Posted by: Dan | September 1, 2008

Who are ‘the Poor’? Explanation and Defense

I know that I frequently speak of ‘the Poor’ on this blog, and that I sometimes don’t define what I mean by that title (and sometimes do) and so, in response to a comment made by Dave ( on my latest thoughts regarding ‘the Poor’ as members of the body of Christ, I thought I would spend some time explaining what I mean by this title, and why I choose to use it.

To begin with, when I speak of ‘the Poor’ I am referring to more people than simply those who are economically disadvantaged.  In this regard, it is helpful to understand how the term ‘the Poor’ is used in the New Testament in general, and by Jesus in particular.

The Greek word ptochoi (‘the poor’) is used by Jesus to refer to people who underwent the following experiences (NB: in what follows, I will be developing James Dunn’s reflections on this term found in Jesus Remembered):

(1) Material poverty based upon the lack of a secure economic base.  There are many ways in which a person could lose his or her economic base.  One could lose one’s kinship group — like widows, orphans, and aliens — and thereby be without the most foundational means of economic support and protection.  One could also lose one’s land, and thereby lack the primary material means of earning a (subsistence level) income.  Similarly, one could suffer some sort of physical injury and become incapable of working — think of the sick, the lame, and the blind, and how the Gospels frequently number them amongst the poor.  Finally, one could undergo some sort of experience that left one outside of the religious purity boundaries established by society which could lead to poverty due to marginalisation or ostracism — in this regard, think of the lepers, the woman with the issue of blood, and the demon-possessed who are also included amongst the poor.

(2) Experiencing material poverty then leaves the poor vulnerable to economic exploitation.  Hence, the poor are not only the economically disadvantaged, they are simultaneously the marginalised and oppressed.  This exploitation can occur on a number of levels — materially, the little that the poor have can be taken away from them; socially, the poor are accorded a low level of status are are cut-off from the general public and, just as significantly, from people and places of power; spiritually, or religiously, the poor are also classified as ‘sinners’ or as ‘unclean’ (note how frequently the titles ‘the poor’ and ‘the sinners’ are paired with each other in the Gospels).  Of course, socio-religious methods of exploitation are often simply the means of paving the way for the economic and material exploitation of the poor.  Not many people pay attention to the plundering of those who are insignificant and damned — especially when those who are doing the stealing are the powerful and the righteous, who can claim abundance as the result of their godly living!

(3) Finally, given that the poor are “helpless and hopless in the face of human oppression” (Dunn’s words) they are also defined as those who recognise their vulnerability and look to God for help, especially since they have nobody else to whom they can turn (I believe these are those whom Jesus calls ‘the poor in Spirit’).

Thus, Dunn notes that the word ptochoi, as it is used in the LXX, replaces a number of Hebrew terms such as `ani’(poor, afflicted, humble), dal (crushed, oppressed), ‘ebyon (in want, needy, poor), `anaw (poor, afflicted, humble, meek), and rosh (in want, poor). So Dunn concludes:

The traditional Jewish understanding of poverty, therefore, was neither simplified nor idealized.  Starting from the harsh, often brutal reality of poverty, it recognized different dimensions of poverty — material, social, and spiritual.

To Dunn’s helpful source critical analysis, we should add one insight from Bruce Malina’s helpful sociological reading of the New Testament world (cf. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded).  Malina, while recognising the multiple forms poverty takes, stresses the priority of the social element of poverty during the first century, in the Graeco-Roman world.  He argues the the terms “rich” and “poor” are not primarily about how much capital one owns; rather, they refer to the greedy and the socially ill-fated.  Hence:

The terms do not characterize two poles of society as much as two minority groups, the one based upon the shameless drive to expand one’s wealth, the other based on the inability to maintain one’s inherited status of any rank.

According to Malina, wealth and poverty are more about social trajectories: those labeled “rich” are those who have exploited others to try and climb the social ladder, while those labeled “poor” are those who are falling down the social ladder.

