Greed & Oppression of the Poor (Bible Study) – Part 4

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

Exodus 22: 22-24, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”
Context: Various laws are listed in this section on Exodus.
Analysis: Why are widows and orphans so special? Because, along with aliens, they had no inheritance in the land. In Israel, men inherited land from their fathers as they became adults (they did not have to wait for their fathers to die like we do today). As women reached adulthood, they left their fathers’ lands to live on their husbands’ lands. On these lands, people grew their food and built their homes with the resources of the land. So this inheritance of land gave young Israelite families what they needed to survive. It’s quite different from our society in which young people venture out on their own lacking both food and shelter and having to earn enough money to obtain it.
Widows, orphans, and aliens, however, could not share in Israel’s inheritance, and therefore, lacked proper food and shelter. That’s why God so frequently calls the Israelites to look out for their interests.

Exodus 23:8, “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”
Context: Various laws are listed in this section on Exodus.
Analysis: Bribes still exist today, but are illegal. They’ve been replaced by campaign contributions from those who seek to influence politics to their own benefit rather than the benefit of the common good.

Ezekiel 18:5,7, “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right…does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment…”
Context: This quote ultimately ends with God promising life to someone who is this righteous.
Analysis: This passage calls for a righteous man to be both passive and aggressive in his righteousness. In other words, he must avoid oppressing and robbing others, but he must actively help those lacking food and clothing. Too many times, we base our righteousness on what we don’t do and fail to balance it with charitable actions.

Leviticus 25:39-40, “If any that are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of jubilee.”
Context: Chapter 25 addresses the year of jubilee as well as mercy on the poor.
Analysis: Bankruptcy was non-existent in ancient Israel. If someone owed a debt greater than they could pay, they had to sell themselves into slavery. Here God requires that fellow Israelites receive better treatment than slaves would have received, and that their debts be forgiven in the year of jubilee, which occurred every 50 years.

Deuteronomy 5:14, “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
Context: The Ten Commandments are reiterated in Deuteronomy. This time, God explains why the Sabbath is so important for the people.
Analysis: The penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death. Most of us judge the death penalty to be far too harsh for such an act, because we think of the Sabbath in terms of our own decisions to work. However, as we see in this verse, God prohibits work on the Sabbath primarily for the sake of others. Throughout history, workers and slaves have been forced to labor seven days a week—wasting their lives away while suffering physical exhaustion. God hates this oppression so much that He required the maximum penalty for those who imposed it upon others.
This is why Jesus would later say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God didn’t create the Sabbath day laws or any other laws for His direct benefit; He created them for our benefit, so that all of His children may live a quality life instead of a miserable one.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be… Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
Context: Chapter 15 begins by requiring that the Israelites grant a remission of debts every seven years—yet another one of God’s commands of mercy toward those in need.
Analysis: This mercy toward the poor, while not well-defined in terms of percentage of income, was mandatory for all of God’s people who had more than they needed.
The question we need to ask ourselves is whether God is calling for personal or government-enforced charity. Here in Deuteronomy, God gives laws to the nation of Israel. These are not suggestions on how individuals should behave; these are requirements for how an entire nation must behave. So we can conclude that God required the nation of Israel to force its people to share their wealth. How they carried this out is not entirely known.

Deuteronomy 23:15, “Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you in your midst, in any place they choose, in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.”
Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.
Analysis: These are likely to have been slaves that escaped from other nations. They were to know a better life among the Israelites. It’s likely that many of them came to love God as a result of this compassion (that is, if the Israelites actually obeyed this command).

Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”
Context: Numerous, unrelated laws are listed in this portion of Deuteronomy.
Analysis: Nobody does this today. In the sales world, some companies delay commissions as long as possible so that the payroll expense will be pushed into the following quarter and the resulting numbers will deceive potential investors into believing that the company is more profitable than it really is.

