Volume 1 - Issue 2

The poor man’s gospel

By Peter H. Davids

A theological student needs little enlightenment to realize that theologies of liberation and demands to actualize the social implications of the gospel abound in every theological forum. Yet the evangelical student often feels a sense of unease at the extent to which this atmosphere lacks a serious concern for the biblical data. He recognizes that it is not sufficient to sprinkle the discussion with texts from Amos, Paul, or Jesus. He wishes rather to grapple with what Jesus or Paul taught in context and to make this material the basis of his discussion of these subjects.

With this in mind, we shall survey the teaching of the synoptic Gospels on wealth and poverty to discover an exegetical basis for further discussion and research. Naturally, the student must combine this material with that in James, Paul and other authors, but we maintain that the synoptic Gospels are the logical beginning-point for this study, that they introduce the major issues and that followers of Jesus of Nazareth must take the tradition of his teaching as the foundation of all other biblical discussion.

  1. Mark

Mark logically begins the inquiry into the synoptic teaching on wealth and poverty (although he admittedly includes no systematic teaching on the subject),1 for the Gospel contains one key passage on this subject, the incident of the rich young man (Mk. 10:17–31). This pericope is not only significant in the context of Mark, but it is also included in both remaining Synoptics.2

Although the three Synoptics do not make significant variations in this pericope, it is relatively difficult to interpret. The difficulty, however, lies more in the application of this story within the early church (and perhaps in the willingness of its interpreters to accept its message due to theological preconceptions) than in the narrative itself. The following points are clear: first, the questioner does not come to seek a special status (i.e., apostle) among the followers of Jesus, but rather simply seeks eternal life. Therefore Jesus’ answer revolves around the means of gaining eternal life or of entering the kingdom.3 Second, the citation of the decalogue and the response, ‘Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth,’4 set the background for the ending, for they designate this man a pious Jew. Jesus does not challenge this claim, but accepts him as one who has come as far as the law can bring him. He is, to use Paul’s terminology, ‘in legal rectitude, faultless’.5 Third, Jesus asserts that discipleship is that which stands between the seeker and eternal life. The questioner is called to fulfil his submission to God, for now ‘obedience to God must be demonstrated by acknowledging that God meets us in Jesus’.6

The difficulty arises in Jesus’ demanding the renunciation of wealth as part of the call to discipleship. The promise of treasure in heaven does not soften the shock which even the modern reader receives when he reads this response. Nor does the clarification in the following verses (10:23–25) remove the cause for consternation; on the contrary, it heightens the surprise, for in it the evangelist points out to the reader that this teaching is valid for all disciples, not simply for this single case.7

Exegetes have suggested three basic solutions to this difficulty, all appearing relatively early in church history. The first solution notes that Jesus is after all interested in the relationship between God and men; therefore the real point at issue is not the giving up of wealth but the attitude towards wealth. The disciple is free to keep his wealth so long as he maintains the proper detachment towards it. We admit that this explanation brings out the inwardness without which the outward act would be meaningless, but we wonder if this explanation is not often at heart an attempt to soften the radical call which the evangelist intends.8 Can there be a true inwardness without outward consequences?

The second solution explains that although the text singles out wealth, the real call is to renounce anything which comes between the individual and God.9 This solution correctly observes that Mark 10:24 broadens its sights beyond the wealthy and that the application in Mark 10:28–31 applies the ‘giving up’ to a group which was by no means rich. But can we ignore the fact that the narrative does centre on wealth and that the explanation twice (10:23, 25) returns to the theme of the wealthy? Is not this story more than simply a ‘pericope of crisis’?

The third solution goes beyond both previous ones, while attempting to retain their insights that the inward attitude is decisively significant and that the demands of Christ go beyond possessions alone. Wealth and the wealthy are the examples in this pericope because in the Gospel tradition wealth is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) dangers to the spiritual life. Mark passes on a tradition in this pericope which the other evangelists and James express more directly. Wealth is dangerous to faith, for it blocks one’s entrance into the kingdom; but for the grace of God, no-one, and especially no wealthy person, would ever enter that kingdom.