Now, this combination of elements would suggest that David is right to question my monolithic use of the term ‘the Poor’.  After all, when I use this term, I have all of these elements in mind.  When I speak of ‘the Poor’ today, I am thinking not only of the economically disadvantaged, but also of the oppressed, those suffering social marginalisation, those considered ‘damned’ by the Church, those considered ‘criminals’ by the Justice System, those who are rejected due to illnesses or biological differences, and so on and so forth.  Why, then, do I not use a more general term — why not simply speak of ‘those in exile’ or something like that?  Well, I have at least four reasons for persisting in using language that highlights wealth and poverty.

First of all, I believe that the language of ‘exile’ is too vague for much of what I am seeking to express.  Indeed, as my own reflections on exile have developed, I have come to believe that all of us, in North America, are undergoing an exilic experience.  Consequently, the language of ‘exile’ too easily blurs the experiences and responsibilities of those who are comfortably situated in places of privilege and power and those who are abandoned to places of pain and lack.  To posit another analogy, we all may be in Egypt, but how we experience Egypt, and what we are called to do there, is very different depending on if we are in Pharaoh’s household, or in the household of a Hebrew slave.  (This, by the way, is why we need to be skeptical of comfortable middle and upper-class Christians who rush to emphasise ‘poverty of spirit’.  What they usually mean by this — token dependence upon God — generally has nothing to do with the genuine, and desperate, poverty of Spirit of which Jesus speaks.)

Secondly, and most importantly, I believe that we must continually speak of wealth and poverty today, because it is economics that now functions as the cornerstone of our existence in the world of late capitalism.  Thus, while Malina may be correct in arguing that status was the cornerstone of the Greco-Roman world, we must recognise that our world is not theirs (and vice versa).  Consequently, we must privilege the economic aspect of poverty today, precisely because it is this aspect that undergirds all our other experiences of poverty (I think that Jesus was already onto this point when he spoke about the love of money as the root of all evil).

Thirdly, and closely related to the second point, I hold onto the language of ‘the Poor’ because it is concrete — in fact, it is uncomfortably concrete for most of us.  Again, more general language makes it easier for us to rationalise our life-as-it-is.  The more vague the terms, the easier it is for me to include myself within the group God privileges even when, in reality, I am a part of the group that is persecuting God’s people.  Hence, I like this language because it rattles me and, I hope, it rattles others.  We need to be rattled.  That, I believe, is how we are led to conversion.

Finally, I retain the language of ‘the Poor’ because this is the language, and the term, prioritised by the Christian Scriptures.  While I recognise that there is a wealth of implicit meaning found in this term, I also recognise the value of learning to speak biblically.

This, then, is my explanation, and defense, of my use of the term ‘the Poor’.



  1. And a great defense it is. I am definitely feeling rattled as I try to re-orientate myself out of a context of ‘the poor’. There are so many well-meaning (and well acting!) members of my church who support and engage projects of justice but I am quite at a loss to fully understand the presence of the Gospel in my congregation. It was all clarified to a greater extant in previous contexts. This is probably why I am exploring this issue. Who are the poor at my church? Are we as whole church not the poor? What would that mean? Do need to be scattering because of this?
    Thanks for spurring me on to move this to front burner.

  2. Dan,

    “Again, more general language makes it easier for us to rationalise our life-as-it-is. The more vague the terms, the easier it is for me to include myself within the group God privileges even when, in reality, I am a part of the group that is persecuting God’s people.”

    Still the way you have defined poor makes it also seem vague as well. I mean when Jesus told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor do you think Jesus had this whole definition in mind? Do you think that the rich ruler had this definition in mind?

    Also does there need to be a differentiation between the semantic meaning of “poor” (and what Jesus meant when he he referred to them) and the theological meaning of poor? It seems like there is the danger here of reading the theological meaning of “poor” into the semantic meaning. Or there is the danger of committing the illegitimate totality of transfer fallacy in which we look at all the various meaning of poor and the way it was used in different contexts and for different people and transfer that into every usage of it.