Psalms 10:2, “In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.”
Context: The psalmist beseeches the Lord to bring justice upon the wicked and rescue the oppressed.
Analysis: Out of our arrogance, many of us blame the poor for their poverty. We then credit the wealthy for their success and regard them as righteous, and thus, we join the wealthy in schemes to keep the poor in their poverty. Should Christians continue to support the wealthy at the expense of the poor, more and more of us will be “caught in schemes they have devised,” and join the poor in their poverty over time.

Psalms 12:7, “‘Because the poor are despoiled; because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says the Lord. ‘I will place them in the safety for which they belong.’”
Context: In this psalm, God comes to the rescue of the poor.
Psalms 14:6, “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.”
Context: King David laments of all the evil in the world.
Proverbs 11:24-25, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.”
Proverbs 13:23, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”
Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor Him.”
Analysis: How do we insult God by oppressing the poor? Many politically-conservative Christians say that those who are smart and work hard achieve financial success, while the poverty of the poor results from their laziness and stupidity. As for laziness, many hard-working people struggle to support their families. And as for being smart, we can’t all be Einstein. If we were born too stupid to figure out how to get rich, we are as God made us. Does the Bible tell us that less intelligent people should struggle to survive as punishment for their stupidity? If God gives us our smarts, skills and lucky breaks, we have no business being arrogant toward those who receive a less lucrative package of abilities from Him. When we blame the poor for their lack of intelligence, we insult God for making them as they are.

Proverbs 19:17, “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed.”
Analysis: This verse brings to mind Jesus’ statement, “As you’ve done it unto others, you’ve done it unto Me.” As I’ve previously stated, God creates rules not for His own direct benefit, but for the benefit of His children (which is all people, not just the ones whose beliefs match ours). Yet, somehow, according to this verse, God benefits when we love others well, especially the needy.

Proverbs 21:6, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.”
Analysis: When we Christians think of committing sins with our speech, we tend to think of using bad words. But the Bible shows us here (and in many other passages) that lying to gain wealth and take advantage of others financially is a far greater sin of the tongue.

Proverbs 21:13, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.”
Analysis: In our modern society, where exactly do we hear the cry of the poor? Those of us who live well, live in areas where there are no poor. And even when we walk or drive through an impoverished area, it’s rare that we hear people cry out.
Yet the poor do make their voices heard in our society, but in an organized fashion. They organize politically to cry out for money to pay for health care. They organize into unions to cry out for fair wages – wages that provide food, clothing, shelter, basic enjoyment (yes, having some pleasure in life is a necessity), and a respectable share of their company’s profits. Yet many of us ignore and oppose their organized efforts, because we believe that those who fail to prosper in the land of opportunity deserve their poverty, and those who prosper in the land of opportunity shouldn’t have to share.
But remember that opportunity is only opportunity. Opportunity combined with hard work doesn’t assure prosperity. Many try their best and still come up short. The formula for prosperity is hard work, plus opportunity, plus God-given ability, plus knowing the right people, plus luck (changes in market conditions, etc.). Only hard work is within our control, the rest is beyond any person’s control; therefore, we must not arrogantly close our ears to the cry of the poor in our country. Much of their suffering is beyond their control.

Proverbs 22:9, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”
Proverbs 22:16, “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.”
Analysis: How does a person enrich oneself by oppressing others? One way is to make employees work too many hours, thus depriving them of the quality life that God desires for all people. We live in a culture, even a Christian culture, which smiles upon those who work too hard. Christians have their favorite Bible verses that call for hard work and responsibility, but they overlook passages like this one that warn of working people too hard.
When we work too hard, we fail to have the quality relationships with others that God desires, and we find no time to serve Him, because we devote our lives to serving our employers instead.
How does the sin of “giving to the rich” while “oppressing the poor” “lead only to loss?” This verse may merely speak of spiritual loss or God’s retribution, but it may, on the other hand, be a warning to us today as many politically-conservative Christians seek to cut taxes for the wealthy while making life harder on the poor and working class. Such an approach is bad for the economy, ultimately hurting the rich too, because the fewer people you have spending money, the worse an economy is. (For example, if 80% of the population can afford to have their carpets cleaned, more jobs are needed, and more money is earned, in the carpet-cleaning industry than if only 20% of the population can afford to have its carpets cleaned. Since it only makes sense to clean carpets every so often, the wealthiest 20% will not spend their extra wealth on enough carpet-cleaning service to make up for the money not being spent by the bottom 80% of income earners.)

