|Rich and Poor 2|
Obligations of the rich
Although it is not popular to say this in many circles today, disparities in wealth, even between rich and poor, are not necessarily signs of injustice, as Leviticus 19:15 shows, where we are told to administer justice fairly without showing partiality to either the rich or the poor. At the same time, however, Scripture is very clear that the wealthy have responsibilities to the poor that God takes very seriously.
The first responsibility of the rich to the poor is to treat them fairly. The rich are condemned in Scripture for failing to pay workers promptly and completely (Deut. 24:15). Workers should be paid a just wage for their labor and should not be exploited in any way by their employers.
The rich are also condemned for using the courts to defraud the poor (e.g. James 2:6). In today’s terms, there is a multitude of ways people with money can use the legal system to take advantage of those without it. Perhaps the most obvious is to drag out litigation to force your opponent either to give up or go bankrupt, though there are other ways to game the system with high end lawyers.
Beyond the courts, the well-connected also are able to use zoning to block anything that would interfere with their own quality of life from coming into their neighborhoods—thereby pushing it into other, poorer areas. This is one explanation why toxic, hazardous, or undesirable industries are frequently found in poor neighborhoods.
Taking advantage of another’s misfortune is also forbidden in Scripture, for example by the prohibition of taking a cloak in pledge for a loan (Deut. 24:12-13, 17) and of charging interest on loans (Lev. 25:63). In fact, you are to treat those in need with dignity (Deut. 24:10).
Preserve the dignity of the poor
The importance of work for human dignity is also a part of the institution of slavery in the Old Testament Law. In the ancient world, slavery was found in every culture. Slaves were either prisoners of war or people who fell on hard times who sold themselves (or were sold) into slavery to pay their debts. In a world with no social safety net, that was sometimes the only option for avoiding starvation.
The Law of Moses took this practice and transformed it. According to the Law, any Israelite in great need could sell himself into slavery as was the custom throughout the ancient world, except this slavery was not a permanent state: on the Sabbath year, every Israelite slave was to be set free.
The emphasis on work as an essential part of human dignity was a unique contribution of Judaism and Christianity to world culture, but its implications for helping the poor have often been forgotten. Earlier generations understood this, however. Well into the nineteenth century, many of the wealthy believed that their wealth was given to them so that they could support local farmers, manufacturers, and businesses by purchasing their products.
Similarly, they hired servants in their households in part to provide employment for young men and women. This continues to be the case in other parts of the world. Mennonite missionaries in the Philippines, for example, found that despite their commitment to living simply, they had a moral obligation to hire servants, since failing to do so would have hurt the families in the community by not providing them the opportunity to earn income they sorely needed.
The conscientious wealthy
The emphasis on the local community brings up another important concept in dealing with people in need. Our responsibilities are greatest to those who are closest to us, an idea theologian John Schneider calls “moral proximity.” Thus Scripture is clear that our first responsibility is to our family, extended to two generations up and down (Prov. 13:22, 1 Tim. 5:4).
Today, given the changes in society produced by the industrial revolution and large agribusinesses, it is much more difficult to use wealth to support local producers, and even where that is possible the people we support are generally not the truly poor. So how do we apply these principles today?
Providing employment, whether in businesses or even simply hiring them for yard work or snow shoveling, is a better method for dealing with needs than simple handouts. It may require us to spend money we would rather keep for ourselves, but if we take seriously our obligations to provide for those in need, we may need to hire sacrificially, not just give sacrificially.
Yet another option is to help set people up in their own businesses and to patronize them. We see this in the developing world with microfinance programs. In America, the number of options is limitless, from helping someone get a lawnmower and yard tools to helping them start an online business. (Computers with internet access are available free in public libraries.) Networking with others in your church or community to provide skills, support, and patronage can help get these businesses off the ground, which in turn can change the lives of those involved.
The Bible was written in an era in which state run social welfare programs simply did not exist (unless you were in the city of Rome itself in the New Testament period). Its instructions concerning the poor were thus written with the assumption that any aid given to the poor would come directly from the wealthier members of the community (or in one case by other churches coming to the aid of the poor in Jerusalem).
With the advent of the modern welfare state, we have other alternatives to care for the poor today that were not available when the Bible was written. To what extent does state-supported welfare change the nature of our obligations to the poor? Should we simply pay more taxes and let the government take care of those in need? We will explore this in more detail in the next article.
 In the ancient world, loans were given to people who needed them to survive; investment loans had not yet been developed.
 See my article “The Image of God and Work,” http://www.breakpoint.org/the-center/columns/call-response/15715-the-image-of-god-and-work.
 These were the Law’s provisions; it is unclear whether they were ever follow