The Bible and the Poor
I’m still trying to figure out precisely what Jim Wallis’ hermeneutic is. From what I’ve been able to ascertain thus far, it’s a sliding scale, hit-and-miss, whatever works hermeneutic. In the section entitled “The Political Problem of Jesus,” he introduces the biblical concept of the poor with a quote from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor” (Matt. 5:3) and then embarks on a lengthy discussion of how we should care for the poor. It’s encouraging that Wallis quotes Scripture, but he truncates the actual quote to suit his purposes. The full quote reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” No doubt an oversight on his part, especially since the Bible is filled with clear directives about our attitudes and actions towards the poor.
Wallis points us to the fact that when Jesus began his ministry, according to Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:16-19), he made a clear allusion to the Jubilee Year in the Hebrew Scriptures where “the debts of the poor were cancelled, slaves were set free, and land was redistributed for the sake of equity.” Perhaps, but not all that likely; at least not in the form Wallis intends.
The careful reader will detect a clear dependence by Wallis on John Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) in his interpretation of this text. In fact, Yoder makes precisely the same connection between the Jubilee Year in Luke 4:16-21 as Wallis does. How quaint. This approach goes beyond the pale of what conservative scholars detect in the Luke 4 text. The New Testament scholar Leon Morris, for example, is more to the point when he writes, “Jesus saw himself as coming with good news for the world’s troubled people. The acceptable year of the Lord does not, of course, represent any calendar year, but is a way of referring to the era of salvation.”
Others such as Marten Woudstra and B. Maarsingh find other matters in the Lukan text. In general, they agree on three key principles in what Jesus declares in his citing of the Old Testament: “Each person receives the possibility of living independently by means of that which is his; each man is a free man, free from whatever dictatorship; each man is personally united with and bound in obedience to that God who in Christ has given complete deliverance.”
This is a decent explanation of the Jubilee Year, but I don’t think Wallis would accept it, even though it summarizes the Old Testament notion quite well. Walter Kaiser also correctly notes the following: “The possession and careful use of private property is not against God’s order of things. Scripture is more concerned about the forgetting of God in the midst of our wealth than about the fact of possessions or wealth per se (Deut. 8:17-18). Only the arrogance, idolatry, and selfish use of wealth are condemned in the Scriptures.” At this point, it’s clear that Wallis gives a somewhat aberrant interpretation of Jesus’ words. That doesn’t seem to matter because it suits his purposes and that is all that seems to matter.
To his credit, Wallis cites Matthew 25 (31-46) and explains how Jesus speaks so compassionately about “the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, prisoners, and the sick and promises he will challenge his followers on the judgment day with these words, ‘As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.’” I can wholeheartedly concur that caring for the poor is a biblical mandate.
But then, in an attempt to be dramatic, relevant Wallis quotes James Forbes (who?), “the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City” who says, “‘Nobody get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!’ How many of America’s most famous television preachers could produce the letter?” Cheesy. It’s truly great biblical interpretation. I just can’t find the text Forbes is referring to. No doubt it’s close to the one that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” In terms of straightforward interpretation, a couple of points need to be made here.
In the first place, there is no reference in the Bible that such a letter is a prerequisite for salvation.
In the second place, Wallis, with his cutesy quote, is verging on blasphemy. What saves are the merits of Christ applied to the life of the believer; justification by faith might just play a minor role in our salvation. To take the lunacy to its logical conclusion, the thief on the cross would have been denied heaven because he wasn’t able to do anything for the poor—his hands were tied. Thus he died without his requisite James Forbes letter. What a pity.
How does a Christian, in Wallis’/Forbes’ scheme of things, ever find out when they’ve done enough to warrant that letter? This is the worst kind of works righteousness imaginable. Surely, Christians are to be compassionate towards the poor, stranger, prisoners, shut-ins, and sick. In point of fact, there are churches that are doing precisely that. They might not be doing all of it all the time, but they are attempting to fulfill the biblical mandate in all areas of their lives.
The brief paragraph that promised to be an exposition about the poor suddenly takes a sharp turn and we find ourselves in the midst of the subject of war and September 11, 2001. You’d kind of think that since he’s devoting an entire chapter to the subject of war that this discussion would be out of place, but Wallis is adept at sneaking in whatever he wants to discuss no matter what the chapter is supposed to be about.
He states his case in the following fashion: “In a world of violence and war, the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God’ are not only challenging, they are daunting.” Of course, living in a “world of violence and war” can easily describe history from the time of Jesus to the present. Without doubt, the attitude, disposition of the Christian must be to be a peacemaker rather than a mere peacekeeper.
But are these the only words that count from Scripture for the political realm? If we take the Bible as a whole and the Apostle Paul in particular as our field of reference, then Wallis’ position on the death penalty crumbles completely. In addition, there were times in Scripture when Jesus resorted to violence and strong words.
In our next installment we’ll continue Wallis’ position on the Christian in the public arena, ostensibly from a non-partisan standpoint.
 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 15-16.
 See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 39.
 Leon Morris, Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 117.
 Marten Woudstra, “The Year of Jubilee and Related Old Testament Laws—Can They be Translated For Today?” in Theological Forum 5 (Dec. 1977), pp. 1-21.
 B. Maarsingh, Maatschappijcritiek in het Oude Testament—Het Jubeljaar, (Kampen: Kok, 1976).
 Ibid., 67.
 Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p. 220.
 Wallis, GP, 16.