I’m doing a bit of reading in my spare time around the theme of the Bible and social justice and have got to Bruce W Longenecker’s Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World.
His thesis is that, despite a mountain of books on Paul, there tends to be an exegetical blind spot in regard to the significance of his concern that his early Christian communities would ‘remember the poor’ (Galatians 2:10). And this blindness has contributed to a neglect of an important and central part of early Christian identity and practice.
What scholars on Paul love to do is to reconstruct his theology and debate how it all holds together. Plenty of Pauline scholars from all perspectives have spent lifetimes unpacking the grand scope of Paul’s narrative thought. Yes there are all sorts of debates and disagreement about the details, but the primary focus is on theology: stuff like his view of the law, justification and other soteriological categories, Christology, the Spirit, ethics and so on.
This is all wonderful and good (and I hugely enjoyed writing a book chapter recently on just this sort of theme). But, proposes Longenecker, they tend to say little about Paul and issues of poverty and wealth (yup – he’s right there).
Rather, he argues that care for the poor is
an integral part of the “good news” that Paul preached. For Paul, economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers who lived in conformity with the good news of the early Jesus-movement.(1)
He backs up this argument in a big carefully researched book. One chapter analyses various strands of the biblical material related to Paul. Just because Paul does not devote whole chapters to care for the poor should not distract us from understanding that right economic relationships were vital to the apostle.
Paul’s command to the Galatians to ‘remember the poor’, Longenecker argues in a separate couple of chapters, is best understood in generic terms rather than any specific group – against long-held scholarly consensus that it refers to a group of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
And he proposes that Gal 2:10 fits perfectly within the rhetoric of the letter as a whole Gal 5:13-15 – love your neighbour; Gal: 6:2 ‘bear one another’s burdens’ to fulfil the law of Christ. Remembering the poor is an act of love that results in generous giving to those in need (5:22 ‘generous goodness’).
It is in living this sort of life through the Spirit that these Gentile believers fulfil the Mosaic law. While circumcision was definitely not required to be righteous; ‘remembering the poor’ was a necessary characteristic of following Jesus – and flowed out of Judaism’s concern for the poor. [As elsewhere, there is both discontinuity and continuity from Judaism in Paul here].
This Christian care for the poor stood in contrast to much of Greco-Roman paganism. Generous Christian community was an expression and embodiment of the eschatological presence of God. And it is was this sort of radical care for the poor that characterised early Christian communities in the 2nd to 4th centuries.
Towards the end of the book, Longenecker applies this central concern for the poor to Paul’s own life and priorities. The apostle was well-educated, of probable middle-income status, Roman citizenship etc. Becoming a follower of Jesus involved a drop in economic status as well as social ostracization. His missionary life was marked by extreme hardship as captured in 1 Cor 4:;11-12 and 2 Cor 11:23-27: imprisonment, beatings, hunger, thirst, weary from tough physical work, homeless, without clothing and so on.
This experience of exclusion and physical hardship was a consequence of following the risen Lord. Longenecker terms this a ‘self-imposed economic demotion’ : a voluntary lowering of the self at considerable financial and physical cost. He made himself economically vulnerable – and called other Christians to do the same.
This self-sacrifical path led to considerable danger and ultimately, of course, death in Rome. Outpouring one’s life for others was to follow Christ; “just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2). That the rich were to wait for and include the poor in 1 Cor 11 is only a logical extension of such other-love.
And this led to a major project that marked the final years of his life and ministry from 53 AD onwards: the collection for the poor Jewish believers in Jerusalem from his Gentile churches. The collection was founded on the self-giving example of Jesus in 2 Cor 8:9 ‘Although he was rich, yet for your sake be became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Gentile Christians were to follow their Lord in giving up riches for the sake of others – the poor in Jerusalem.
Paul’s passionate committment to the poor in Jerusalem has a number of strands:
If he went to Jerusalem in 57-8 AD, it was a dangerous and thing to do with no guarantees of success. Romans 15:;30-31 talks of request for prayer that he would be rescued from unbelievers in Judea and that his ministry would be accepted by Christians there. It looks as if this prayer was not answered – and he was eventually executed in Rome.
In other words, Paul was willing to risk his own life for the collection for the poor.
Longenecker suggests that two goals stood ‘front and center’ of his motivation to go to Jerusalem.
1. The collection would help unify the early Jesus movement – building bridges between Gentile and Jewish believers.
2. The collection would help to legitimate Paul’s own ministry to the Gentiles: – the collection would be a testimony to the work of God among the law-free uncircumcised Gentiles.
Paul put enormous energy and effort into this collection over a number of years. Longenecker concludes his major study with this conclusion;
We have seen that Paul’s concern for the poor had considerable impact on the way that he lived his life, to the point of risking his own life in “putting his money where his mouth was.” This should surprise us only if, unlike Paul, we imagine the “good news” that transformed Paul from persecutor to apostle to be devoid of an economic dimension.
In this view, Paul stands full-square with his Lord Jesus Christ in his own separate proclamation of good news to, and practical ‘remembering’ of, the poor.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18-19).
All this raises some contemporary questions:
How, in your experience, do you think local churches do in ‘remembering the poor’ in their own contexts?
What does Paul’s willingness to embrace ‘self-imposed economic demotion’ – even to the point of risking his life for the poor* – say to us Christians in the West today?
What do you make of Longenecker’s conclusions that remembering the poor is by NOT peripheral or supplemental to the good news but a necessary hallmark of a gospel-shaped life?
*And these thoughts prompt prayers for ex-cabbie driver and volunteer aid worker Alan Henning and his family, as he risked his life to help Syrian refugees and now faces almost certain death at the hands of IS.