  1. Matthew

If we have reason to suspect that Mark contains a prejudice against wealth, an examination of Matthew confirms that this prejudice exists in the synoptic tradition. Matthew not only includes Mark’s pericope, but he also adds three ‘Q’ passages which reinforce it, two of them within the Sermon on the Mount. The first of these, the sayings complex in Matthew 6:19–34, turns on the categorical statement in verse 24; the rest of the passage works this statement out in practice. As in the Marcan pericope, the command to share with the poor forms the background (verse 19), but the account slips beyond this good rabbinic sentiment in verse 21, which may imply that it is better to have no treasure on earth. The next three verses confirm this implication. Verses 21, 22 are a difficult saying until one recognizes that haplous (‘sound’ or ‘single’) can refer to generosity, making the ‘single eye’ mean ‘if you are generous’. This links the saying to that which precedes. At the same time haplous connotes undivided loyalty to God, joining the saying to the either-or alternative in the following saying. Therefore the ‘single eye’ saying means: if one is undividedly devoted to God and thus generous (i.e., puts his treasure in heaven), he is on the right way (i.e., full of light); if, however, he is niggardly, he is on the evil way (i.e., full of darkness), despite his claims to be a servant of God.10 This saying, then, prepares the reader for the either-or (two ways) construction in verse 24. It is either wealth or God; one cannot serve both.11Matthew then resolves the practical problems which this uncompromising teaching suggests in his great passage on trust, which follows (6:25–34).

The two remaining ‘Q’ sayings differ from the previous one in that they exalt the poor rather than devalue wealth. Matthew 11:5 presents the preaching of the gospel to the poor (Is. 61:1) as the climactic evidence of the arrival of the Messiah, and Matthew 5:3 pronounces a blessing on the poor in spirit. Both of these passages are rooted deeply in Israel’s piety, in the long tradition of God’s help for the poor and oppressed (the anāwîm).

This tradition appears in all strata of the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch it appears in passages such as Deuteronomy 15:1–18, in which Yahweh’s interest in and provision for the poor demonstrates itself. The prophets apply this tradition in concrete situations, as in Amos’ condemnation of Israel’s treatment of the poor (Am. 4:1–3). In the Psalms the concept of the oppressed and poor (‘ānîwe’ eḇyôn) reaches fruition. Psalm 40:18 (English, verse 17), for instance, uses this phrase as the basis of the sufferer’s claim upon God. Because he is oppressed and poor, the sufferer is among those who fall under the special concern of God.12Two features stand out in this tradition: (1) it assumes that the poor in question are pious, for dependence upon God is the characteristic of the poor, and (2) ‘the poor’ as a title always refers to suffering and oppression, actual or perceived.

‘The poor’ appear again in later Jewish literature. ‘The poor’ is a title for the pious sufferers (perhaps the Hasidim) in the Psalms of Solomon; it describes the elect of God in 1 Enoch 108; and it designates the oppressed who receive the victory in 1QM. This last example is especially interesting. First, the men in question are clearly sufferers who depend upon God, who, true to character, will answer by granting them the victory over their rich oppressors. Second, 1QM XIV, 7 contains the Hebrew equivalent of Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’ (‘anwê rûaḥ). Matthew’s expanded form of the beatitude, then, has a Palestinian background, but it, like Luke’s form, refers to the pious poor who look to God to redeem them from their oppression.13

We have observed, then, two streams in Matthew’s thought. On the one hand, wealth is a great—perhaps the greatest—hindrance to following God single-mindedly. The disciple is advised to give to the poor, putting his treasure in heaven. On the other hand, the poor (who in their poverty depend upon God) are singled out as the special recipients of the gospel. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew stresses neither of these streams; the ‘Q’ material simply clarifies the incident which he has taken over from Mark. It remains for Luke to develop these concepts fully.

  1. Luke

Luke’s presentation of the beatitudes is indicative of how he will handle this theme. He addresses the church (disciples) as the poor, the hungry, and the suffering; they will be blessed. Although it is clear that this group is pious, Luke centres on their present economic situation. To reinforce his point he includes curses on the wealthy, the well fed and the satisfied (perhaps meaning the oppressor). This strong ‘reversal of fortunes’ teaching with its special interest in the poor is a key theme in the Gospel.14

While we cannot forget that this theme begins with the Magnificat and Luke’s double use of Isaiah 61:1,15the bulk of Luke’s material is concentrated in his central section. God’s interest in the poor appears in chapter 14, in which, in the context of one of Luke’s well-known meals, Jesus turns to his host and counsels him to share his food with the poor and oppressed (i.e., those cut off from the temple). Since these unfortunates cannot pay him back, God will reward him in the future in their stead.16 Immediately follows the parable of the great banquet. The rich invited guests reject the invitation and return to their goods; the host in turn replaces them by inviting the poor and helpless to fill their places. This indicates God’s turning from the powerful to the poor to fill his messianic banquet; people who heed God should be inviting the poor to their banquets now.