Proverbs 22:22, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.”
Proverbs 23:10, “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans.”
Proverbs 28:3, “A ruler who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.”
Proverbs 28:27, “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.”
Analysis: Altogether, we have eleven Proverbs opposing oppression of the poor. Anything addressed eleven times in a single Bible book must be one of God’s top priorities. We can no longer allow other issues to take precedence over this one. This is far more important that worries about gay marriage, creationism, alcohol consumption, secular music, etc.

Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”
Analysis: Jesus’ teachings were often based on the Old Testament. His command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) may have been inspired by this verse. Taking care of the needy is of greater importance than loyalty to our causes. It doesn’t matter if they believe what we believe politically or religiously. What matters is that they live a quality of life that anyone created in God’s image (which is everyone) deserves.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”
Context: King Solomon shares his God-given wisdom.
Analysis: Does this mean that we should encourage abortion, because the never-born are better off? Of course, not! However, this verse teaches us that suffering oppression in this life is worse than being dead or never having been born. Therefore, politically active Christians need to adjust their priorities accordingly.

Isaiah 1:17, “…learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Context: This verse is part of a vision Isaiah had concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the years prior to Babylon’s conquest of Judah. It commands the Jews to behave as God had always desired.
Analysis: If we American Christians have a political calling from God, this verse reveals it. It’s not simply enough to personally avoid hurting others. This passage calls us to rescue the oppressed from the harm of those who oppress them.
How do we do that?
Do we kidnap them from their workplaces and take them somewhere nice?
This verse commands us to plead their cases, to defend their causes. Only politically-oriented action will accomplish this. It’s a sin for us to neglect their causes.

Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”
Context: Early in Jesus’ ministry, He read this quote from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue and proclaimed that this prophecy had been fulfilled in Him.
Analysis: Some might argue that this quote refers to the poor in spirit, but there’s no evidence for that. The “good news” to which Jesus refers is that God’s supports the poor and opposes their oppressors.

James 2:5-6, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”
Context: All of chapter 2 addresses the sin of favoring the rich over the poor.
Analysis: It’s unlikely that the rich oppressed Christians by taking them to court to sue them over money, since Christians probably had little of that. Instead, the rich may have made false accusations against Christians because they hated them for supporting the needs of the poor over the desires of the wealthy.

James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Context: All of chapter 2 addresses the sin of favoring the rich over the poor.
Analysis: Contrary to what many Evangelical Christians believe, life on this earth does matter. Notice that neither this verse nor any other verse requiring us to help the needy says that we should do so for the sake of converting them to the faith. We are to help the needy…period!

James 5:4-6, “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”
Context: Verses 1-3 also warn the rich, but do not address specific sins.
Analysis: Holding back wages is a sin that many Christians think is impossible to commit in modern America. But let’s think for a minute what happened when these laborers were hired. They were told they would receive a certain amount of money for a certain amount of work, yet once the work was performed, the failed to receive all of what they were promised.
Having spent over 15 years of my life working in sales, I’d have to say that the majority of employers deceive potential sales reps about the income they will likely earn. This is easy to do since sales reps are paid, at least in part, in commissions. A set income cannot be pre-determined, so recruiters exaggerate the amount a given rep is likely to earn. So the reps wind up earning less than they were told for the hours they work.
The inverse of this is when an employer accurately tells potential employees what salary they will receive, but fails to inform them how many hours they will have to work to receive that salary. When employers overwork salaried employees, this too is stealing wages.

1 John 3:17, “How does the love of God abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Context: Love for others is a dominant theme in 1 John. John encourages Christians to make sacrifices for others, much like Christ made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
Analysis: Both James and 1 John call us to action in helping the poor. Prayer, worship, and preaching the gospel are essential to the Christian life, but should not take so much of our time that we fail to serve the needs of others.