The problem of poverty is an ancient one. Down through the centuries the needy generally have outnumbered those having ample supplies of material things. When accepting an act of generosity, Jesus recognized the hard fact of the persistence of poverty among humans living in imperfection, saying to his disciples: “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want to you can always do them good, but me you do not have always.” (Mark 14:7) The Bible presents a balanced view of the problem, expressing compassion for those suffering under oppressive conditions, while also reproving those who, in effect, ‘eat their own flesh’ due to indolence. (Eccl. 4:1, 5; Prov. 6:6-11) It stresses spiritual prosperity over material prosperity (1 Tim. 6:17-19); hence, the apostle wrote: “For we have brought nothing into the world, and neither can we carry anything out. So, having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things.” (1 Tim. 6:7, 8) But the Scriptures do not portray material poverty as a virtue in itself and they warn of the temptation to theft that extreme poverty may bring.—Prov. 6:30, 31; 30:8, 9; contrast Ephesians 4:28.
THE POOR IN ISRAEL
It was not Jehovah’s purpose that any of the Israelites sink into the depth of poverty. The nation was given an inheritance of land. (Num. 34:2-12) All Israelite families, with the exception of the Levites, who received a tenth of the produce of the land for their service at the sanctuary, shared in that inheritance and therefore had a means of supporting themselves. (Num. 18:20, 21) Landholdings were secure. Laws of inheritance ensured that the land would not become the possession of another family or tribe. (Num. 27:7-11; 36:6-9; Deut. 21:15-17; see INHERITANCE.) It could not be sold in perpetuity. (Lev. 25:23) In the Jubilee year all hereditary lands that had been sold were restored to their rightful owners. (Lev. 25:13) Thus even if a man squandered his substance, the inheritance could not be forever lost to his posterity.
Faithful adherence to God’s law would largely have prevented poverty among the Israelites. (Deut. 15:4, 5) However, if disobedient, they would not have Jehovah’s blessing and this would lead to impoverishment due to such calamities as invasions by enemy armies and severe drought. (Deut. 28:22-25; compare Judges 6:1-6; 1 Kings 17:1; 18:17, 18; James 5:17, 18.) Individuals, because of being lazy (Prov. 6:10, 11; 10:4; 19:15; 20:13; 24:30-34), drunkards, gluttons (Prov. 23:21) or pleasure-seekers (Prov. 21:17), would bring poverty on themselves and their families. Then, too, unforeseen circumstances might arise that could plunge persons into poverty. Death could leave behind orphans and widows. Accidents and sickness could temporarily or permanently hinder a person from performing necessary work. For these reasons Jehovah could say to Israel: “Someone poor will never cease to be in the midst of the land.”—Deut. 15:11.
The Law, however, did much to make it easier for the poor to cope with their situation. They had the right to glean in the harvest fields, orchards and vineyards and, therefore, did not have to beg for bread or resort to stealing. (Lev. 19:9, 10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-21) A needy Israelite could borrow money without having to pay interest, and a spirit of generosity was to be shown toward him. (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 15:7-10; see DEBT, DEBTOR.) To build up his financial resources he could sell his land or sell himself into slavery, on a temporary basis. (Lev. 25:25-28, 39-54) So as not to put a hardship on the poor, the Law permitted them to present less valuable offerings at the sanctuary.—Lev. 12:8; 14:21, 22; 27:8.
God’s law prescribed equal justice for rich and poor alike, not favoring either one because of his position. (Ex. 23:3, 6; Lev. 19:15) But as the nation of Israel lapsed into unfaithfulness, the poor suffered much oppression.—Isa. 10:1, 2; Jer. 2:34.
IN THE FIRST CENTURY C.E.
It appears that considerable poverty prevailed among the Jews in the first century C.E. Foreign domination from the time of the Babylonian exile had doubtless interfered with the application of the Mosaic law, which protected hereditary possessions. (Compare Nehemiah 9:36, 37.) The religious leaders, especially the Pharisees, were more concerned about tradition than instilling genuine love of neighbor and proper regard for aged and needy parents. (Matt. 15:5, 6; 23:23; compare Luke 10:29-32.) The money-loving Pharisees had little interest in the poor.—Luke 16:14.
Christ Jesus, though, ‘felt pity for the crowds, because they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Matt. 9:36) His declaring the good news to the poor and oppressed stood in such marked contrast with the attitude of the religious leaders of Judaism that it constituted one of the proofs that he was indeed the Messiah. (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18; 7:22) To responsive ones it also opened up the glorious privilege of inheriting the heavenly kingdom.—Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20.
Being in a covenant relationship to God, the Jews were under obligation to assist needy fellow Israelites. (Prov. 14:21; 28:27; Isa. 58:6, 7; Ezek. 18:7-9) Appreciating this, Zacchaeus, upon accepting Jesus as the Messiah, exclaimed: “Look! The half of my belongings, Lord, I am giving to the poor.” (Luke 19:8) For the same reason, Christ Jesus could say: “When you spread a feast, invite poor people, crippled, lame, blind; and you will be happy, because they have nothing with which to repay you.” (Luke 14:13, 14) On another occasion he encouraged a rich young ruler: “Sell all the things you have and distribute to poor people, and you will have treasure in the heavens; and come be my follower.” (Luke 18:22) The fact that this man was unwilling to part with his possessions to aid others showed that he had no real concern for the oppressed and thus did not have the qualities required for being a disciple of Jesus.—Luke 18:23.
Jesus’ encouragement to assist the poor was in line with what he himself had done. As God’s Son in the heavens he had had everything. But “though he was rich he became poor.” As a poor man on earth he was able to redeem the human race, making available the greatest of riches, that is, the prospect for his followers to become sons of God. (2 Cor. 8:9) Additionally, other great spiritual riches became available to them.—Compare 2 Corinthians 6:10; Revelation 2:9; 3:17.
Also, while on earth, Jesus personally took an interest in the materially poor. He and his apostles had a common fund from which they gave to needy Israelites. (Matt. 26:9-11; Mark 14:5-7; John 12:5-8; 13:29) The same loving concern for the poor was manifested in later years by Christians, as they provided material assistance for their poor brothers. (Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10) But some did forget, making it necessary for the disciple James to reprimand them for bestowing favoritism on the rich and looking down on the poor.—Jas. 2:2-9.
Of course, only those who were deserving received material assistance. By no means was laziness encouraged. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.”—2 Thess. 3:10; see BEGGAR, BEGGING; GIFTS OF MERCY.