Turning back to chapter 12 we discover a related theme. In 12:14 a man requests Jesus to perform a typical rabbinic task—arbitrate a dispute. Jesus refuses, terming the request greed (pleonexia), and arguing that real life has nothing to do with such concern over quantity of goods. The parable of the rich fool advances the thought, for he is a man who keeps his (honestly earned) goods to himself instead of distributing to the poor (he was not ‘rich towards God’).17 Luke interprets this through ‘Q’ material, but reverses Matthew’s order, changing the emphasis. Now the disciples stand in contrast to the rich fool, who carefully provided for himself, in that they must not concern themselves with their own needs. Verses 33, 34 make the point explicit: whereas Matthew simply presents Jesus’ advice (put your treasure in heaven) Luke gives his command—Sell! Give! But both evangelists give the same reason: maintaining wealth upon earth pulls the heart away from God.

These ideas recur in chapter 16. Again we deal with large blocks of material rather than isolated verses. The chapter begins with counsel to use money wisely: use money to make the type of friends who will receive you into heaven.18 Then Luke adds a series of short sayings about wealth (mammon), which picture it as dangerous, foreign to one’s true wealth, and standing in radical contrast to God. The Pharisees stand condemned, for they serve money rather than God. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus then represents this teaching in picture.

The difficulties of this parable lie in the fact that neither man is explicitly characterized and no explanation is included. Yet the end of the parable contains the severest rewards and punishments imaginable. Two possible interpretations of the parable commend themselves for consideration. According to the first, this parable concerns the reversal of fortunes per se. That is, in the life to come those now rich will suffer and those now poor will enjoy life; one receives his share in the ‘good life’ either now or in the world to come irrespective of sinfulness or guilt.19 According to the second, this parable pictures the reward of a rich man who, as any Jewish hearer would have recognized, was wicked in that he ignored the demands of charity and retained his wealth. The beggar Lazarus is, by implication, one of the humble, pious poor,20

We choose the second interpretation for the following reasons: (1) the appeal to Moses and the prophets (16:29) cites literature which commends charity and condemns niggardliness, but which does not reject wealth per se; (2) the parable applies Luke’s blessing-woe combination, which implies that the poor in question are pious, and (3) the parable in context applies the teaching about serving two masters, about wealth in heaven or on earth. The rich man served money, not God; he had no concern to put his wealth in heaven and thus fits with the already condemned Pharisees.

Before leaving Luke we must consider two more areas of evidence. First, unlike Matthew, Luke never calls a disciple rich. Rather, when the rich become disciples they voluntarily part with their possessions, as in the case of Zacchaeus (19:1–10);21 the preaching of John the Baptist expresses the same principle (3:10–14). Likewise the apostles never have possessions after their call, and those disciples (e.g., the women in 8:2) who do have possessions appear sharing them.

Second, the examples given in Acts support the theology of the Gospel. Acts is Luke’s answer to the question, How should this teaching work in practice? The wealthier converts part with their goods and give to the poor (Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32–5:6); Zacchaeus has become a pattern of Christian behaviour for Luke. Furthermore an examination of Acts 4 would reveal that Luke is claiming that the Christian community fulfils the Greek ideal of communal fellowship and the Jewish ideal of a society without poverty (i.e., Dt. 15); the teaching of Jesus leads towards the ideal society.22

  1. Summary

We end this brief survey with a summary of the teaching of the synoptic Gospels concerning wealth and poverty.

(1) None of the Gospels is against wealth in the sense of glorifying an ascetic life-style. Not the possession-free life, but the total investment of life in the kingdom is the goal of the teaching.

(2) This does not, however, absolve the wealthy. To retain wealth is to retain a great hindrance to entering the kingdom. As we progressed from Mark to Luke, we observed a constantly increasing criticism of wealth, stressing its dangers. To maintain wealth on earth is not to invest in heaven; to serve wealth is to render service of God impossible.

(3) Thus the wealthy come increasingly under suspicion. This questioning of their status appears first in Mark and Matthew, but is strongest in Luke, where the rich merit a series of woes. It is not, however, that they are without exception marked out for perdition, but that they are so bound by wealth and blinded to the needs of the poor that they can hardly be saved. Some few of these are released by God’s grace to serve him, and they demonstrate this fact by identifying with the poor and sharing their possessions with them.

