Is poverty a sin?

News | November 16, 2017

Editor’s note: Hannah Griggs is a senior at Augustana College. She recently presented at the college’s Symposium Day. This is an excerpt from her work.

On the way home from a youth group trip during my sophomore year of high school, our St. Paul Lutheran church minivan passed by a person on the side of the road. Begging for money or food, the middle-aged man held up a cardboard sign for passersby to see. As we approached, our youth pastor asked if we should stop. Feeling unsure, a few of us said yes. I hopped out of the van with a
couple of other kids to give the man a banana, a granola bar, and about $10. Thanking us, he told us that his name was James Parker, and he asked us to pray for him.

A friend of mine was angry. “Why should we enable his laziness by giving him our hard-earned money? What if he buys drugs or alcohol?” While I understood her concern, her anger confused me. I had never heard of Jesus refusing to give money or food to the poor. For the past six years, I’ve been trying to figure out where my friend was coming from. I began to realize that her perspective is summed up in the work of Max Weber, a sociologist who examined what he calls “The Protestant Work Ethic.”

The Puritans thought that being lazy was a sin. You’ve probably heard the adage: “Idleness is the devil’s play thing.” Idleness dishonors God, so the Puritans believed that hard work would prepare them to receive God’s grace – that is, if God had elected them.

The narrative of the Protestant Work Ethic continues to influence Christians and Americans today. If only the poor chose to work for God’s glory instead of standing on the side of the road in idleness, and if only the poor spent their money on God-honoring possessions, then poverty might cease. Giving to the beggar rewards idleness. It is not only seen as unwise, but sinful.

Last spring, I did an analysis of a local pastor’s sermon series on money management to see if elements of Weber’s thesis rang true. I used the theoretical framework of narrative analysis as described by Sonja Foss and Walter Fisher. The pastor diagnosed the problem of poverty as a spiritual failure: “If there’s something wrong with the way you handle your money, then
there is something you’re doing wrong with your heart.” Overtly linking individual actions, money management, and morality, the pastor framed the cause, the consequence, and the potential for a
solution as the fault and duty of individual, moral actors.

I argue for a new conception of sin that recognizes both individual and communal contributions to sin and works for in-the-world salvation. Rather than framing Christian discourse
concerning wealth and poverty by considering the cause and solution to poverty in the context of the personal lives of individuals, Christians should adopt an alternative narrative that imagines salvation in the context of community.

I recently noticed just how easily I – a white, middle class, educated woman – avoid contact with poverty when I was riding the public bus. I realized I’m not used to traveling with strangers. I own a car, which prevents me from interacting with poverty in the ways that I did while riding the bus. Carrying large backpacks, blankets, and coats, many of my fellow passengers appeared to live in poverty.

How can democratic discussion of wealth and poverty flourish in this highly individualistic, homogeneous economic and social environment? If Americans want to improve our democracy, we must also facilitate friendships with people of diverse economic situations. The dichotomy that Weber theorizes, where good Americans/Christians work hard and therefore become wealthy and bad Americans/Christians are lazy and succumb to poverty, subverts both the task of democratic tolerance and the Christian task of loving one’s neighbor, while restraining both individual
and societal forms of sin.

If Christians want to love others, we must facilitate friendships with people of diverse economic situations. In order to enact the social change we hope to see, Americans and Christians must reframe our discourse concerning wealth and poverty. We must expose societal sin, recognize institutionalized oppression, redistribute power, and facilitate dialogue between people of diverse economic backgrounds.

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Isaiah 53:4-12

4Surely our griefs He Himself bore,

And our sorrows He carried;

Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten of God, and afflicted.

5But He was pierced through for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,

And by His scourging we are healed.

6All of us like sheep have gone astray,

Each of us has turned to his own way;

But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all

To fall on Him.

7He was oppressed and He was afflicted,

Yet He did not open His mouth;

Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,

And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,

So He did not open His mouth.

8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;

And as for His generation, who considered

That He was cut off out of the land of the living

For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?

9His grave was assigned with wicked men,

Yet He was with a rich man in His death,

Because He had done no violence,

Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

10But the LORD was pleased

To crush Him, putting Him to grief;

If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,

He will see His offspring,

He will prolong His days,

And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

11As a result of the anguish of His soul,

He will see it and be satisfied;

By His knowledge the Righteous One,

My Servant, will justify the many,

As He will bear their iniquities.

12Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,

And He will divide the booty with the strong;

Because He poured out Himself to death,

And was numbered with the transgressors;

Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,

And interceded for the transgressors.

Psalm 91:9-16

9For you have made the LORD, my refuge,

Even the Most High, your dwelling place.

10No evil will befall you,

Nor will any plague come near your tent.

11For He will give His angels charge concerning you,

To guard you in all your ways.

12They will bear you up in their hands,

That you do not strike your foot against a stone.

13You will tread upon the lion and cobra,

The young lion and the serpent you will trample down.

14“Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver him;

I will set him securely on high, because he has known My name.

15“He will call upon Me, and I will answer him;

I will be with him in trouble;

I will rescue him and honor him.

16“With a long life I will satisfy him

And let him see My salvation.”

Hebrews 5:1-10

The Perfect High Priest

1For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins;2he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness;3and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself.4And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.

5So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him,



6just as He says also in another passage,



7In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.8Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.9And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,10being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Mark 10:35-45

35James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, *came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.”36And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”37They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.”38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”39They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.40“But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41Hearing this, the ten began to feel indignant with James and John.42Calling them to Himself, Jesus *said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.43“But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant;44and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.45“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Bartimaeus Receives His Sight