This is an even more difficult study than the ones dealing with “riches/wealth” (#72) and “possessions” (#143). I strongly suspect that none of us in “developed” areas, even those at the lowest economic levels, have any real understanding of the depth of material poverty in much of the rest of the world – or, for that matter, the wealth, either, that exists in other than material realms! Comparing our own situations with those of folks only a few rungs higher or lower on a perceived “ladder”, whether of income, education, or other circumstance, obscures our view of genuine, desperate need. Picture being reduced to “dumpster-diving” in a place where there are no dumpsters, because nothing is ever thrown away; or sheltering under recycled metal or cardboard, where neither exists, for the same reason, and you may be beginning to approach understanding.
There is little doubt about the meaning of “poverty” in the New Testament. I suspect that the references to the term may have been less precise than the language would lead one to expect, because of the lexical information available regarding the words, but the picture is stark, nevertheless, and most of the appearances of any such vocabulary implies an economic condition lower than we can readily imagine.
Penes, classically “a day-laborer”, one who toils at heavy manual labor for his daily sustenance – the lexical opposite of plousios, “rich” – appears only a single time in the New Testament. In II Cor.9:9, Paul, quoting the LXX, speaks of one who has “given to the poor” as a just person. The lack of any other reference caused me to ask, “What about the day-laborers hired to work in the vineyard in Jesus’ parable (Mt.20:1-16)?” But these are ergates, skilled workers, tradesmen, or those who work the soil. They are a cut above those called “penes”. (And even these skilled men were only paid the subsistence wage of a denarius a day!)
Luke used a related word, penichros, (lexically, “poor, needy”) of the poor widow making her contribution in the temple (21:2). This is the only New Testament use of that word. Both he (21:3) and Mark (12:42,43) use the more common word, ptochos, describing the same incident.
Trench contrasts the words, observing that while penes and ptochos are usually used together in the LXX, and translated “poor and needy”, the former, applied by Xenophon and Sophocles to serfs or cultivators of the soil (and also to themselves), refers to one who “has nothing superfluous”, while the latter to one who “has nothing at all.” L/S says “a beggar, a person poorly provided-for,” and Bauer “a person dependent upon others for support.” Thayer suggests the picture of “one whose living depends upon alms” and also includes “destitute of power, wealth, influence, or position” and “to be so frightened as to cower or hide” as well as “to be reduced to begging.” The noun form, ptocheia, referred to “extreme poverty”. The picture is of a person wholly without resources.
These are the folks that we are encouraged to “remember” (Gal.2:10), to whom “good news” is preached in/by the Lord Jesus (Mt.11:5, Lk.4:18, 7:22), and who are to be invited to a party (Lk.14:13,21). It is these that Jesus describes as “blessed” (see #89) in Mt.5:3 and Lk.6:20, and asserts that the Kingdom “belongs” (present tense – NOT “pie in the sky bye and bye!”) to them.
Already the poor were identified as the intended recipients of required almsgiving under Jewish law; similar responsibility on the part of Kingdom people was clearly re-stated by Jesus on several occasions, notably the rich young man who asked about “inheriting life” (Mt.19:21, Mk.10:21, Lk.18:22), in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16:20,22) where the same word is translated “beggar”, and at the conclusion of the scene where Jesus rejected the criticism of the gift of perfume, reminding the disciples that “the poor” would always be in need of their compassionate care (Mt.26:9,11; Mk.14:5,7; Jn.12:5,6,8). Jesus commended Zacchaeus’ charity (Lk.19:8), and must have frequently set an example of that behavior, since John notes (13:29) that the others assumed he was instructing Judas to “give something to the poor” – a Passover custom – when the latter was dismissed from the group.
These are the brethren for whom James advocates (2:2,3,5,6), roundly scolding those who would disparage or insult them, and the “poor saints” in Jerusalem (Rom.15:26) suffering from famine (Ac.11:28).
It is abundantly clear, therefore, that folks at the bottom of the economic system are to be honored, cared-for, and generously supported by followers of the Lord Jesus.
At the same time, there are a few other appearances of ptochos that do not fit this picture. It is used in Gal.4:9 as a deprecatory adjective describing the inferiority of the elements of people’s life and thought before their commitment to the Kingdom, and in Rv.13:6, “rich and poor, bond and free,” simply serves to include all levels of society.
In II Cor.8:9, Paul uses it of Jesus himself, who laid aside the “riches” that were rightly his as Creator and Sustainer of all that exists, “becoming poor for your sake” – living among men “with no place to lay his head” – in order to elevate his people to his own estate!
Paul describes a similar attitude among the brethren in Macedonia (II Cor.8:2) who, “despite their deep poverty”, eagerly and generously participated in the famine relief. Extraordinary generosity on the part of people of meager means is not rare – and may be a factor in the “blessedness” of which Jesus spoke.
In the Revelation to John, Jesus himself re-defines the concept of “poverty” in his messages to the churches at Smyrna (Rv.2:9) and Laodicea (3:17). To the former, who are being robbed, abused, and battered by persecutors, Jesus acknowledges, “I know … your poverty … but you are rich!” He warns of still greater trials ahead, but limits their duration.
To the latter, who carelessly boast about their prosperity and independence, his reprimand is stern: “you don’t realize that you are miserable, and in need of mercy, and poor, and blind, and naked!”
So perhaps, rather than the “cop-out” which I initially suspected in Bauer’s and Thayer’s additions to the classical definitions of penes, ptochos and related words, their insight regarding “dependence upon others for support”, “destitute of wealth, influence, or position”, and abject fear, may actually expand, rather than diminish, our responsibility, to extend – to any sort of people in any kind of need – even if, as in Laodicea, they are unaware of their “poverty”, the same care and compassion.
The one we call Master and Lord addressed – and alleviated – need wherever he found it.
Can his followers do less?