Paul and the Poor
In the American Dream, everyone can prosper if they just work hard and be good productive citizens. For the Old Testament says that if Israel does what God commands, God will prosper them with blessings of fruitfulness. Numerous Americans, in turn, have applied these Bible passages to themselves: everyone who is a good citizen and works hard should prosper (and thus be blessed by God).
But in this “Protestant work ethic,” those who don’t prosper are looked down on, since they are obviously at fault for not being blessed by God. Thus the poor should not be helped or given charity because they are just too lazy to work or too full of vice. After all, Paul says in 2 Thes. 3:10, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Yet earlier, in 1 Thes. 4:9-11, Paul combines working with helping others: they should work with their hands and continue to show love for one another, including (helping) even brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.
In Acts 20:34-35 Paul reminds the elders at Ephesus how he was an example for them by working with his hands in order to pay for his necessities, as well as for those with him (like Timothy). Paul adds that his work allowed him to help the weak; he then quotes a saying of Jesus not found in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In Jesus’ new covenant, prosperity is no longer a blessing (as in the law of Moses); Jesus blesses instead the merciful, those who show mercy on the weak; and Jesus refuses to bless the rich, whom he commands to sell treasured possessions and give to the poor. Similarly, in 1 Cor. 4:8-13 Paul uses satire to contrast rich Corinthian Christians who “have become kings” with “us apostles,” who are “fools” for Christ’s sake; for Paul and other apostles “hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” (as they travel to new places); and “we labor, working with our own hands;” so we are considered the “garbage” of the world. Like Paul, most people who suffer hunger from time to time have been people who work, yet have suffered from irregular work or employers who pay poverty wages.
When Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles Peter, James, and John about his gospel among the Gentiles, Paul says the others recognize the truth of this gospel, and simply remind Paul to remember the poor, which Paul says he is eager to do (Gal. 2:1-10). The poor in Jerusalem play a large part in Paul’s later mission, especially when he organizes a “collection” of money for the poor saints in Jerusalem (described most fully in 2 Cor. 8-9, and referred to also in 1 Cor. 16:1-4 and Rom. 15:25-27).
Thus Paul places much importance on helping the poor, especially poor brothers and sisters in Christ. Not only destitute widows and orphans, but larger groups of saints whose environment and/or employers have worked against them so that they lack basic necessities, should be helped by those able to make a little extra from their own work. In the early churches, most of the extra money available among Christians went to help those most in need–whom they came into contact with regularly as they met in homes and shared meals. When rich Christians refused to help, and indulged themselves at the expense of the poor, Paul warns them: “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:29, in a context of rich Christians segregating themselves and their rich food from hungry poor Christians in 11:17-34).