The Poor in the Bible
Lent is a time for taking a good, hard look at our lives in the clear light of the Gospel, and asking whether our lives reflect the Gospel or whether they contradict it. It is a time for being honest with God and with ourselves, and trying to get our lives right with God. In the Prayer after Communion on the First Sunday in Lent, we ask the Lord:
“Give us the body and blood of your Son, guide us with your Spirit, that we may honour you not only with our lips, but also with the lives we lead, and so enter the kingdom”.
The Holy Spirit says to us in Lent:
“O that today you would listen to His voice. Harden not your hearts” (Psalm 94: 7-8).
One thing the Bible tells us is that God speaks to us also through the poor. To hear their cry is to listen to God’s voice. To ignore their needs is to harden our hearts against God. There is not much written about the poor in all the libraries of history books. There is very much about the poor in every book of the Bible. In page after page of the Scriptures we read how God hears the cry of the poor and asks us to hear it too.
The first time God speaks of His plan to save His people is when he tells Moses:
“I have seen the miserable state of my people … I am well aware of their suffering … The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me … So come, I send you to bring … my people out of Egypt”. (Exodus 3:7-10).
The Psalms are full of the cry of the poor and of their certainty that God will hear their cry.
“For the needy shall not always be forgotten nor the hopes of the poor be in vain … O God, do not forget the poor … Lord you hear the prayer of the poor, You strengthen their hearts; You turn your ear to protect the rights of the orphan and the oppressed so that mortal man may strike terror no more” (Psalm 9:20; 12; 17-18).
“For the poor who are oppressed and the needy who groan I myself will arise, says the Lord, I will grant them the salvation for which they thirst” (Psalm 11:6).
“This poor man called, the Lord heard him and rescued him from all his distress” (Psalm 33:7).
God is shown in the Bible as the One who is on the side of the poor:
“Father of the orphan, defender of the widow, such is God in His holy place” (Psalm 67:6).
“(The Lord) is just to those who are oppressed. It is He who gives bread to the hungry … who raises up those who are bowed down, the Lord who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan” (Psalm 145: 7-9).
The prophets in God’s name assert the rights of the poor and denounce those who violate their rights. Amos pronounces those men sinful who trample on the rights of the poor and those times evil when the needy are turned away at the city gate. (cfr. Amos 5:1-13).
Isaiah pronounces woe to those:
“who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights” (Isaiah 10:2).
Jeremiah says that doing justice to the poor is what it means to know the Lord:
“(Your father) used to examine the cases of the poor and the needy; then all went well. Is not that what it means to know me? – it is the Lord who speaks” (Jeremiah 22:16).
The Wisdom Books
The Wisdom Books of the Bible show that true wisdom includes concern for the needs and respect for the rights of the poor. This is true reverence for God. Without this one cannot be pleasing to the Lord.
The Book of Proverbs says:
“He who looks down on his neighbour sins, blessed is he who takes pity on the poor” (Proverbs 14:21);
“To mock the poor is to insult his creator, he who laughs at distress shall not go unpunished” (Proverbs 17:5);
“He who shuts his ear to the poor man’s cry shall himself plead and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13).
The Book of Job again tells us of the cry of the poor:
“The poor have cried out to (the Lord) and the wailing of the humble has assailed His ears” (Job 34:28).
Again the Book of Ecclesiasticus says:
“Do not avert your eyes from the destitute … to the poor man lend an ear … And you will be like a son to the Most High whose love for you will surpass your mother’s” (Ecclesiasticus 4:5-11).
“A plea from a poor man’s mouth goes straight to the ear of God” (Ecclesiasticus 21:6).
The Old Testament is one repeated promise of a Messiah who was to come and inaugurate the final salvation of His people. He was to set up an everlasting kingdom of justice for all men. One of the Psalms describes the kingdom which will be established when the Christ comes:
“May the mountains bring froth peace for the people and the hills, justice. May He defend the poor of the people and save the children of the needy … For He shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor. From oppression He will rescue their lives, to Him their blood is dear” (Psalm 71: 3-4; 12-14).
Isaiah says that the coming King will see justice done to the poor:
“(He) will give a verdict for the poor of the land” (Isaiah 11:4).
And this will bring reconciliation and peace (cfr. Isaiah 11: 6-9).
Our Lord and the Poor
Jesus Christ, our Lord, is that promised King and Messiah. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus introduced himself in Nazareth in words taken from that same passage of the Prophet, Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me for He has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor … to set the downtrodden free” (Luke 4: 18-19).
John the Baptist once faltered in his confidence that Jesus was indeed “the one who was to come”. Jesus sent him back this message:
“The blind see again and the lame walk … and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5).
So the message of the Bible comes over loud and clear. A society where the poor are neglected is not one in which Christ is reigning as King and Lord. A community which is not on the side of the poor is a community which does not walk with Christ. Those who do not listen to the voice of the poor are not hearing the voice of Christ. Jesus not only takes the side of the poor. He became himself one of the poor. St. Paul says: