Command [those who are rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds” (1 Timothy 6); the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16); and the critique of slavery and the selling of bodies and souls like commodities on the market (Revelation 18). In addition to the more implicit discussions of poverty throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the existence of these more explicit critiques of wealth make it harder to dismiss the other themes and concepts mentioned above as merely allegorical. These critiques show that poverty is a main concern of the New Testament and that it is a Christian duty to end poverty.
The Greek word for “Kingdom of God” or “empire of God,” basilea, has much to do with the economic order that Jesus advocated. Few would disagree that the Kingdom of God is central to the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. However, many understand this kingdom as otherworldly and immaterial. But if we look at both the prevalence of the concept and the specific references to it in the New Testament, we can see that God’s kingdom is a real, material order, with a moral agenda different from and opposed to the reigning order of the day. The basilea is particularly present in the parables that describe how the reign of God functions differently from the Roman empire: in God’s kingdom, there is no poverty or fear, and mutuality exists among all. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’s parables and stories paint a picture of a reign in which the poor and marginalized are lifted up and their needs are met, rather than being despised or ignored by those in control. There are many references to basilea—particularly where this kingdom is associated with the poor and marginalized, children, and other vulnerable people. From these passages and others, we can see that the Kingdom of God is not ruled by force and coercion; that on earth, God’s followers are asked to model a community of mutuality and solidarity; that the poor and oppressed are held up and cared for in the Kingdom of God and that there is no room for oppressors and oppression.
The New Testament is one of the few forms of mass media that has anything good to say about poor and marginalized people. Centuries of interpretation have attempted to spiritualize or minimize this good news for the poor, hiding the reality that the Bible is a book by, about, and for poor and marginalized people. It not only says that God blesses and loves the poor, but also that the poor are God’s agents and leaders in rejecting and dismantling kingdoms built upon oppression and inequality. In the place of the old injustice they build the Kingdom of God, a kingdom without poverty. It is the vision of society the early Christians sought to create on earth, and that we who follow Jesus today are commanded to strive for as well.
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is founder and codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, Theoharis is a popular speaker, teacher, and activist, and has published numerous books and articles including Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. She is also the coauthor of Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo and visit her website.