Caring for the poor is one of the major themes of the Old Testament that prepares us for the person and work of Jesus. Christ’s actions and teachings should not surprise us because we are already familiar with the actions and teachings of the Lord in the history of Israel. As a matter of fact, we should not be surprised that Jesus uses a similar measure of faithfulness—caring for the needy—when He talks about the final, global judgment (Matt. 25:31–46). If our minds are shaped by the Hebrew Bible, then the Jewish Messiah is not such a surprise to us.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that anyone who believes in the liberation of the oppressed, the helping up of the weak, and the basic dignity of all humanity must be a Christian.1 Of course, for Nietzsche, care for the poor represented the most dangerous of tendencies in the West, one he called a poison that progresses “throughout the entire body of humanity.” The only solution is for humanity to get rid of such nostalgic and sentimental motivations in order to pursue the individual’s “superman-ish” desires.
Even though his solution represents a worse disease, Nietzsche had a point about the idea of helping the weak being uniquely biblical.
The Care of the Poor in the Old Testament
The Bible speaks often of helping the poor and liberating the oppressed. The most famous Mosaic formulation of this group encompasses the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner (Ex. 22:21; Deut. 10:18; 16:11; 27:19). These individuals would have required social care and protection because they did not have the ordinary social structures of family and nationality to provide for them. Moreover, God reminds Israel that they too were sojourners in Egypt (Deut. 26:5). Their ethics should be informed by their past. Even the grand redemptive events of the Old Testament, the exodus and the restoration, are framed primarily as liberation from slavery.
The logic of biblical helping goes something like this:
- Humanity is made in the image of God.
- Therefore, humanity has God-conferred dignity.
- Because of the fall of humanity, no human deserves the blessings that he enjoys; rather, all people are recipients of blessings by God’s grace. As the ancient doxology reminds us, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
- We are at the same time bearers of dignity, having been made in God’s image, and also deserving of His wrath, having fallen away in sin. To use the Apostle Paul’s language, what is true of salvation is true of all human prosperity so that “no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9; see also Job 1:21).
- We are not the ultimate owners of the riches that we have, but rather we have been given them by a gracious God, who is their final owner.
- Therefore, we are called to steward our belongings for the glory of God, in particular for the care of the poor and the oppressed who are made in His image and just as deserving as we are.
In the writings of Moses, the Lord is clear that He will judge His people according to the way in which they care for those who have no social or family structure to care for them. Centuries after Moses, the prophets apply this teaching of the Pentateuch to the people of God, and the people of God do not fare well (Jer. 7:6). The thinking here is that if God’s people are not caring for the poor, then they are accomplices in the oppression, and God will take up the cause of the needy against their oppressors.