(4) Luke, and to a lesser extent ‘Q’, point to the poor as the primary recipients of the gospel. This partly reflects the historic actuality of the results of the preaching of Jesus and his followers, and it is partly a development of the Old Testament tradition of the pious poor. This interest in the poor does not preclude the repentance of the rich: it simply again questions the propriety of their retention of their wealth.

Evangelicals must work with this data when confronting the issues of poverty and wealth in the world. It is obvious that one must supplement this material with studies in Paul, John, and especially James and then must reflect on it using historical and theological disciplines. But the evangelical must never forget the significance of the synoptic Gospels for this subject nor dare he handle them piecemeal as a supply of convenient texts to support a predetermined position.

1 The Gospel does present the poor favourably and does value charity (an Old Testament tradition Mark has no intention of rejecting): see the pericopes about the widow’s mite (12:41–44), the anointing at Bethany (14:3–9), and the call of the disciples (1:16–20). But these form no developed theology about wealth.

2 Matthew 19:16–30 and Luke 18:18–30.

3 See E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark (London, 1970), p. 210.

4 Mark 10:20, rsv.

5 Philippians 3:6, neb. That Jesus ‘loved him’ is Mark’s indication that Jesus accepts his claim to legal righteousness.

6 Schweizer, op. cit., p. 212. We therefore reject the claim that Jesus calls the questioner to become a higher class of follower (e.g., an apostle); for discussion see T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (Cambridge, 1931), p. 206; E. Percy, Die Botschaft Jesu (Lund, 1953), pp. 91–93; V. Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark (London, 1952), p. 429; H.-J. Degenhardt, LukasEvangelist der Armen (Stuttgart, 1965), p. 141.

7 Schweizer, op. cit., pp. 209, 213.

8 In Quis dives salvetur Clement of Alexandria obviously attempts this.

9 Schweizer, op. cit., pp. 212–13,

10 For fuller discussion of this passage, including its background in Qumranic literature, see D. Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (London, 1972), pp. 142f.; H. J. Cadbury, ‘The Single Eye’, Harvard Theological Review 47 (1954), pp. 69–74; W. C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew(Edinburgh, 1912), p. 62.

11 It is clear that one dare not serve mammon, whether or not the word itself implies ‘wealth gained unjustly’ (i.e., that Jesus accepts the concept that most wealth is gained by injustice), as R. Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament (London, 1965), p. 125, claims. The term has a mixed background in rabbinic literature, but non-conformist Jewish literature (especially 1 Enoch) uses it with a strongly negative connotation.

12 For an extended discussion see G. J. Botterweck, ‘’ebyôn’, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament I, (Grand Rapids, 1974), pp. 27–41. The good bibliography reflects the fact that the vast majority of the literature on the subject is German.

13 See D. Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings (Cambridge, 1967), p. 251; E. Percy, op. cit., p. 42; K. Elliger, Studien zum Habakuk-Kommentar vom Toten Meer (Tübingen, 1953), p. 222.

14 See J. Dupont, Les Béatitudes (Bruges, 1954), pp. 222, 223; Degenhardt, op. cit., p. 51. Luke’s curse goes beyond both the Old Testament and Qumranic literature, which call the oppressor of the poor ‘the wicked’ never ‘the rich’. Only 1 Enoch and James have something comparable.

15 The Magnificat contains the theme of reversal of fortunes (1:52, 53), and Luke cites Isaiah 61:1 in both 4:18, 19 (making it the title over Jesus’ ministry) and 7:22.

16 Cf. W. Grundmann, Das Evangelium nach Lukas (Berlin, 1974), p. 295.

17 Ibid., p. 258; cf. I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter, 1970), p. 142.

18 The passage clearly teaches one to disburse to the poor; it is possible that the poor are pictured as receiving their benefactors into heaven. See R. H. Hiers, ‘Friends by Unrighteous Mammon,’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion 38 (March, 1970), p. 34.

19 E. Bammel, ‘ptōchos,’ Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VI (Grand Rapids, 1968), p. 906; Percy, op. cit., pp. 93–102; Dupont, op. cit., p. 204.

20 J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (London, 1954), p. 129.

21 Zacchaeus proves that Luke never gives up on the rich completely: here is a rich man demonstrating that with God all things are possible.

22 E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford, 1971), p. 192, and F. F. Bruce, A Commentary on the Book of Acts (London, 1954), p. 108, discuss these points more fully.

Peter H. Davids

Langley Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Langley, British Columbia, Canada