    “To begin with, when I speak of ‘the Poor’ I am referring to more people than simply those who are economically disadvantaged. ”

    Are you saying in this (and you following points) that the poor at the least are the economically disadvantaged but that alone doesn’t qualify them as the poor? They have to be even worse off then this? Am I reading you correctly?

    BTW glad you switched over to WordPress.


  3. Dave: I’m no pastor, but I’d be really curious to hear what what might happen if you actually brought those questions forward to your congregation (with the necessary background information) instead of just thinking about them yourself!

    Bryan: Beginning with your last question first, you are not reading me correctly to suggest that I am saying that one must be more than economically disadvantaged to be poor. The poor are (first and foremost) the economically disadvantaged. Full stop.

    However, I’m also arguing that poverty is a multi-dimensional thing, with expressions in the various domains of our life together.

    Secondly, yes, I think that Jesus was aware of these multiple meanings of the word ‘poor’ — after all, Deuteronomy and the prophets all lay the foundation for this understanding of the poor — and, yes, I think he often (but not always) uses the word with these many meanings in mind (cf. Lk 4, for example). Of course, in any given situation Jesus might highlight one or another aspect of poverty, but to demonstrate the depth of the word is not to engage in some sort of “transfer fallacy” wherein the “theological” meaning displaces the “semantic” meaning. In fact, when it comes to our understanding of the word ‘poor’, I don’t think I’ve engaged in any theological overcoding whatsoever. I’m not even comfortable talking about a “theological” meaning in order to contrast that with a “semantic” meaning!

    So, you’ll have to demonstrate to me how the definitions I have provided in this post, still end up being (dangerously) vague. To demonstrate the various concrete manifestations of something, to argue that something is multi-faceted, is not the same as speaking vaguely or moving into the realm of total abstraction.

  4. […] a discussion on who “the poor’ are for the New Testament, (Jesus in particular), see Who are the Poor, Explanation and Defense (poserorprophet) who develops what Dunn says in Jesus […]

  5. Dan:

    Some thoughts in response:

    However, I’m also arguing that poverty is a multi-dimensional thing, with expressions in the various domains of our life together.

    I see. You were saying that you don’t have to actually be poor to be the poor. Right?

    Why continue to use the language of poor then? Why not choose a different term besides poor to avoid confusion, especially since most everyone understand poor as having to do with being economically disadvantaged. I think that would be more helpful and there is nothing special about the English word “poor” that requires us to hold onto it as the preferred term. After all the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek and uses many different words for the concept you are speaking about.

    And I think that is where I have trouble with the rest of what you’ve written since you are working with a special definition of poor (even if you see it deriving from the Bible it is still what you’ve seen as deriving from the Bible) and then speaking of what Jesus mean by the actual word “poor”. Maybe you should speak about the concept of the poor (or the other word you might come up with) and then speak about what Jesus means when he referred to various groups that fit within that concept.

    Bryan L

  6. I somehow came across your article on “Who are the Poor”. I would have to agree more with Bryan L. As far as I can tell, there’s not a single man, woman, or child who is not poor…whether it be spiritual, material, physical…it would seem to me that you need to clarify the meaning of poor to those whom you are addressing.

    But, I may have missed the point of it all and if I have, excuse my intrusion.

  7. Bryan: No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Granted, that are various facets to poverty, but economic poverty is generally the conerstone of poverty in our society, and is usually connected to all of the various other manifestations. Thus, in Jesus’ day, the sick were also economically poor, as were the social outcasts, the demon-possessed, the meek, and so on.

    I suggest you reread the second half of my post, as it clearly explains why I continue to use the language of poverty.

    Mark: That overly spiritual understanding of poverty is precisely the sort of understanding that I want to counter and resist.

  8. […] I wrote this post a while back on who the poor is, and Dan wrote this post this month. Usually he can explain things so much better than I can, and almost always I feel like […]

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