I have a new top pick for poverty ethics in Paul: Bruce Longenecker’s, ‘Remember the Poor, Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World’ (Eerdmans, 2010). In discussions of poverty in scripture, Paul’s letters are often viewed as the weak link. Longenecker shows that poverty ethics is a primary aspect to faithful discipleship in Paul’s life and thought.
Two aspects aspects of Longenecker’s masterly work stand out to me in particular. First, Longenecker describes poverty ethics in torah, the gospels and 1st C Judaism, demonstrating that YHWH’s commitment to vulnerable people was a central tenant of his covenant with his people. In light of this scriptural trajectory, a similar ethic of generosity is to be expected in Paul’s writing. Indeed, if an ethic of generosity is missing from Paul, then would not Paul’s gospel would be an abrogation of the story of Israel? In such a scenario, we might conclude that the suggestion of some critical scholars was correct, that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity!
Second, Longenecker examines a number of texts regarding generosity in Paul’s letters, demonstrating that generosity was a primary aspect of Christian discipleship in Paul’s life and thought. Longenecker provides a helpful socio-economic reconstruction, showing that the larger part of the early church existed at subsistence level or below, and was economically dependant on the few within the church who earned a moderate economic surplus. Paul expected those with a moderate surplus to exercise substantial and costly generosity.
By way of summary, Longenecker cites Nicholas Wolterstorff with a quote I myself have previously repeated:
Israel’s religion was a religion of salvation, not of contemplation – that is what accounts for the mantra of the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the poor. Not a religion of salvation from this earthly existence but a religion of salvation from injustice in this earthly existence (Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, 79).