This Christmas, I participated in a ritual that initiated me as a full-fledged adult in my family: I went grocery shopping for the Christmas day dinner with my father. Lest this rite of passage seem trivial, I will tell you that when one comes from a family where food is love, the job of fetching the Publix dinner rolls is only entrusted to the bravest elders of the tribe.
As an eyewitness to the hustle of last-minute Christmas preparations, I saw how ugly people can become during an otherwise beautiful season. A driver raced past a stop sign nearly causing an accident in order to secure a parking space, people bickered with one another, and the man ringing the bell for the Salvation Army got his share of annoyed and guilty glances from shoppers.
Acknowledging the surrounding chaos, my dad reminded me that Christmas giving should center on charity for the poor. He said, “Christmas is overdone. People should just have dinner with family, and then, the money and time they would have otherwise spent should go those who really don’t have anything.”
It concerned Dad that the poor were easily forgotten in the midst of the holiday abundance, but really, the wealth and prosperity that many Americans experience year-round is enough to muffle thoughts of poverty at any time of year.
Our supermarket trip led me to pick up a question posed by Jacqueline Otto in discussing the goal of Christian economics: Is poverty a consequence of sin—i.e., the result of our fallen nature?
The question made me pause because several standout passages in the Bible have taught me to associate poverty not with sin, but with piety and divine favor. The example that first comes to mind is Jesus’ response to the wealthy young man who asks what he might do to have everlasting life. Jesus says: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” (Matt. 19:21). When the young man goes away sad because he cannot give up his riches, Jesus says: “Amen, I say to you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19: 23-24).
Is poverty a consequence of sin, or are Christians called to it? A friend once suggested that Christians are called to charity and to follow Jesus whatever the “cost,” though this doesn’t necessarily entail a call to be poor.
I considered the example of the rich man in conjunction with the one Ms. Otto references, “The poor you will always have with you,” (Matt. 26:11) before turning to the fifth book of the Hebrew bible, Deuteronomy, for additional perspective. Here, Moses gives several sermons to the Israelites, outlining the commands as to how the they are to conduct themselves in the Promised Land.
The text suggests two complimentary duties regarding poverty that we might consider concomitant: first, a duty to work to avoid poverty, and second, a duty to aid the poor. The Israelites are first told that when they blessed and have produced so much abundance that they carry it with them, they are to sell it and buy whatever pleases them, “all that thy soul desireth” (Deut. 14:22-26). But immediately after this command, the Israelites are told not to forsake the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow—they are commanded to provide for their poor brothers and sisters and not to take advantage of them in any way (Deut. 14:27-29; Deut. 15:10).
These duties provide an interesting framework for discussing poverty as a consequence of sin. Because of our “fallen” nature, we falter in our obligations to God, both to provide for ourselves (to the extent that we are able), and to enjoy our bounty without forgetting to share it with our neighbor.