Hermeneutic of Poverty

Poverty is the single most addressed issue in Scripture. Some have begun to claim that evangelism is more important than social action against poverty. Ecclesiologically, evangelism is geared toward the rich— namely, white Americans—who have time and money to think about theology. But Biblically, evangelism itself is framed within poverty. Evangelism in the early church was declaration of good news—God’s acceptance of and solidarity with, through Jesus the Messiah, poor and shamed people in the Roman Empire. Evangelism was social action—action against the stigmas and consequences of poverty. But today we have managed to separate social action from evangelism.


Poverty is more than just a close issue to Scripture; it is an inside issue. Much of the Biblical texts were produced under oppressive regimes. Scripture has, standing next to it, poor and marginalized people. It was passed on to us by poor and marginalized people. Therefore, we must read most scripture with a hermeneutic of poverty—always keeping its’ decrees and teachings within a frame of compassionate empathy. In most of the American church we have carried on reading the Bible through a hermeneutic of privilege. Language that should seem ironic to us, such as election, comes fairly naturally to us as privileged people. We miss, so often, what should be obvious messages of poverty and interpret them in superficial or over spiritualized terms. Take, for example, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand.

The story takes place in Baithsaida, north-east of the Sea of Galilee, an extremely poor area of an already poor region. Jesus and the disciples were short on provisions themselves since they were not the richest folks either. Then crowds of people found them. It’s hard to say what type of people these were, but it’s safe to say that when the disciples noticed that they were hungry it probably wasn’t because breakfast was three hours ago. They probably looked hungry because they hadn’t eaten in days. The disciples, in their compassionate empathy, told Jesus to let the people go and feed themselves, but Jesus knew these people were poor… not spiritually poor… economically poor to the point of hunger. These people simply could not take care of themselves. That’s why they were hungry in the first place. So Jesus audaciously tells the disciples, who have not nearly enough food to feed all of these poor people, and miraculously they are fed.

This story is about poverty. It is a story of hope for poor people, and an appeal to the responsibility we all have for each other—the responsibility we have toward poverty. But how often do you hear this message preached from the pulpit? We usually take this story and make it speak about Jesus’ power over matter or how God will multiply what we have. We do this so often that we have altogether stopped associating this story and others like it with poor people.

When well-off American Christians begin to notice poverty in the Bible, our temptation is to force it to speak to us and we start to over spiritualize it or superficialize it. We want to talk about spiritual poverty while the Scriptures are talking about economic poverty. Perhaps the beginning of discovering the heart of God is reading the Bible with a hermeneutic of poverty. If the quantity of passages which deal with a given issue are any indicator or its’ importance, poverty is at the heart of God’s work in the world.

Jesus is the primary example of this. Jesus—God incarnate—came and lived with the poor, ate with the poor, and was killed between two poor people. Jesus is solidarity with the poor. His resurrection is a declaration of victory for the poor. To be a Christian—to participate with the resurrection and live by the teachings of Jesus—is to suffer solidarity with the poor and to declare victory for the poor with our bodies and in our actions.


One Response

  1. […] 23, 2008 · No Comments There are some new thoughts on the hermeneutic of poverty going on at Kingdom […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: